Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto - "Free Souls" (Conversations)
The title might seem cliché, but it captures perfectly the vibe of this double disc offering from a long-term and still vital partnership. These two veterans of the Finnish improvised music scene offer up intimacy unbound by conventionality, be it stereotypical notions of freedom or songform. By stripping their sounds to the bare essentials, they evoke the exploratory spirit of their formative days through the serene ruminations of later life.
Heikki Sarmanto and Juhani Aaltonen have performed, separately and together, in a dizzying array of combinations for some 50 years, embracing all manner of acoustic and electric innovation in the process. Here, they limit their sonic palettes to Sarmanto’s piano and Aaltonen’s tenor saxophone, but that is the only limit placed on this beautiful and somehow difficult music. It isn’t that their respective vocabularies are necessarily confrontational, nor do they pander to the whims of taste and fashion. As with the most interesting conversations, they travel wide and varied terrain while bringing focus and unity to even the most diverse situations.
“Free Souls” exemplifies their inclusive approach. Unlike much of the album, the track’s first couple minutes are fairly frenetic, but it would be a mistake to place their dialogue in the “fire music” category, a familiar milieu for both musicians. Amidst the flurry of post-bop runs and steely chords, they’re always communicating. Sarmanto opens the discussion with a 15-second phrase; Aaltonen grabs and runs with it in simple but profound agreement, but all the while, Sarmanto’s left hand is grounding everything in a sort of uhr-drone, tempering the rapid back and forth with free-flowing modality and adding another layer of reference to the dialogue. I’m reminded of those Visions of Cody moments, where Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady are sitting in the back of the car, rocking back and forth to the consternation of the driver, blowing great choruses on their early lives in fever-pitch streams of consciousness. Yet, despite the constant activity, there is plenty of space — a held chord here, a perfectly placed low-register exhortation there, slowing things down just for a moment
This is the dialectic on which much of this music operates, with a special emphasis on the intimate, or perhaps on the nocturnal. It seems no coincidence that the album ends with the breathy “Evening Haze,” and that the two standards chosen for exploration are Arthur Schwartz’s “You and the Night and the Music” and “Alone Together.” An air of late-night mystery pervades these three pieces in particular, Aaltonen often playing in the sultry higher registers of his horn, evoking Coltrane in ballad mode.
The two hours of music are certainly full of moment-to-moment dynamic contrast, but through it all, a striking unity of purpose prevails. If moments of what sounds like aimless wandering occur, they are resolved and take on their own meanings on repeated listening. Ideas are explored, put aside for later, partially reexamined and discarded with the perfect naturalness of an evening’s friendly interaction.