Edward Vesala/Sound & Fury: Nordic Gallery (ECM 1541)

Edward Vesala
Sound & Fury
Nordic Gallery

Jorma Tapio alto saxophone, bass and alto clarinets, bass flute
Jouni Kannisto tenor saxophone, flute
Pepa Päivinen tenor, soprano, baritone and bass saxophones, flute, alto flute, piccolo
Matti Riikonen trumpet
Iro Haarla harp, piano, keyboard
Jimi Sumen guitar
Edward Vesala drums, percussion, bass, tamboura, angklung
Petri Ikkela accordion
Pekka Sarmanto bass
Kari Linsted cello
Tapani Rinne clarinet
Recorded 1993/94 at Sound & Fury Studio, Korkeakoski, Finland
Engineer: Jimi Sumen
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Edward Vesala

Piggybacking on 1992’s Invisible Storm, ECM maverick Edward Vesala returned with his organic collective, Sound & Fury, as our guide for Nordic Gallery. Vesala draws a thinner circle around his ensemble this time around, weaving inside it a dreamcatcher for communal freedom, as exemplified in the 11-minute “Bird In The High Room,” a menagerie of cymbals, muted horns, drums, and birdsong. The latter signals a luxuriant indulgence in the Vesala soundscape as winds and wings fall in line like a panel out of Where the Wild Things Are. Even the electric guitar whistles in its sibilant cage, avian heart unfolded. Field recordings continue to leave breadcrumb trail of “Fulflandia” on its way toward “The Quay of Meditative Future.” Harpist Iro Haarla’s veiled and omnipresent insistence turns arrival into departure as the music’s long-shadowed caravan cuts a line in the sand. The mélange of flavors in “Hadendas”—ranging from roller rink organ and winds to Vesala’s own thumping accompaniment—lifts the tent flap of this night circus to usher in the “Unexpected Guest.” Is it the listener? The critic? The dog who’s been running circles outside this entire time? No, no, and yes. Such is the nature of this narrative turn, which cracks like the vocal egg that opened Storm. Accordion and gravelly tenor trade hands in “Bluego,” a tango deconstructed and put back together in reverse before an arrangement of “Lavander Lass Blossom” wilts, upended and suspended. A series of tunes at once glittering from Haarla’s careful appliqué of intimate crafts (“Streaming Below The Times”) and darkening in twisted whimsy (“One-Two-Three Or Four-Five-Six”) presses on through shimmer and corrosion into “Flavor Lust,” thus closing shop and hanging the day’s labor out to dry.

Edward Vesala/Sound & Fury: Invisible Storm (ECM 1461)

Edward Vesala
Sound & Fury
Invisible Storm

Jorma Tapio alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute, percussion, bass flute
Jouni Kannisto tenor saxophone, flute
Pepa Päivinen tenor, baritone and soprano saxophones, flute, alto flute
Matti Riikonen trumpet
Iro Haarla piano, harp, keyboards
Jimi Sumen guitar
Edward Vesala drums, percussion
Marko Ylönen cello
Recorded May/June 1991 at Sound & Fury Studios, Helsinki
Engineer: Jimi Sumen
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Edward Vesala

The late drummer and musical visionary Edward Vesala was a strange bird. As one of the few whose records became less accessible the more composed they were, he marked his path by leaving not breadcrumbs but entire loaves, piping hot and ready to serve. His was a fresh sound, a living sound that, as the moniker of his ensemble implies, thrived also on the richness of fury.

Invisible Storm is a suite of sorts. I see it as existing in two diurnal parts, though the split and its nature, assuming any, may rightly lie elsewhere for every listener. The first half opens the album’s daytime musings, shooting its eyes wide open from the start with the guttural menagerie of “Sheets and Shrouds” before a lachrymose violin and soprano sax woo us in “Murmuring Morning.” Next is “Gordion’s Flashes,” which lays a pleasant tangle of horns and electric guitar over an infectious savannah beat from Vesala, who further shows an aptitude for color as he adds samples of jackhammer and other mundane sounds from an eyedropper filled with chants and stale rituals. Harpist Iro Haarla threads gentler promises throughout “Shadows on the Frontier,” only to have them taken away by children smelling of patchouli and innocent observation. It is they who weave the set’s most masterful narrative, a cinematic flipbook of ghost towns and gravelly dreams that unfolds with the grace of a Philip Glass opera scarred by backstage secrets.

