Moonflower, by the legendary Finnish pianist Heikki Sarmanto and his quartet, is the first "new" album on Luke Mosling's Porter label; the other two projects that make up his opening salvo are reissues of private-press recordings done by Mait Edey's Seeds imprint in the early '70s. Sarmanto is best known to American audiences for his work with Sonny Rollins and Art Farmer. He's recorded 25 albums as a leader, including New Hope Jazz Mass for jazz ensemble, orchestra, soprano, and choir (conducted by no less than Gregg Smith and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival). His symphonic jazz poem Suoni premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1988. Given the scope of those projects, Moonflower is a much more intimate work; it expands on the intense lyricism of Sarmanto's larger works in a smaller, more soulful setting. Sarmanto's group also includes drummer Craig Herndon, bassist Pekka Sarmanto, and saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen. Sarmanto composes like a veteran; having come up during the "new thing" period, he always had one foot inside the tradition and one on the margins. He has been influenced as much by 20th century classical music and the folk music of his native Finland as by jazz. He's also been deeply affected by the written word, which seems to be a thing with pianists; like Michael Garrick, poetry has always been a part of Sarmanto's suitcase of passions. All of this said, in the 21st century he has looked the tradition squarely in the eye and found a way to extend it with regard to all the things that he's absorbed in his lengthy career. On Moonflower, an intensely lyrical jazz with deeply focused ensemble play and improvisation walks hand in hand with notions of dynamic, texture, and the interplay possible when four players are listening to an idea as well as to one another.
This is evident in the title cut, which opens the set. The gentleness of Sarmanto's opening melody is skeletal, suggestive rather than pronounced; it is only articulated in full when Aaltonen reflects back the harmonic structure by way of a question rather than a statement. The other players follow suit, and what emerges over eight minutes and change is something that flowers gradually but increasingly seductively. "At the Fountain" extrapolates on ideas first set forth by no less than Vince Guaraldi 50 years ago. The sense of movement and time skips along a lightly swinging line, as Sarmanto accents each chorus with his left hand, and with Herndon's brushwork on snare and cymbals skittering and skipping, the piece feels like a dance -- and in fact that's exactly what he's doing, and passes the baton to Pekka during a brief solo. The entire ensemble then comes together and carries forth this song-like structure, until the group literally whispers it home. The feeling of intimacy that comes from these first two selections is not the least bit reflective or turned inward. Quite the opposite. The music on this session is inviting; it doesn't need to assert anything other than its delight in expression and communication: spontaneity, harmonic invention, and the investigation of melodies and modes come together seamlessly throughout. There are no pyrotechnics here; what happens on the deeply intimate pieces like "Madame Chaloff," "Wolf," and "Grasses Swaying in the Wind" is thoroughly modern jazz that finds swing and soul important aspects of each articulation, each statement, even as it evolves freely. There is great joy in this music, but no cheap exuberance; like poetry, it unfolds a chorus at a time, where the compositions reveal themselves to the improvisers and the ensemble becomes a functioning holistic apparatus seeking the heart of the tune. The playing is wonderful, the recording pristine, and the sense of song is deeply moving.