Juhani Aaltonen: To Future Memories
Henrik Otto Donner & TUMO: And It Happened...
One can't help but be struck first by the presentation of these latest TUM releases. Veritable treasure troves, each one accompanies its CD with a mini-booklet packed with photos and text. In-depth info about the recording, profiles, bios, and track descriptions provide the listener with all the background he/she could want for the project in question, and the listening experience is enhanced considerably as a result. Needless to say, such efforts would be negated if the musical material was sub-par, but no one need fret on that count: both recordings are quality affairs that blend jazz improvisation and formal composition and function as invaluable portraits of composers Henrik Otto Donner (1939-2013) and Antti Hytti (b. 1950).
To Future Memories, which features seven Hytti compositions, is a sextet date led by tenor sax and flute player Juhani Aaltonen in the company of pianist Iro Haarla, drummer Reino Laine, percussionist Tatu Rönkkö, and double bassists Ulf Krokfors and Ville Herrala. The Aaltonen and Hytti partnership is a natural one, given that their association extends all the way back to the ‘70s when Hytti, at the time studying double bass at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, got to know Aaltonen through Edward Vesala (Hytti was later a member of the Tomasz Stanko-Edward Vesala Quartet). And in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when Hytti shifted his focus to composing film and theater music, Aaltonen was usually involved as a saxophonist and/or flutist. His own comments astutely pinpoint key characteristics of Hytti's music: “They have a particular sense of melancholy or longing that really touches me [and] (t)here is an anguish in his music that I recognize—a mark of a life lived.” As many of the pieces were originally composed for a film or play, a cinematic quality naturally seeps into Hytti's music, but it's often deeply spiritual, too.
“Reminiscence,” a wistful ballad that Hytti composed reflecting on a long-past love affair, finds the loose-limbed and somewhat Coltrane-esque Aaltonen and company playing freely and moving through contrasting moods, some gentle and others more indicative of emotional upheaval (it's hard not to be reminded of A Love Supreme's fourth part, “Psalm”). Aaltonen introduces “Ursula (for the Polish ladies)” with a bold alto cadenza before dialing the intensity down for a gentler duet performance alongside pianist Haarla. Composed as the theme song for the short 1988 film of the same name, “Kukunor” is generally gentler in tone with Aaltonen's flute draping itself across his accompanists' responsive backdrop, the music's free-floating character consistent with the film's fairy tale subject matter, which concerns the love felt by two troll children. His bass flute playing lends “Hiisi,” which Hytti also composed for a short film, this one dealing with the pre-historic mythology of Finnish people, a woodsy quality nicely complemented by bowed bass and the patiently explorative approach of the collective.
An occasional episode of turbulence occurs, but for the most part the tone of the album is reflective, nostalgic even. A mournful quality infuses “To Future Memories,” which makes sense given that Hytti composed the piece upon learning his close friend, author Jussi Kylätasku (to whom the piece is dedicated), was dying of cancer. One of the major things that stands out about this wholly instrumental recording is how sympathetic the musicians are in these performances, how connected and responsive they are to one another, and though the album title references the future, the compositions more evoke the impression of Hytti memorializing with wry affection a wealth of life experiences.
Aaltonen also figures prominently into And It Happened …, ostensibly a tribute recording honouring the music of Donner (though it was intended to be a celebration of a living composer's music, Donner drowned at sea on June 26, 2013 just before the first mixing session for the recording was scheduled to begin, and the album thus turned into into a memorial album instead). Unlike To Future Memories, And It Happened … isn't a small group set but instead a large-scale one that features Aaltonen and vocalist Johanna Iivanainen as the principal soloists backed by the twenty-two-member TUMO (led by Mikko Hassinen) and a twelve-member string section. Just as Aaltonen's association with Hytti began decades earlier, so too did his relationship with Donner, with whom Aaltonen collaborated closely for almost five decades. A strong connection developed over many years between TUM and Donner, too, with the 2002 set Strings Revisited the first actual production on TUM Records.
For anyone unacquainted with Donner, he studied trumpet and composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki between 1958-62 before studying with composer György Ligeti and collaborating with composer Terry Riley. In the early ‘60s, Donner came to be regarded as somewhat of an enfant terrible for deviating from the modern classical music course expected of him and turning his attention to jazz (as a musician and composer) and rock. During his career, he composed music for films, television, and the theatre, amassing along the way an output encompassing more than 1,000 songs, orchestral works, choral music, and a musical.
The opening track, the 1991 composition “Junnudå?,” features a warm solo performance by Aaltonen and a nuanced big-band arrangement that at moments recalls Gil Evans' contributions to Miles Ahead (specifically “My Ship”). Originally titled “Sonido” (for saxophonist Kari ‘Sonny' Heinilä), the piece was renamed for its first public performance in October 2012 and this recording in honour of Aaltonen, who is known in Finnish jazz circles as “Junnu.” In this album opener, key Donner characteristics are already audible: the evocation of a romantic era of long ago; a luscious style that suggests ties to bebop, modern jazz, and classical music; and a distinctive compositional sensibility that sees the material taking unexpected directions.
Though all three things are present in the second song, the vocal setting “Close Your Eyes” (originally composed in 1963 but updated in 2012 for this recording), it's the unusual chord changes that stand out most of all, though Iivanainen, with her smooth delivery, and Aaltonen, with an equally smooth solo, more than meet the song's melodic challenges. Iivanainen works a similar kind of magic in the beautiful ballad “Entreaty” (1986/2012), breezy “The First Summer” (1991/2012), and “These Are The Days” (2007/2012, which pairs Donner's music with lyrics by Emily Dickinson), which, despite their compositional complexity, exude a light-hearted spirit reminiscent of Broadway tunes.
While “Have Me, Hold Me” is certainly a jazz piece, Donner's classical inclinations move to the forefront during the ambitious setting, which was composed in 1985 but updated in 2012 with strings added to the original big band arrangement. Aaltonen stars once again, his tenor soaring over the multiple episodes, some ballad-like and others intensely swinging, navigated by TUMO with commanding ease. Donner's more experimental side emerges in the sixteen-minute title piece (featuring Aaltonen as tenor sax soloist), whose twelve compositional units are organized so that the orchestra can vary their order of presentation.
And It Happened … follows a fascinating trajectory, alternating as it does between tenor sax and vocal settings and also working in amongst the eight pieces two long-form pieces that showcase TUMO's considerable instrumental resources. Incredibly, the recording was executed live in the studio with virtually no overdubs, with TUMO, the strings, and the soloists all performing simultaneously. The recording also acts as something of a career retrospective, given that two of the compositions are from the ‘60s, two from the ‘80s, two from the ‘90s, and two from the new millennium. One imagines that had Donner lived to witness the formal release of the project, he would be extremely proud.