For a subgenre that was often viewed as a marginal if not downright eccentric undertaking during its primary bloom in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the spiritual jazz fashioned by the likes of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders (with credit also to the closely related cosmic caterwauling of Sun Ra) has spread its enduring influence far and wide.
Having toned down some earlier influences to focus more fully on jazz, Finnish outfit Oiro Pena’s first LP has obviously inhaled the intoxicating grooves of Sanders’s ’70s Impulse! albums. However, this is far from a slavishly imitative example of photocopied pastiche: alongside Linda Fredriksson’s 2021 masterpiece Juniper, Puna offers some of the most compelling evidence yet of the rude health of Finland’s rich jazz scene.
In stark contrast to Juniper’s meditatively lyrical slow-burn, Puna is filled to the brim (occasionally well above the brim) with noise, energy and unusually compelling excursions into freely tumbling near-chaos: the album comes across as low-lit and murky, so full of alluringly fleeting detail – some background incantations here, a drop of flute and traditional Finnish string instrument kantele over there – you end up imagining the studio microphones trying in vain to keep up with the unpredictable activities of a group of musicians in constant motion.
Two basic settings emerge: instrumental selections (such as the wildly galloping dalliance with unadulterated free jazz of ‘Joona’s Abs’) nod towards the increasingly sprawling and ragged canvases employed by John Coltrane after A Love Supreme. The cuts featuring the powerful vocals of Merikukka Kiviharju, meanwhile, could have wondered in from Pharoah Sanders’s masterpieces a la Karma.
It is the irresistible pull of the vocal tracks that allows Oiro Pena – centred on multi-instrumentalist and composer Antti Vauhkonen – to ultimately sound like no one else, past or present. Drawing from Finnish folk song traditions, Kiviharju’s simple incantations parked on top of restlessly bubbling music that never seems to quite settle into any particular pre-agreed shape on highlights such as ‘Kuinka kukaan’ prove properly intoxicating – a startlingly fresh perspective on oft-sampled source materials.
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