Which brings us to “In the Gate of Another Gate,” a transitory palindrome that opens us to the courtyard of “Somnamblues.” The latter is a ponderous matrix of distortion and metallic whispers that plunges us into the album’s nighttime anxieties. “Sarastus” lumbers through its porous moods riding the back of a roller rink organ, while “The Wedding of all Essential Parts” and the title track offer even more ponderous reflections, given shape by Haarla’s needlework and Vesala’s snare. Reprieve comes in “The Haze of the Frost,” a chain of snow owl talon-prints, rendered by flutes alone, which unearths a slab of mockery in the concluding “Caccaroo Boohoo.”

Because nearly every moment of Invisible Storm (with the possible exceptions of Vesala’s constant hitting and some of the reed work) feels carefully written out, one is confronted with the fullness of his philosophy. In the less straightforward projects like Nan Madol we encounter a sound-world so extraterrestrial that we cannot help surrendering ourselves to its rules. Here, however, Vesala draws much from personal, earthly experiences, choosing from a shoebox filled with hard-won postcards. For this reason, I recommend giving the earlier out-to-lunchers a taste test before downing this fiber-rich brew.

Edward Vesala: Ode To The Death Of Jazz (ECM 1413)

Edward Vesala
Ode To The Death Of Jazz

Matti Riikonen trumpet
Jorma Tapio alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute
Jouni Kannisto tenor saxophone, flute
Pepa Päivinen soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet
Tim Ferchen marimba, tubular bells
Taito Vainio accordion
Iro Haarla piano, harp, keyboards
Jimi Sumen guitar
Uffe Krokfors bass
Edward Vesala drums
Recorded April/May 1989 at Sound and Fury Studio, Helsinki
Engineer: Jimi Sumen
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Vesala

If jazz is a body, then Edward Vesala is its ligament of fascination. Flexing and creaking with the passage of emotion into life and life into silence, the drummer’s disarming soundscapes never fail to intrigue, to say something potent and new. In spite of its tongue-in-cheek title (I cannot imagine Vesala trying to make a grand statement here), Ode To The Death Of Jazz is, strangely, one of his more uplifting exercises in sonic production.

The title of “Sylvan Swizzle” sets the bar in both tone and sentiment, opening in a smooth and winding road of flute, woodwinds, percussion, and harp. Textural possibilities bear the fruit of the ensemble’s explorations in somatic sound: an exercise in pathos, to be sure, if only through the eyes of something not human. The space here is dark yet flecked with iridescence, sporting yet bogged down by infirmity, vivacious yet weak in the eyes. With every change of title comes a change of scenery. “Infinite Express” thus moves us out of those caves and onto an evening dance floor populated by the demimonde of the upper crust. As the big band plays, each socialite shares with the other what it does not have in itself. The pliant reed work and watery splash (the album’s greatest moment) make for an unexpected give and take. “Time To Think” is both a question and its answer. Vesala constantly redefines its brooding atmosphere with subtle commentary. A mystical solo piano works its way through these tides, giving us pause for reflection. The bizarre call and response that opens “Winds Of Sahara” gives way to a distorted train ride through landscapes both electronic and acoustic, its Elliott Sharp vibe on point. The metallic drones and throated horns of “Watching For The Signal” thread tree branches whose leaves rustle like detuned guitars in the forest’s harp music. This beautiful track is one of Vesala’s finest and should reward the listener who has struggled thus far. “A Glimmer Of Sepal” is another fascinating detour. Featuring an accordion wrapped in the embrace of a tango dipped in the consequence of regret, it harbors in its nest of shadows not eggs but glimmers of light in a time when desperation calls for sanity. “Mop Mop” is the set’s requisite dose of whimsy and comes off like an Art Ensemble of Chicago outing, replete with percussive asides and an electronic seasoning packet thrown in for good measure. Last is “What? Where? Hum Hum,” which drops us headfirst into an old jazz scene, where lace and bowties shed their skins as the night presses on. The sax solo wrenches out its emotional hang-ups and throws them to the dance floor to bleed, wither, and go still.

Whether or not Ode signals the death of jazz or any other genre is moot, for it has been speaking its own language the entire time. That being said, and despite the evocative associations the album has inspired in me, it does seem somewhat restrained as Vesala efforts go (and maybe this is the point). The real strength here, though, is the fine interweaving of electronics in a relatively large group setting. Vesala newbies will want to start with the masterful tides of Nan Madol before holding this conch shell to their ears.

