by Ian Mann
December 08, 2022
An excellent contemporary big band album and a recording that confirms Randalu to be a huge talent in a variety of capacities – pianist, composer, arranger, band leader and producer.
Kristjan Randalu, New Wind Jazz Orchestra
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4792)
Kristjan Randalu – piano
Wolf Kerschek – conductor
Aleksander Paal – alto & soprano sax
Allan Kaljaste – alto sax
Markus Eermann – tenor sax, flute
Tobias Tammearu – tenor & soprano sax
Martin Kuusk – baritone sax, clarinet
Ingvar Leerimaa, Artur Kiik, Andrus Karjel – trombones
Johannes Kiik – bass trombone, contrabass trombone
Allan Jarve, Jason Hunter, Samuel Jalakas, Vallo Mand – trumpets
Mihkel Malgand – double bass
Karl-Juhan Laanesaar – drums
Ingrid Jensen – trumpet (track 1)
Ben Monder – guitar (track 2)
I first became aware of the playing of the Estonian pianist and composer Kristjan Randalu back in 2009 when I saw him perform with the international quintet The Transatlantic Collective at the much missed Dempsey’s venue in Cardiff. The band also included trumpeter Quentin Collins, saxophonist Patrick Cornelius, bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Paul Wiltgen. My review of that performance, plus a look at the Collective’s 2008 album release “Traveling Song” can be found here;
In 2010 I reviewed Randalu’s solo release “Desde Manhattan”, which featured the pianist with an unusual core quartet including cellist Stephan Braun and bassist Antonio Miguel plus long term associate Bodek Janke on drums, percussion and the occasional vocal. Guest singer Olivia Trummer also appeared on one track. Review here;
I also caught up with Randalu again at the 2010 London Jazz Festival when his brilliant playing was featured at a storming gig at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho by the American guitarist Mike Moreno and his quartet. The band also included Janisch and Wiltgen and thus rekindled memories of Transatlantic Collective. My account of that memorable gig can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
More recently I enjoyed hearing Randalu’s playing again on the 2020 quartet album “Acadia; Way of the Cairns” by Patrick Cornelius, with Janisch and Wiltgen again forming the rhythm team. Review here;
A genuinely international musician Randalu studied in Germany, the UK and the US and has since established himself as both a bandleader and a prolific sideman. In these combined capacities he has appeared on some forty albums to date and has collaborated with musicians such as saxophonists Dave Liebman and Trygve Seim guitarists Ben Monder and Gilad Hekselman, trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvaer, bassist Christian McBride, oud player Dhafer Youssef and many more. In addition to his jazz credentials he is also in demand as a classical pianist and has performed with many leading orchestras. A more comprehensive biography and a full discography can be found at his website at https://www.randalu.com/home
Despite his international reputation Randalu has always stayed true to his Estonian roots. “Sisu” is a collaboration with the New Wind Jazz Orchestra, founded in 2018 by saxophonist Lauri Kadalipp to promote Estonian music internationally. “Sisu” represents the NWJO’s début release and although Kadalipp doesn’t actually play on the record he functions as the ensemble’s artistic director and is also credited as a co-producer alongside Randalu and conductor Wolf Kerschek.
The programme features original compositions by Randalu plus re-workings of traditional pieces from the Estonian canon. The album eschews the traditional sounds of big band swing - “my goal was not to put together a traditional big band programme” explains Randalu.
The album commences with the rousing “Mouse-Hunt”, credited to Randalu and Uno Naissoo. This establishes a contemporary big band sound, reminiscent of Maria Schneider, Kenny Wheeler, Mike Gibbs etc. Vibrant ensemble passages are augmented by a lively excursion from Randalu at the piano and a fluent statement from guest soloist Ingrid Jensen on trumpet. Drummer Laanesaar features strongly during a particularly stomping section that forms part of a piece that is rich in terms of both colours and dynamics.
Title track “Sisu” is named for an Estonian word meaning ‘content’, but which also means ‘inner strength’ in Finnish. Slightly less frenetic than the opener it develops from Randalu’s introductory interior piano scrapings, building through an atmospheric intro to a piano led theme embellished by rich horn voicings that vary from the grandiose to the dynamic. Randalu shares the solos with Paal, the latter on sinuous soprano sax, the pair bouncing ideas off each other in scintillating fashion.
