Rent Romus, Heikki Koskinen, Life Blood Ensemble

Manala
Edgetone EDT 4212

Zenith of a descriptive musical project Bay area saxophonist Rent Romus has been working on for more than half a dozen years, Manala is a refined linkage of ancient Finnish myths with temporal improvisations. The 10-track suite is interpreted with peak performances by a sympathetic 11-piece ensemble, with the compositions, which blend folklore and freedom, shamanism and swing, from the fertile concepts of two Finnish-Americans, Romus and multi-instrumentalist Heikki Koskinen.

When it comes to orchestral contributions, the musical translation from oral poetry into sound of this journey in-and-out of the mystical netherworld into the upper reaches benefits admirably from the expanded percussion arsenal of Cheryl E. Leonard plus the unique instruments and vocalization of David Samas using the sub-Arctic dialect of Northern Finland. Other players involved are percussionist Timothy Orr, dual bassists Safa Shokrai and Max Judelson, saxophonists Tom Weeks and Joshua Marshall, violinist Gabby Fluke-Mogul and most prominently vibraphonist Mark Clifford, whose reverberating clanging is often a distinctive counterpoint to defining solos or attuned instrumental combinations.

Both Romus’ slurping split tones and Koskinen’s clarion vibrations from reeds establish their improvisational parameters at the beginning of the suite and help modulate twists and turns throughout. But their contributions just like others’ flute peeps, double-stopping strings or rolling percussion pressure are used as building blocks of the layered arrangements that define the project. However it’s the entrance of Samas on “Loitsun lukema (Casting the spell)”, projecting vocal tremors that are both shamanistic and splenetic, which confines Manala’s specific orientation.

Additionally, numerous onomatopoeic incursions add to the narrative throughout the suite. For instance “Vipusen kurimus (Vipunen's Vortex” begins with a thunderstorm-like crash as wood-rending creaks from the bassists and the cacophony made up of shivering strings, contrapuntal alto saxophone flutters, tenor saxophone split tones. wavering trumpet lines and jagged fiddle sweeps add to the battle scene depiction. However in spite of how many languid or leaping sequences are heard or how often vigorous string stops, high-pitched flute whistles or crackling idiophone pulses are propelled, the program can also be appreciated for its instrumental sophisticated separated from the fables themselves.

This is demonstrated most clearly in the centre section the three-part “Journey to Manala”. Beginning with a watery collection of shakes and rolls from Leonard, nephritic snarls from the reeds join with descending sul tasto string pressure to define a melancholy interlude. Then on “Journey to Manala II” R&B-like horn vamps, fiddle scrapes and unending percussion ruffs underline Samas’ Captain Beefheart-like recitation in English of the details of his aboveground and underworld journey. The track culminates in a crescendo of conflict-suggesting vamps. Finally in the third section horn multiphonics, circling percussion slaps, airy flute peeps and radiant vibe pressure end the music triptych on a note of soothing sleep-like acceptance.

From start to finish Manala lives up to its genesis as programmatic expression that also showcases top-flight playing. With “Journey to Manala” and elsewhere on the disc though, the composition and arrangements prove that knowledge of the folk tales on which the program is based isn’t needed for full appreciation.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Maahinen (Gome) 2. Loitsun lukema (Casting the spell) 3. Tavoittelu (Quest) 4. Pohjoisen asukas (Hyperborean) 5. Journey to Manala part I 6. Journey to Manala part II 7. Journey to Manala part III 8. True Finders 9. Vipusen kurimus (Vipunen's Vortex) 10. Ilman lintu (the Bee)

Personnel: Heikki Koskinen (tenor recorder, E-trumpet, flutes, kantele); Rent Romus (alto, soprano saxophones, flutes, kantele, bells); Joshua Marshall (tenor, soprano saxophones, flute); Tom Weeks (baritone, alto saxophones): Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin); Mark Clifford (vibraphone); Safa Shokrai, Max Judelson (bass): Timothy Orr (drums, percussion); Cheryl E. Leonard (piny, Baby Driftwood Pipe Organ Limpet Shell Spine, bowl of sand, stone slabs, clam, mussel shells, mobiles of driftwood, obsidian needles, petrified wood, crab claws, feathers, fish vertebrae, Japanese bowl gongs; David Samas (voice, han, prepared frame drum, song stones, cocoa pod, bells, waterphone, animal calls, Aztec death whistle, water)