The Balderin Sali Variations aren’t a series of related pieces derived from a beginning motif but rather an ad hoc orchestra of eleven comprising three generations of improvisers from Finland, Germany, Italy, England, Austria, Poland, Norway and Mexico. The orchestra was put together on the occasion of the 2018 Soundscapes and Soundportraits Festival, which took place in September in Helsinki. The festival’s founder and the ensemble’s organizer is Harri Sjöström, a soprano saxophonist originally from Finland but now residing in Berlin. Sjöström, one of the representatives of European free improvisation’s second generation, is joined here by saxophonist Evan Parker, violinist/electronics artist Philipp Wachsmann, drummer Paul Lovens and bassist Teppo Hauta-aho of the founding/first generation, as well as six other musicians drawn from the second and third generations. A reunion of an extended family of sorts, and one in which the family demonstrates a strikingly intuitive sense of communication.
The most striking thing about the music on this two-CD set is its intelligent handling of space and color—striking, but not surprising, as that is one of the hallmarks of European free improvisation. The ensemble accomplishes this by setting up relationships that naturally vary the densities and timbres that come into play. The thirteen tracks are bookended by improvisations for the full ensemble; in between are improvisations for sub-groupings in sizes ranging from duos to quintets. Some of these subgroupings make for inspired instrumental combinations: soprano saxophone and violin; drums, trombone, and piano; soprano saxophone and quarter-tone accordion.
Another inspired, multi-generational combination of musicians is to be found on The Treasures Are, a duo recording from Sjöström and the younger cellist Guilherme Rodrigues. All of the music on the recording presumably was improvised, but the quality of the interplay is such that parts sound as if they had been composed prior to the performance. Much of the credit for this goes to Rodrigues, who seems largely to be responding to Sjöström’s inventive leads throughout much of the recording. Rodrigues has an almost telepathic ability to complete Sjöström’s phrases, create lucid, coherent harmonies from Sjöström’s melodies, and spin Sjöström’s lines into impromptu canons. Both Sjöström and Rodrigues take the music to many places–from abstract expressionist squeals and squeaks, through freely atonal lyricism, to quasi-conventional harmony—without losing a sense of continuity or stalling for time. In sum, a quite beautiful performance of contemporary European improvised music from two highly attuned players.