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Monday, January 27, 2020

The Balderin Sali - Variations (Leo Records, 2019) *****

By Stuart Broomer

The Balderin Sali refers to the Helsinki venue for the latest staging of an on-going festival of improvised music. The Soundscapes Concert Series was founded by saxophonist Harri Sjöström as a meeting ground for Finnish and Berlin-based musicians in Berlin in 2013. Next was a 2016 follow-up in Helsinki with this third iteration, chronicled over a two-CD set occurring over two nights in September 2018. There are 11 musicians present here, spanning generations of improvisers, many of them operating on the Helsinki-Berlin connection that Sjöström defines.

The senior participants here are Finnish bassist Teppo Hauta-aho, German drummer Paul Lovens, English violinist (and electronic musician) Phillip Wachsmann and saxophonist Evan Parker; a slightly younger generation is represented by Sjöström, Italian trombonist Sebi Tramontana and German bassist Matthias Bauer, with younger generations represented by Finnish quarter-tone accordionist Veli Kujala, Italian pianist Libero Mureddo, Mexican vibraphonist/percussionist Emilio Gordoa and Norwegian drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen.

Look a little closer though and it’s a more intimate gathering than all those nationalities might suggest. There’s a Berlin quintet called Up and Out that includes Sjöström, Wachsmann, Bauer, Gordoa and Narvesen: the group, sans Wachsmann, turns up among the sub-groups here, while in another configuration the quintet appears with Parker in place of Gordoa. Mureddo and Kujala are both associated with Helsinki’s Sibelius Institute, leaving only the well-traveled Parker and Tramontana as relative outsiders. The result, then, is at once a celebration of the international language of free improvisation and the very special relationships that exist between Sjöström’s multiple musical communities.

Though drawn from concerts spread over two days, the two CDs have a forceful beginning and an equally powerful conclusion, each an extended orchestral segment including the full complement, with 11 segments in between that range from duos to quintets. It’s unnecessary at this point to sing the praises of many of these musicians, who together embody much of the collective genius of international improvised music.

Suffice to say, the known figures here (consider just Sjöström’s extended collaboration with Cecil Taylor) have set standards for a music that is consistently empathic and intrepid, acutely aware of nuance and gesture while evolving and redefining macro- and micro forms. The larger ensemble dialogues here reach back five decades to the Globe Unity Orchestra (including its microcosm, the Schlippenbach trio, with two of its members present here).

The music is also as alive as the last and next five minutes. The sequencing creates fine contrasts, setting an almost electronic-sounding abstraction of Gordoa, Hauta-aho, Narvesen and Parker before a blustering salvo from Tramontana, Lovens and Mureddu. The second track on disc 1 is a duet of Sjöström and Kujala, the third track on disc two a duet of Parker and Kujala, and one has to ask: what was this music before the quarter-tone accordion, a question that had already occurred during that first opening orchestral swarm when sudden flashes of microtonal keyboard reeds lit up the ensemble in an utterly fresh way. The duets announce the arrival of a significant new musician bearing an instrument equally unknown. Veli Kujala not only provides a novel field and foil for those master saxophonists, he also contributes brilliantly to other sub-groups, including a lightly busy trio with Lovens and Hauta-aho and a quartet that adds Mureddu’s comparable keyboard vision. I’m left looking forward to the possible keyboard trio of Kujala, Mureddu and Gordoa, three musicians to whom I was introduced on these CDs

The collected proceedings are frequently surprising, testifying to the vigor and range of contemporary improvised music, an inclusivist vision in which genre and tonal identities are old floor markings increasingly worn away in the persistent joy of the dance.


Captain Hate said...

Thanks for making me aware of this. Leo releases so much stuff like this that you look at title, wonder WTF it is and unwittingly pass it by and miss something really good. They've been doing this for decades so they obviously don't care. Anyway I saw Sjöström with Cecil Taylor at the Knitting Factory in '98 and based on what I've heard of this his playing has gotten even better. I'll savor listening to this for a long while.

Paul Lovens said...

This review ends with the most wonderful methaphore for the untiring development of free improvised music that I have ever read ! The image of dancers cleaning and polishing the ground with their steps has highest poetic potential. More powerfully precise than footprints in sand dunes. I'm delighted to read lines lucid as those. Mr.Broomer : many, many thanks !

Stuart Broomer said...

Every time I think about ceasing to write about music (which is most of the time), someone of Mr. Lovens' art and significance says something like that and I remain chained to the ecstatic, multidimensional turntable of the improvising cosmos. Thanks!