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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paul Rutherford & George Haslam with Samuli Mikkonen Trio – Raahe ’99: For Paul Rutherford (Slam, 2012) ****

A rumbling of piano chords delivers Raahe ’99, a recently unearthed meeting between British heavyweights Paul Rutherford and George Haslam and Finland’s Samuli Mikkonen Trio, a concert that might forever have existed only as a flickering memory of those who attended the Raahen Rantajatsit festival in July of 1999. This month marks five years since Rutherford’s passing, and it’s hard to imagine a posthumous offering that’s more vital, more present, than Rutherford’s music. He is among those who have unlocked immortality.

Raahe’s beyond one man, though, however decorated. It’s a writhing, twisting worm of a performance, a collective contortion that certainly moves as though it’s a single creature. Separated into 15 tracks (with some bizarrely descriptive titles like “Bass prominent, taragato subsides, quintet re-assembles with a nod towards swing before the final coda”), the album unwinds as an unbroken 53-minute thread, an almost thematic program of improvisation that morphs from movement to movement as its elements fluctuate and rearrange. Despite its freely improvised nature, this is a thread pulled from the fabric of the jazz idiom, and rather than manifesting as out-and-out free jazz ruckus, the music’s changing directions unfold in a linear, logical manner as players enter and exit, their ears tuned as much toward melody as they are to dynamism and turmoil. 

Haslam’s baritone sax and Rutherford’s trombone make for an imposing frontline. Mikkonen and his crew are an equal match. Mikkonen can play out, but he’s not a very abstract player, and he’s never far removed from a melancholy sort of jazz lyricism. He’s just as inclined to take the lead has he is to slip into the rhythmic framework, the true strength of the Finnish trio. There are times when drummer Mika Kallio tosses in some incredible syncopated beats, or bassist Uffe Krokfors locks into a hypnotic motif, and you can feel the whole group tighten in a driving, exciting way that serves to remind that a well-stated rhythm is hardly the bane of “free” improvisation.

Raahe ‘99 is a completely satisfying piece of music, and a damn lucky find. It’s painful to think that a great capture like this might have been lost for good, spirited away along with one of its creators. Mr. Rutherford is greatly missed, but lives on in a most profound way through performances with peers like those on Raahe, searching musicians who bring out the best in each other.

Buy it from the label here.

© stef