Edward Vesala: Lumi (ECM 1339)

Edward Vesala
Lumi

Esko Heikkinen trumpet, piccolo trumpet
Pentti Lahti alto and baritone saxophones, flutes
Jorma Tapio alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute
Tapani Rinne tenor, soprano saxophones, clarinets
Kari Heinilä tenor, soprano saxophone, flute
Tom Bildo trombone, tuba
Iro Haarla piano, harp
Raoul Björkenheim guitar
Taito Vainio accordion
Häkä bass
Edward Vesala drums, percussion
Recorded June 1986 at Finnvox Studios, Helsinki
Engineer: Risto Hemmi
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Edward Vesala

Take a moment to wander the art of Morten Haug, whose cover photograph (one of ECM’s best) is a gateway into what’s to come. Like Edvard Munch’s The Scream mummified, it silences that which is already silent, and in so doing unleashes a slow torrent of organic music. As the rain of Iro Haarla’s harp trickles through the branches of “The Wind,” picking away the last crumbs of our disbelief, we are able to ease into the careful telepathy this ensemble braids together. Thus blown of our dust, we meditate in “Frozen Melody,” which, though it may begin in stillness, melts with every rendered note. “Calypso Bulbosa” is a rougher diamond, freshly unearthed, the grunge of an electric guitar still clinging to every clouded knurl. Birdcalls and flightless reeds share the same forest, twisting into all manner of distorted reflections. After sailing through the elliptical orbits of the “Third Moon,” we reach the title track, which indeed brings light to bear, cloud-shafted and wavering. The saxophone work here, and in the “Camel Walk” (Vesala’s own “Donkey Jamboree”) that follows, is gorgeous, watery, silted. “Fingo,” no dissimilarly, sounds like a Bill Frisell tune blended in a sonic food processor with Dino Saluzzi spice and a dash of late-night cabaret. A brilliant inclusion. The album’s briefest spit comes in “Early Messenger,” and brings us “Together” in the full-circle closer, interlacing creative fingers in the full dark of finality.

Another puzzling masterpiece from Vesala. Savor it as you will.

Edward Vesala: Satu (ECM 1088)

 

Edward Vesala
Satu

Edward Vesala drums
Tomasz Stanko trumpet
Palle Mikkelborg trumpet
Juhani Aaltonen saxophone
Tomasz Szukalski saxophone
Knut Riisnaes saxophone
Rolf Malm bass clarinet
Torbjørn Sunde trombone
Terje Rypdal guitar
Palle Danielsson double-bass
Recorded October 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Edward Vesala is one of those rare treasures whose every recorded move seems to ooze with profundity. Flanked by an all-star cast of mostly Scandinavian talent, he and his collective visions have produced some of the most inestimable highpoints of the ECM discography. On Satu, it’s as if he has stumbled into an old radio program, the signal of which has only now reached us. As in a community of mystics squinting into the morning sun, it brightens with the golden light of selfless realization. The thrumming bass of Palle Danielsson vibrates like an inner voice in the title cut, an earthen call to wordless action. Terje Rypdal cries into shape, carried along nocturnal routes into even darker destinations. Tomasz Stanko winds the band with his trumpet into a tight spring before loosing into unsuspecting ether. A droning call from Rolf Malm on bass clarinet grinds the edges of our expectations down to rounded barbs. The brass of “Ballade For San” threads through its vamp like a choir coloring in the constellations with nostalgia. Ecstatic interplay between Rypdal and his periphery pulls us into the album’s longest dives. “Star Flight” glows with more of Rypdal’s singing guitar, and with a screeching solo from Stanko, recorded as if in another time or place. Meanwhile, horns and drums reach an agreement, as guitar and trumpet continue their assault, unifying as the emergent voice of chaos and reason (here, one and the same). The ponderous “Komba” cradles a mind-altering soprano sax solo. It wails like a mourner in ecstasy and circulates through the bloodstream long after it fades. Vesala ends positively with “Together.” A lovely flute solo undresses before a blind observer, allowing synthetic thoughts from bass to plunk their way into the frame. And as Vesala dances circles around it, the flute gilds its edges with every color of the rainbow until only a white sheen is left.

While certainly more “accessible” than Vesala’s fine Nan Madol, this effort is no less enigmatic for all its inner details, each of which seems to compress a profound wealth of déjà vu into a single expulsion of breath, a tapping of cymbals, the grating flange of a guitar. Vesala’s music is an extension of a force unseen, but ever felt in the vast aptitude of its effects. While very much uprooted from discernible foundations, it is peppered with delicate obbligati that give us purchaase. These thematic statements take on a totemic quality in Vesala’s context, for his is an atmosphere that is supremely internal, throwing off the shackles of social order and plumbing the depths of an uncompromising will to power. Vesala’s music feels as if it has broken through a dimensional barrier to make itself known to us, and all we need to do to make the return flight is grab on and never let go.

