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Juhani Aaltonen & Iro Haarla: Kirkastus
TUM Records

Wadada Leo Smith & John Lindberg: Celestial Weather
TUM Records

These TUM releases featuring the pairings of Wadada Leo Smith and John Lindberg on Celestial Weather and Juhani Aaltonen and Iro Haarla on Kirkastus make for fascinating studies in comparison and contrast. At the risk of oversimplification, one aspect in particular differentiates the projects: the first sees the participants operating on an equal footing as sparring partners; the second presents the elder musician in the role of main soloist and the younger as accompanist (even though the compositions are all hers). As per usual for the label, the releases excel on presentation grounds with the artists' works enhanced by deluxe packaging and extensive liner notes; both releases include detailed background on the musicians' careers plus fond reminiscences by the four pertaining to their first meetings with their duet partners and subsequent interactions.

Celestial Weather's focus is on open duo improvisation, the purest example of which is the title suite, whose five parts, named after different weather phenomena, were spontaneously produced in the studio. With respect to the instrumentation involved, it's as straightforward as a recording could possibly be, with Smith (b. 1941) on trumpet and Lindberg (b. 1959) double bass. The two bring a substantial history to the project: having first played together in the late ‘70s in Anthony Braxton's Creative Orchestra, their musical relationship has deepened in the decades since and especially in the time that Lindberg, a co-founder of the String Trio of New York, has been a member of Smith's ensembles and contributed to his orchestral projects Ten Freedom Summers and Occupy the World as well as 2014's The Great Lakes Suites (also featuring Henry Threadgill and Jack DeJohnette).

On Smith's two-part “Malachi Favors Maghostut,” the trumpeter and Lindberg pay tribute to the late bassist (1927-2004), best known as a founding member of The Art Ensemble of Chicago but also a part of Smith's Golden Quartet (significantly, it was Lindberg who filled the bass chair after Maghostut's passing). The recording's democratic tone is established clearly in this opening piece: the two go back and forth, their expressions arising conversationally and each responding sympathetically to the other. That closely interactive approach is never more evident than during “Cyclone,” the first part of the “Celestial Weather Suite,” but in truth it's present throughout, whether we're talking about the bluster of “Hurricane” or haze of “Icy Fog.” Lindberg's own two-part “Feathers and Earth” was composed especially for the recording and was completed mere days before the session; conceived by him as a work that honours both raptors (such as vultures, eagles, and hawks) and the organism that supports all of the interconnected beings dwelling upon it, the material bursts with vitality, in its second part especially.

In accordance with the music's demands, Lindberg alternates between bowing and plucking, and Smith similarly plays both muted and open horn. The two are in their ‘50s and ‘70s, respectively, yet attack the material with the energy and stamina of young lions (see “Tornado” as one representative example). There are moments when the trumpeter's playing calls to mind Don Cherry and even Miles Davis (specifically a peck-peck-peck passage in “Icy Fog”), but Smith's playing is ultimately his own more than any other's. In the final analysis, the primary pleasure lies not so much in the compositions, formally speaking, but in attending to the fluidity of the interactions between the two and the richness of their dialogues. Attentive listening is rewarded, and, despite the fact that only two instruments are involved, one is never bored when musicians of such imagination are playing together.

The generally contemplative tone of Kirkastus (Glorification) is dramatically different from Celestial Weather, something that can be explained in part by the fact that many of the compositions by Iro Haarla (b. 1956) were inspired by her favourite biblical Psalms. Similar to Smith and Lindberg, Haarla and Juhani Aaltonen (b. 1935) have long been acquainted, the two first appearing together in drummer Edward Vesala's ensembles in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. 2008 witnessed the two reuniting when Aaltonen added Haarla to his trio for the TUM releases Conclusions and To Future Memories; on Kirkastus, their first duo release, Aaltonen supplements his customary tenor sax and flute with alto and bass flutes, and Haarla augments her grand piano with harp, chen, and percussion.

The beauty of his playing is on full display from the moment “Evening Prayer” inaugurates the album with hushed, gospel-tinged supplications until “Lead Me to the Rock” closes it in similar fashion nine tracks later. He's at that stage in his career where everything superfluous has been carved away and only the essential remains, the result being expression that's powerful for being so emotionally direct. In that regard, Haarla follows his lead in thoughtfully complementing his playing with her own pared-down accompaniment.

Often mysterious by comparison, “Out of the Depths” backs his questioning flute with her piano and exotic percussive accents; the later “Long Sole Sound” does much the same, though this time with the bass flute backed by harp. While most of the material on the album was composed for the release, a few pieces originated earlier, among them “Nightjar,” which appeared on the Iro Haarla Sextet's Kolibri in 2010; titled after a nightly singing bird, the piece assumes a somewhat Asian character in augmenting Aaltonen's tenor with harp strums and chen. Above all else, Kirkastus is distinguished by the vocal-like quality of Aaltonen's delivery, something that comes particularly to the fore when he applies vibrato to his notes, and the way he deepens the emotional gravitas of a setting such as “Farewell to Valomäki” with a soft purr is also striking. Truth be told, the spirit of Ben Webster feels close by when moments like these occur.

January 2016