Born Martii Juhani Vesala, the percussionist changed his name early in his musical career. Vesala studied music theory and orchestral percussion at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki from 1965-1967. He played with such musicians as Eero Koivistionen and Seppo Paakkunainen during the mid- to late '60s. In 1972 he recorded Triptykon for ECM with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and bassist Arild Andersen. It would be the first of many albums Vesala would make for the German label. His long association with ECM would help establish Vesala's reputation as a world-class free jazz percussionist. During the '70s Vesala played with such free jazz and experimentally inclined musicians as Peter Brötzmann, Charlie Mariano, and Terje Rypdal. Early-'70s collaborations with such Finnish musicians as Koivistionen, Juhani Aaltonen, and Pekka Sarmanto had a strong impact on the Finnish free jazz scene. Vesala's quartet with Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko recorded several times from 1974-1978, including most notably Nan Madol, his first album as a leader for ECM. In 1978, Vesala formed his own record label, Leo (not to be confused with the British label of the same name headed by Leo Feigin), which released albums by European free jazz musicians (including Stanko) and Americans like Frank Foster and Charlie Mariano. In 1980 Vesala and Stanko recorded Heavylife, which featured the American musicians Reggie Workman on bass, J.D. Parran on saxophone, and Bob Stewart on tuba. In the early '80s Vesala conducted music workshops called Sound & Fury. In 1984 he chose the best of his students and formed a group of the same name. Sound & Fury would record four albums for ECM. Vesala's 1990 album, Ode to the Death of Jazz, was a statement in opposition to the conservative forces that had come to dominate the music. He continued to perform with Sound & Fury during the '90s. He also composed for the Helsinki Philharmonic and other large ensembles. Vesala was probably the most famous of all Finnish jazz musicians. Yet by the end of his life, his music defied all categorization, fusing various ethnic idioms, classical elements, rock, microtonality, and Finnish folk music. Vesala died of heart failure in his home outside Helsinki in 1999. (allmusic)
If jazz was ever meant to be a religion, its prayers might sound something like Nan Madol. The title means “spaces between,” and no description of this music could be more apt. The album is an eclectic mandala of drones, eruptions of ecstatic liberation, and snatches of melody from both near and far. Influences range from Japanese folk melodies to Alpine herding calls, and all of them strung by a powerful understatement of continuity.
We open our eyes to find ourselves in a field at night in which a nearby forest looms with untold life. Soprano sax verses mingle with the shawm-like nagaswaram, dripping with the luscious slowness of honey from a broken hive as abstract solos bounce over a corroded surface of ever-so-slightly detuned harps. We proceed from meditation to incantation, calling upon the sounds of spirits rather than the spirits of sound. Melodies drag, are picked up, only to drag again: the final paroxysms of a dying organism laid bare for our imaginations. Motifs flit in and out of earshot like radio transmissions struggling to hang on. The instruments weep as if the entire album were nothing but a cathartic ritual. On the surface, the musicians seem unaware of each other, all the while reveling in their secret synergy far beyond the threshold of audibility. This is music on its own plane and we must approach it as we are. There is no middle ground, no meeting point to be had.
This may not be “fun” album to listen to, and certainly not an easy one to describe, but it is rewarding in more metaphysical ways. Far from a jazz album to tap one’s foot to, it is instead a free-form surrender to the possibilities of automatic music. Its mood is inward while its exposition is extroverted and full of exquisite contradictions. If nothing else, the stunning “Areous Vlor Ta” will leave you breathless and vulnerable to the grand Return that brings the listener full circle to where it all began. (ecmreviews)