Finnish Roots

Jeanette Wrate & Northern Lights EnsembleEchoes of a Northern Sky (Cryptogramophone, 1999)

I came into this one expecting something “world” music-like or new-agey, but the first instants of “Entelli” have drummer Wrate tapping away at the cymbals in a classically jazz fashion. It’s refreshing, like a first whiff of coffee that tells you you’re going to like this cafe.

Finnish folk songs translated into jazz syntax are the root of the album, and it’s full of the bumpy time signatures associated with some European folk musics. Jeff Gauthier‘s violin usually leads the spritely melodies with a clean, airy sound, reminding me in spots of the album Darol Anger and Barbara Higbie did for Windham Hill. So, I suppose there’s a touch of the new-agey sound I expected, emphasized by some of Craig Ochikubo‘s synths, but it’s still a jazz-rooted and acoustically driven album.

It’s certainly easy on the ears (Gauthier’s own albums track a similarly breezy, airy melodicism) but the album packs a lot of non-traditional touches, both in the jazz and Finnish senses. Group improvisation is a big part of “Kantele” (a fun, jabbing tune dedicated to Wrate’s mischevious father), where Wrate ends up adding squeaky toys to the mix, and “Hopsis,” a Wrate composition that opens up for some nice acoustic piano from Ochikubo.

“Sofia’s Flykt” is one of my favorite tracks on here. Written by Maria Kalaniemi (a Finnish accordionist), it’s an uplifting jig with an impish quality. The mood slows down a bit for a nearly bluesy violin solo, Gauthier’s bow dragging over electronically enhanced strings to produce a sound close to an electric guitar. Ochikubo turns more toward an accordion sound on that track and Wrate’s original, “The Shadow of My Tango,” giving those songs a bit more of a folky, traditional sound.

Jazz is the dominant force here, though, as emphasized by the sweetly straight-jazzy track, “Evening Prayer,” ending the album. It’s neither new-agey nor prayerful, with a touch of New Orleans in its attitude.

This was Cryptogramophone’s first release, and one I hadn’t heard until this month. It was a nice start for a really good record label.