Cool Moon

Proof that there’s plenty of vigor left in jazz’s customary horn-and-rhythm section combination, this Finnish-British quartet sets a new standard for advanced modern mainstream improvisation.

Five tracks of top-flight improvisation confirm that British baritone saxophonist George Haslam is one of the mainstays of his instrument; that drummer Paul Hession from the United Kingdom can work in any context; and that top-flight improvisers such as pianist Mikko Pasanen and bassist Jarmo Hiekkala can hold their own in fast company, even if most of their playing takes place in the Finnish city of Kuopio. This CD is a result of a gig featuring the Brits and Finns at that city’s ANTI-Contemporary Arts Festival.

Now officially a senior citizen, Haslam is one of the best arguments against mandatory retirement. Someone who has really come into his own as an improviser over the past few years, he now mixes a supple Gerry Mulligan-like interface with a determined ferocity more closely allied with contemporary big hornists like Hamiet Bluiett. Furthermore, years spent investigating the intricacies of the taragato enable him to transfer the not-quite-European/not-quite-Asian exoticism of that Magyar reed into full-fledged jazz improvisation. It isn’t used as a novelty however. Instead the taragato’s distinctive timbres are judiciously interjected to provide additional colors, as would the sounds of a clarinet or a soprano saxophone.

Usually found in the company of atonal experimenters such as bassist Simon Fell and reedist Mick Beck, Hession proves on COOL MOON that he’s just as comfortable manning the backdrop for less offbeat endeavors. Firmly in the modern mainstream, Pasanen is a two-handed pianist who slips into upfront tremolo excursions as easily as he unselfconsciously comps and advances the tunes with sympathetic voicing. As for bassist Hiekkala, who regularly plays with Estonian tenor saxophonist Lembit Saarsalu, his work is in-the-pocket throughout until he steps forward for technically inventive solos.

This same combination of technique and tonal freedom is brought to each of the instant compositions, with “White Moon”, the final, more-than-14-minute track, comprising of additional, advanced – read hipper than neo-con head-solo-head action –improvising. Here the energy level is raised through the drummer’s passionate flams, ruffs and cymbal splashing, and tremolo chording from the pianist that works up into a dense McCoy Tyner-like modal outlay. Midway through, the piece opens up to showcase Hession’s hand drumming and percussion note grinding, as if he’s crumbling newspaper between his hands. Pedal point slurs from Hasalm supply the undercurrent until these turn to snorts and smears, while presaging all this are scratchy sul ponticello sweeps from the bassist and rapid, yet somehow formalistic harmonies from the pianist.

Earlier on, Hiekkala has output flat-picked guitar-like textures to accompany Haslam’s taragato forays, which somehow manage to suggest Spanish inflections from the saxman’s other interests. Hession makes his mark with buzzing ride cymbal scrapes, rim shots, press rolls and the ability to alter the rhythm so that its rapidity stimulates the music without upsetting the tempo.

COOL MOON proves that the lunar conditions in Kuopio were obviously anything but square. The memorable session confirms Haslam’s and Hession’s talents and spreads the word about two Finns who should be better known.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Kuopio Moon 2. Cool Moon 3. Restless Moon 4. Whispering Moon 5. White Moon

Personnel: George Haslam (baritone saxophone, tarogato); Mikko Pasanen (piano); Jarmo Hiekkala (bass); Paul Hession (drums)