A unique musical project, “Kuára” takes as its inspirational starting point Russian psalms and Fenno-Ugrian folk songs from Udmurtia, Vepsä and Karelia. Melodies unfurl slowly, and textures are carefully explored in the open improvisations and soundscapes shaped out of the songs: this sacred and secular music is the soil from which new sounds and ideas arise. A contemplative atmosphere prevails; themes and solo lines are counterbalanced with silences.
Drummer Markku Ounaskari and pianist Samuli Mikkonen, born respectively in 1967 and 1973, are well-known and much in-demand jazz musicians in Finland (journalist Petri Silas once wrote that it would be easier to list the Finnish ensembles with which Ounaskari has not played), but their listening and playing have never been limited by any strict definitions of jazz.
Of “Kuára” (it means “sound” in Udmurtian) , Ounasakari notes, “Both of us, Samuli and I, are very interested about folk music of the different Finnish related Ugri-cultures and tribes that are living, at the present, in Russian territory. The Udmurtian, Vepsian and Karelian people have the same Ugrian roots as Finnish people, and the language also has the same roots and has some similarities. There is a very rich tradition of singing music, and it’s always very religious in character.” “Religious” here signifies the nature-mysticism of the pagan cultures. Christianity arrived in Udmurtia only in 1870. “For us, Karelian, Vepsian and Udmurtian cultures present also our history. We are really in love with those very beautiful, simple melodies which are very melancholic. We feel the music very close to us, and improvising with those melodies feels extremely natural.”
The Russian psalms were added to the programme at the suggestion of producer Manfred Eicher. Ounaskari: “The idea of mixing the pagan religious music and Orthodox music from the east sounded very good. My father is half Russian and I grew up going to the Orthodox church and listening to Orthodox psalms and religious music. So this was a very logical choice for me. In our opinion, both folk songs and psalms present really well the Slavic culture and music. And of course, Finnish culture has the Slavic side very strongly as well.”.
The conceptual considerations of “Kuára” also relate to earlier work by Samuli Mikkonen. Mikkonen, who makes his ECM debut here, has explored “spirituals from the North” in releases elsewhere. He has been described as “the most Finnish-sounding pianist of his generation” and his work is strongly influenced by a spirit of place. At the same time he has had numerous international collaborations, ranging from a regular trio with Anders Jormin and Audun Kleive to projects with improvisers Paul Rutherford and George Haslam, to participation in John Zorn’s Cobra project. Mikkonen has also composed for ensembles of all sizes – from symphony orchestra and big band to chamber groups and jazz combos. And while piano is his first instrument, he also has a long history of working with synthesized and computer-generated sounds in electro-acoustic contexts.
No less broad in his scope, Ounaskari has played with all the major Finnish jazz figures, and with international players including Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler, Tomasz Stanko and Marc Ducret. Early in his career he toured and recorded with both Piirpauke and the Pekka Pohjola Group, Finnish pioneers of cross-genre music. Ounaskari, who has often lingered at the borders of the idioms, met Manfred Eicher while playing percussion on singer Sinikka Langeland’s “Starflowers” album, a folk/’free’ hybrid of quite different temperament (featuring Sinikka’s settings of the writings of woodcutter-poet Hans Børli).
Having played together in diverse formations through the 1990s and into our present century, Markku Ounaskari and Samuli Mikkonen launched a duo in 2004 whose original concept was to concentrate on open-form playing and spontaneous improvising, sculpting the material in real time. Two years ago, the duo was expanded with the addition of Nowegian trumpeter-singer Per Jørgensen (b. 1952), well-known to ECM listeners through his contributions to projects with Jon Balke (“Nonsentration”, “Further”, “Kyanos”, “Diverted Travels”), Michael Mantler (“School of Understanding”, “Review”) and Miki N’Doye (“Tuki”). Jørgensen has also played with David Murray, Dave Liebman, Jack Bruce, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell and many others, always finding new contexts for his wide-open trumpet playing and his unique vocalese. Jon Balke has called Jørgensen “a magical musician” – a view shared by many other players.
Between them Ounaskari and Mikkonen create improvised music that reveals a strong feeling for structure, testimony to years of shared work. Per Jørgensen adds “fresh sonic dimensions and more horizontal musical textures”, another layer of sound with his trumpet and voice. Reviewing a trio concert for Finland’s Keskisuomalainen, Pentti Ronkanen observed that “all vocal parts were without words, sometimes subtly colouring the melodies of the songs, sometimes breaking abruptly to freedom (...). A varied and evocative musical journey, each improvisation with a distinct character. Especially rewarding were the quiet points, loaded with melancholy; musical meditations not limited by any genre.”