There is an international stable of big bands that have an illustrious history as institutions (Trondheim in Norway, Lincoln Center in America, Orchestre National de Jazz in France) that nurture successive generations of players and choose repertoires in order to celebrate key figures in the jazz canon and also provide a platform for newer composers. UMO definitely ranks with the aforementioned in terms of the quality and breadth of its four-decade discography, which includes performances of the songbook of Finnish legends such as Olli Ahvenlahti and American pioneers, from Duke Ellington and Count Basie to Muhal Richard Abrams.
Here the featured guest composer-conductor is Ed Partyka, who like Abrams, hails from Chicago, though he has been resident in Europe for some 30 years. A bass trombonist as well as writer Partyka has a stylistic approach that reflects the myriad traditions of orchestral jazz rather than a single one, and he uses the full resources of the 17-piece unit with aplomb, having understood that he does not have to activate every cog in the well-oiled machine in order to generate energy or excitement.
In other words there is a substantial amount of breathing space in the scores, with the brass often being inflected towards soft muted shades instead of bursting into life at every possible juncture. With a passing nod to Gil Evans, another figure who significantly broadened the palette of post-Ellington groups, Partyka is adept at manipulating large blocks of sound, making them shuttle slowly and enticingly over a given harmonic course without overly frantic splashes of colour. The low register is perceptibly solidified by the presence of bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and baritone saxophone, and the discreet Latin inflections of some pieces only add to the sensual haze of much of the material.
The skillfully mapped solos of trombonist Kasperi Sarikoski are another plus point, reminding us that the big, hefty horn can move easily from romantic inclination to volcanic explosion. UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra maintains its track record of working with the right people on the right music for the right time.
UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra: Last Dance – New Music for Jazz Orchestra by Ed Partyka