Heikki Sarmanto Serious Music Ensemble
The career of pianist and composer Heikki Sarmanto spans five decades and has seem him work with various genres from jazz and avantgarde to classical and even opera. His artistic roots lie, however, in the so-called new jazz music of the sixties. It is this free-flowing and more avant-garde side to Sarmanto that the three album series The Helsinki Tapes wants to emphasize. The music on these three albums was recorded live at the N-Club, a small basement rock club in Helsinki in 1971 and 1972. A far cry from the polished stages of concert halls, the four-track recordings present a young and hungry band in their most creative and experimenting phase. These tapes lay forgotten for over four decades and are now presented in their full cleaned-up and remastered glory.
Sarmanto studied music at the Berklee College in Boston in the late sixties, which is where he assembled his group Heikki Sarmanto Serious Music Ensemble. The group connected young, creative musicians from Finland and America – Heikki’s brother Pekka on bass, Juhani Aaltonen on saxophone, Craig Herndon on drums and Lance Gunderson on guitar. Heikki himself took up a Fender Rhodes keyboard, not yet a common instrument in Scandinavia. The young quintet wanted to question the accepted norms in music, on which the choice of band name was a comment. “Serious Music Orchestra is a comment on the cultural status quo of the time, as the term ‘serious music’ was used to refer to the western classical tradition only. As if no other music would be worth of serious thought – and African-American jazz was the last thing to be taken seriously”, recalls Sarmanto.
Serious Music Ensemble lived for a couple of intense years and performed on Sarmanto’s albums Like a Fragonard and Counterbalance. Due to studio and label constraints the albums ended up relatively clean, and the furious, experimental side to the band was kept largely under wraps. This will change with the release of the Helsinki Tapes Series: recorded by a student with simple four track equipment, the performances are unlike anything heard in Finland at the time. Operating free from the reins of studio producers and album formats, the music is wild, vivid and alive, ranging from free jazz bursts to more lyrical moments. Some of the band’s repertoire is from Sarmanto’s early albums, but many tracks played here were never recorded, and many of those that were do not resemble their studio counterparts.
Saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen was not present in the lineup at any of the shows, so on the first album the band performs as a quartet, with vocalist Maija Hapuoja joining them on the 2nd album. The third part of Helsinki Tapes was recorded around the time of the studio sessions of Eero Koivistoinen’s classic album 3rd Version, on which nearly all of Serious Music Ensemble played, and Koivistoinen paid back the favour by joining Serious Music Ensemble for the night. This album is especially interesting for fans of Koivistoinen, as he is on top form, tearing holes in the time-space continuum with his saxophone.