Jan Garbarek: Triptykon (ECM 1029)

Jan Garbrek
Triptykon

Jan Garbarek soprano, tenor and bass saxophones, flute
Arild Andersen bass
Edward Vesala percussion
Recorded November 8, 1972 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Jan Garbarek’s third album for ECM is a free, though by no means easy, trek through indeterminate territories. “Rim” breaks into light with the mournful saxophonic cries that thread the entire set. Arild Andersen dots Garbarek’s auditory cloth with almost vocal ink stains. We find Garbarek in a uniquely agitated mode, showing both great restraint and willful shifting in his performance. This is an arresting track, as sublimely depressing as it is soulful. The title denotes “frost” in Norwegian, and describes Edward Vesala’s icy percussion to a T. “Selje” (a picturesque municipality of Norway’s western coast) evokes the majestic fjords of its eponymous region, and the humble economy of its fisherfolk. Garbarek opts for the gentler flute against a thawed backdrop of bass and wind chime-like glockenspiel: a mystical aside from an otherwise forward projection.

Selje (photo by Frode Inge Helland)

“J.E.V.” breaks from the album’s expansive palette with a more flatly recorded sax intro. The appearance of bass and drums merely underlines the music’s hesitancy, at once assured and unaware of its future paths. “Sang” (Chant) is another subdued interlude, featuring a bass sax caught in a silken web of percussion and bass. The title track unravels like a herding song picked apart piece by piece, its remnants scattered along the base of a low mountain to the tune of an intriguing bass solo. “Etu Hei!” screeches and pounds its way into being before the Norwegian folk song “Bruremarsj” is rendered in a tense bondage of sax and bowed bass, closing with a flutter of wing beats in the final drum break.

In spite of its many abstractions, Triptykon is rife with melody and movement. It’s almost as if a distant relative were singing traditional tunes that everyone else in the family has forgotten. Though drunk with nostalgia and slurred speech, his voice is so genuine that one can hardly fault him for straying a bit off the beaten path. With repeated listenings, one begins to distinguish such thematic material from its improvised surroundings, thereby rendering any challenges this album sets before us much deeper in their returns.

Edward Vesala: Nan Madol (ECM 1077)

Edward Vesala
Nan Madol

Edward Vesala drums, percussion, harp, flutes
Juhani Aaltonen saxophones, bells, flutes, voice
Sakari Kukko flute
Seppo Paakkunainen flute, soprano saxophone
Pentti Lahti soprano saxophone, bass clarinet
Charlie Mariano alto saxophone, flute, nagaswaram
Elisabeth Leistola harp
Recorded April 25/26, 1974 at Alppi Studio, Helsinki
Engineer: Harry Bergman
An ECM Production

If jazz was ever meant to be a religion, its prayers might sound something like Nan Madol. The title means “spaces between,” and no description of this music could be more apt. The album is an eclectic mandala of drones, eruptions of ecstatic liberation, and snatches of melody from both near and far. Influences range from Japanese folk melodies to Alpine herding calls, and all of them strung by a powerful understatement of continuity.

We open our eyes to find ourselves in a field at night in which a nearby forest looms with untold life. Soprano sax verses mingle with the shawm-like nagaswaram, dripping with the luscious slowness of honey from a broken hive as abstract solos bounce over a corroded surface of ever-so-slightly detuned harps. We proceed from meditation to incantation, calling upon the sounds of spirits rather than the spirits of sound. Melodies drag, are picked up, only to drag again: the final paroxysms of a dying organism laid bare for our imaginations. Motifs flit in and out of earshot like radio transmissions struggling to hang on. The instruments weep as if the entire album were nothing but a cathartic ritual. On the surface, the musicians seem unaware of each other, all the while reveling in their secret synergy far beyond the threshold of audibility. This is music on its own plane and we must approach it as we are. There is no middle ground, no meeting point to be had.

This may not be “fun” album to listen to, and certainly not an easy one to describe, but it is rewarding in more metaphysical ways. Far from a jazz album to tap one’s foot to, it is instead a free-form surrender to the possibilities of automatic music. Its mood is inward while its exposition is extroverted and full of exquisite contradictions. If nothing else, the stunning “Areous Vlor Ta” will leave you breathless and vulnerable to the grand Return that brings the listener full circle to where it all began.

Nan Madol JAPO
Original cover