“Spielchen Und Rechsenschaft” introduces guest soloist Ben Monder, the American guitarist with whom Randalu collaborated on the 2012 duo album “Equilibrium”. The pair later teamed up with drummer Markku Ounaskari on the 2018 release “Absence”, issued on ECM Records.
Here, the moody timbres of the piece take an even more sinister turn with the introduction of Monder’s heavily treated guitar sound. Monder shares the solos with Randalu himself, but it’s the guitarist’s powerful contribution that best defines the ominous atmosphere of this piece.
“Song Of Freedom” was originally written for a male choir and large wind ensemble but is here re-arranged for jazz orchestra. In the early stages its classical origins are reflected by the lack of bass and drums as the rich voicings of the horns combine with the leader’s piano to create lush sonic textures. Laanesaar’s drums eventually enter to lay down a martial rhythm, this giving impetus to Kuusk’s snaking, sinuous clarinet solo. And it’s the military sounds of firmly struck unaccompanied drums that eventually bring this piece to its conclusion.
Like the title track “Partly Clouded” first appeared on the trio album “Absence”. Here it is skilfully re-imagined for big band in an invigorating new version that highlights Randalu’s abilities as both a pianist and a composer / arranger. Virtuoso piano playing is complemented by a vibrant and varied arrangement that is rich in terms of colour, texture and dynamics.
Randalu has been quoted as saying this about the possibilities offered to him by this ensemble;
“Using all these different parts, voices, colours, options and instruments, I think it really enhances the musical material”.
No arguments there, particularly with regard to this arrangement which sees Randalu making full use of the varied instrumentation at his disposal.
Credited to Randalu and Ulo Vinter “Pippi Longstocking” is a classic of the Estonian canon and the folk like melody is given a light and playful treatment with the sound of Eermann’s flute prominent in an early dialogue with the leader’s piano. Later it’s trumpeter Jason Hunter who is featured in musical conversation with Randalu’s piano, before really cutting loose with the whole band behind him as the music gathers momentum.
“Lünk” was originally written for a concerto for string orchestra featuring viola and piano. It is transformed here in a high energy big band arrangement featuring staccato horn phrases and powerful rhythms with Randalu and soprano saxophonist Paal the featured soloists. Randalu’s playing is both percussive and highly inventive while Paal’s puckish sax scurries and darts in sinuous, mercurial fashion. It’s a dazzling performance from all concerned.
“Valse Hésitante” is drawn from the same source as “Lünk”, but is very different in feel. Here the mood is gentle and elegant, almost courtly, with featured soloist Kuusk gracefully weaving his way through the piece on clarinet. Randalu follows him on piano within a typically rich and colourful ensemble arrangement.
The album concludes with “Sheep Song”, written by Olav Ehala and arranged by Randalu. The pianist says of the piece;
“Sheep Song is another Estonian composition, originally from a soundtrack. It turns out to be very complex in rhythm, the composer originally wrote the melodies to the lyrics, which turned out to have uneven shapes and sequences, which now gives the basis for the track.”
Nevertheless the piece has an attractive folk like theme that forms the basis for solos from Randalu and Paal, the latter this time on alto sax. Drummer Laanesaar is also featured, and indeed impresses throughout the album as a whole. The rousing passages towards the close of this piece represent a great way to round off the album.
“Sisu” was recorded at the Estonian Public Broadcasting Studios in Tallinn with Jensen and Monder recording their parts remotely. It has all been brought together seamlessly by an engineering team featuring Siim Maesalu in Estonia, Klaus Genuit in Germany and Tyler McDiarmid in New York with Randalu, Kerschek and Kadalipp credited as producers. “There was no compromise with the production” states Randalu.
The production values combine with superb writing and arranging plus brilliant playing to create an excellent contemporary big band album. Randalu’s piano is at the heart of every piece and in that sense there’s a ‘concerto like’ quality about the recording but the members of the NWJO and guests Jensen and Monder make superb contributions too. It’s an album that deserves to put contemporary Estonian jazz on the map and the album seems to have been very well received.
It’s been a while since I last heard and saw Randalu but I’m very pleased that this album has helped to put him back on my musical radar. It’s a recording that confirms him to be a huge talent in a variety of capacities – pianist, composer, arranger, band leader and producer.
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