Journey to Manala

Rent Romus, Heikki Koskinen, Life’s Blood EnsembleManala (Edgetone, 2020)

Manala thinks big. It brings an 11-piece jazz mini-orchestra to celebrate Rent Romus’ Finnish heritage, and while the theme is related to folklore about the underworld, the mood is bright and welcoming. It feels like a joyous personal statement from someone who has made a journey and discovered wonderful things along the way.

The song cycle blends traditional jazz ensemble writing, scribbly free-improv solos, enjoyable moments of melodrama, and sounds of natural instruments that harken back to the times of legends and bold heroes.

Saxophonist Romus shares composing duties here with Heikki Koskinen, a frequent collaborator in recent years whose e-trumpet cuts bright soloing lines through tracks like the opener, “Maahinen (Gnome).” They draw a big sound out of the band’s four horns.

Sometimes, though, a rustic mood prevails, anchored by Cheryl E. Leonard, well known in the Bay Area for her musical instruments derived from natural objects (bones, sand, shells) and David Samas, whose instruments include song stones and waterphone. There’s also the reverent flute trio that opens “Loitsun lukema (Casting the Spell)” to introduce a cool theme mixing jazz and ceremonial music, a sound relying heavily on Gabby Fluke-Mogel on violin and Mark Clifford on vibraphone.

Romus has been passionate about researching Finnish mythology, and it’s wonderful that his documentation of that work comes in the form of music. The “Journey to Manala” suite later in the album is based on the legend of Vainamoinen, “the most powerful adventurer shaman of the Kalevala” (quoting the liner notes), “who builds a boat out of song, only to find he is missing the words to complete the task. The story follows him into Manala to find those words.” During the suite, David Samas gets to break into a splendidly dramatic monologue — I think it’s the character of Vainamoinen himself — against a grooving backdrop.

That idea of using song to influence the physical world — I think every musician must sometimes feel like they are on verge of completing that quest, like a journey to the infinite horizon. Manala feels like that kind of exploration.

Manala is the second album based on Romus’ research into blending jazz and his Finnish heritage, the first being The Otherworld Cycle, and it has a live followup, Return to Manala. Romus has tapped a rich creative thread that hopefully will continue.