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.

KZSU Day of Noise 2014

I was able to help only for the very beginning and tail end of KZSU’s Day of Noise this year, but it was still a lot of fun.

As usual, a small group of hero DJs made the Day of Noise possible, including Abra (who emceed all 24 hours) and Smurph, who I believe was on hand for most of the sound engineering.

I even manned a sound board this time. The group was Big City Orchestra, a quartet that used styrofoam as its main sound source. They bowed it, poked sticks into it (tuning them beforehand, because they started their set with a droney piece) and ran the sound through all kinds of effects. By the end, it was a wall of noise. It was pretty cool.

Pictures follow. I caught a few minutes of Karl Evangelista and Tom Djll’s band, Revenant, but didn’t get a chance to say hi; their set ended as I was helping set up the audio for BCO.

Here’s the photographic evidence.

Smurph, our head sound engineer, setting up what's normally a meeting room. We use two studios for Day of Noise, so that one band can set up while another is playing.
Smurph, our head sound engineer, setting up what’s normally a meeting room. We use two studios for Day of Noise, so that one band can set up while another is playing.

Brian B. James opened the 24-hour Day of Noise. The potted trees, collected from around the station, were set up in the studio for the sake of the webcast, which we ran on UStream throughout the day/night.
Brian B. James opened the 24-hour Day of Noise. The potted trees, collected from around the station, were set up in the studio for the sake of the webcast, which we ran on UStream throughout the day/night.

The Day of Noise tradition: the autographed T-shirt.
The Day of Noise tradition: the autographed T-shirt.

Revenant (three-fourths of it, anyway): Karl Evangelista, Michael Coleman, Tom Djll
Revenant (three-fourths of it, anyway): Karl Evangelista, Michael Coleman, Tom Djll

Revenant percussionist Nava Dunkelman, captured through the hazy Studio A window.
Revenant percussionist Nava Dunkelman, captured through the hazy Studio A window.

Big City Orchestra setting up. Cheryl Leonard is on the left, and Nina Lynn Hollenberg is third from left ... didn't write down the men's names, unfortunately.
Big City Orchestra setting up. Cheryl Leonard is on the left, and Nina Lynn Hollenberg is third from left … didn’t write down the men’s names, unfortunately.

Cheryl E. Leonard.
Cheryl E. Leonard.

Sticks stuck into the boxes were tuned to specific notes (yes, tuned -- it wasn't easy) and bowed to produce groany tones.
Sticks stuck into the boxes were tuned to specific notes (yes, tuned — it wasn’t easy) and bowed to produce groany tones.

BCO played three pre-planned movements that culminated in stabbing and sawing the styrofoam. It was a heavily noisy finale.
BCO played three pre-planned movements that culminated in stabbing and sawing the styrofoam. It was an appropriately noisy finale.

Syrofoam bits clung to the performers' hands and got everywhere. Probably should have seen that coming.
Syrofoam bits clung to the performers’ hands and got everywhere. Probably should have seen that coming.

Less than 30 minutes after BCO's set, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a lot of elbow grease.
The stuido less than 30 minutes after BCO’s set, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a lot of elbow grease.

3 Leafs closed out the Day of Noise 2014.
3 Leafs closed out the Day of Noise 2014.

Way Down Under

A few months late, I’m catching up on Cheryl E. Leonard’s Antarctic adventure. Leonard is a Bay Area musician who got a chance to study in Antarctica for a few weeks, and the results are chronicled in her “Music from the Ice” blog.

Unlike Henry Kaiser, who became the first musician to record in Antarctica, Leonard isn’t an oceanographer. Her specialty is in making music using natural objects as instruments — sand, rocks, water, pine cones.

Antarctica has always fascinated me — not just the land itself, but the act of actually being there, the day-to-day life that the researchers lead. Leonard’s blog satisfies both curiosities, with pictures indoors as well as out, and some detailed explanations of just what it takes to get to Antarctica and to live down there.

But the sounds are why Leonard was down there, and the blog includes lots of tantalizing snippets — penguin chatter, ice cracking, the melodious clanks of icicles falling down a crevasse. Leonard has indexed many of them on the blog’s front page, but it’s more fun to discover then inside the actual entries.

The descriptions of Antarctica itself are the highlights, but one of my favorite posts describes the ship journey back to Chile and the civilized world. Some nice pictures there, too.

Do yourself a favor and check it out. And keep an eye out for Leonard to produce some recordings from the sounds she’s collected, and/or performances with some of the new “instruments” she found.

And if you’ve got a taste for music and sound in Antarctica, check out what Kaiser’s journal, or Douglas Quin’s project from 2000.