Jazz aficionados are more in need of the new than most music fans. For all of you out there with a lust for the aurally unfamiliar, here’s a radical thought: Finland.
Actually, Finnish jazz is only occasionally radical, but its accent makes it sound fresh. The quartet that calls itself OK:KO, led by drummer Okko Saastamoinen, is vividly representative of the young Helsinki jazz scene. They are Jarno Tikka on tenor saxophone, Toomas Keski-Säntti on piano, and Mikael Saastamoinen on bass, plus Okko. The instrumentation is conventional but the way they assemble their pieces is not. Okko wrote all but one, and they present intriguing, counterintuitive relationships between pre-planning and impulse. Passages that sound like theme statements can turn out to be spontaneous jams. Passages that sound like wild blowing can turn out to be theme statements.
Internally, this music is disciplined and organized. All four of these guys are free spirits, yet their individual outbreaks are always connected to the whole. The segues of mood and tempo, the stops and starts, the thematic recurrences, the riffing backgrounds—all reflect an overarching priority for ensemble form. Yet the sense of order contains the suspenseful awareness that anything might happen. Take “Kirkkis.” Mikael Saastamoinen opens with a long, searching arco prologue that eventually reveals itself as the song’s circling melody, which Keski-Säntti and Tikka seize on and obsess over. Then Tikka suddenly kicks loose and speeds away, bumping over the spikes of Okko’s drums.
On this bright, upbeat, energetic album, the best piece is the one exception. “Arvo” is slow, and dark as a Finnish winter. Tikka gives voice to a soul in desolation, but defiant.
If a quick trip to Helsinki is impractical, the most prolific provider of Finnish jazz is the We Jazz label.