Armada (2012). Review.
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First published in my LiveJournal blog on April 27, 2012. This is the original English language review which was later edited and translated into Russian to be published in the main Russian jazz magazine Джаз.ру

The new Armada CD by the prominent Estonian young masters — Raun Juurikas, Peedu Kass and Andre Maaker — is a weird but good portion of a 100% improvised material (sure, if only we believe the booklet annotation :-) The CD was out in January on Paw Marks Music, a record label run by Peedu and Andre, and the release was sponsored by Eesti Kultuurkapital fund. I bought the compact disc some short time ago and after a couple of rounds felt like writing a review. So here it comes.

As any other physical product, a CD is supposed to have a layout. In this matter I feel this is not the strongest point about the whole thing as it unfortunately makes no great impression. It is not bad, but definitely could have been better, as we have a live example — Peedu Kass 005 Home CD released two years ago had a higher level design and moreover was printed on a better paper. This time it looks though with a strain of originality, but cheaper in general. (Musicians’ sketches are good though))

The booklet says: All music is freely improvised by Kass, Juurikas & Maaker.
Recorded in one take at Tuhalaane, Estonia on July 12th, 2011
No overdubs.
Recorded by Andre Maaker
Mixed and mastered by Raun Juurikas

(punctuation preserved)
The only take is split into six tracks which aren’t separated musically, but formally, solely for the CD navigation.

It starts with Ascension — some good dissonant ambient, sounding much in vein of the old Budd+Eno which I expect is made by the electronica digger Raun, as he is responsible for all the keyboard and live sampling work. Then enters Peedu col legno (striking the strings with the stick of the bow), tritone flirting as to support the suspense, transforming then his part to a more or less clear bass riff upon which Raun samples Fender Rhodes in high register and produces very guitar-like bends on some synth, and Andre beginning as a vigil — restrained and careful — turns to “free” paranoia on the acoustic guitar. The part might seem not the best for the very beginning of a CD in the way it is performed, but as I listen to it over again, I find it OK as an intro. On one hand it sets the correct mood for the rest of the record, and on the other you can only imagine what’s going to happen in the next parts. After I’d listened to the record twice (liked it much, so the second time came instantly after the first one) I shared my impressions with Peedu and he did concede the first track to be little bit of hardcore.

It is followed by the Main Theme, which in fact could be called also something like Ascension continued, because of the harmonical pattern upon which it is based: ascending the first four steps of a minor scale. The pattern unconsciously (?) chosen is a cool one for the album’s main theme’s core, sounding pop and appearing easy to swallow. Evidently nothing harmonically breakthrough or even just uncommon happens among the guys throughout the whole session. In this matter it’s more like a good ambient (it is!) or even an easy-listening record (but only in this matter) — all-pervading, comprehensible for any kind of a listener. Main Theme is all about simplicity — it has one emotion, but expressed to the full. Raun makes a distorted Rhodes solo, somehow linking to Chick Corea’s Return To Forever era, though I heard he’d never been deep into Chick. What I enjoy about the theme is the length, they don’t overact — the riff used is so sticky, that one can improvise much longer than the six minutes they devoted to it. It could be even a bit shorter — then, I think, the portion would be just enough and there would have been no moments lacking the power (you do meet them sometimes!). Anyhow, the trio shows a good sense of the musical form being exploited so far and is not subject to exaggerating, frequent among young musicians.

Before going over to the next track I’d like to draw your attention to the problem of track division. It happens so that the physical third track starts after it has already sounded for a minute in the ending of the previous one. The same happens with the last one as well. Sure they both start with some accent, and there is logic in it, but I’m sure it could have been done in a more logical way.

In general, the third track Reprise is a rhythmically multilayered up-tempo piece, with an ostinato bass covered with cross keyboard and guitar rhythms. Guitar? Not really. Andre strums no string now, but taps the soundboard. Only in the beginning he starts his figure palming the strings, then scratching them and finally concentrating on tapping. This is the most groovy part of the record — the only one having a percussive base.

As it often happens to such “free” recordings among the musicians who don’t work together on a very regular basis, they cannot boast of the diversity of musical forms. Though I have mentioned that they have a good sense of the form, here’s the time for a remark. The first three tracks are based on the same structure, primitive but genuine in itself: introduction→ development→ climax→ conclusion. The next two have some variety. And here comes Transformation. Sounding like a low-key opposition to Reprise’s fluidity. Andre makes beautiful passages, his solo here and there bringing the echoing pulse of the previous track. It’s not heard but felt. Everything is in its right place. But the accuracy is so absolute that you can’t but wait for some trouble. The part even seems to have no climax at all — it goes just like a mere narration which diverts the musical current to a new streambed and what is to come will not be the same. Like a point of no return, it is the most balanced piece, as unambitious as an old man’s story. I find it the strongest number on the whole CD.

It evolves into Descension which, judging from the name, counters the first track. But in fact, the harmony is in opposition to the Main Theme, where, just as I said, ascension does reveal itself. Reprise and Descension are more guitar pieces, exposing Andre as a lyrical musician, sincere and even seeming explicit. Couple of passages sound like reciting Ralph Towner, and suit their places perfectly. The piece is full of descending and ascending glissando riffs by guitar and the bass. Raun switches off the Rhodes (it only appears in some background sampled parts) and plays with an organ-like or even harmonium-like sound, blending with distorted analogue synths.

And so the action passes on to the final part — paranoiac Ground Zero. The performers here are Raun with hammond-ish sounds and “analogue” noises and Andre who, if I’m not wrong, strums the strings with a drum brush, or something alike, sounding metal on metal. No Peedu (or at least no double bass) is heard in the piece. So the track also brings some variety — in fact it is the record’s most exotic part. I can imagine the Italian futurists of 1910s sounding just the way Andre does here — skirring and rasping.

Some words are to be said of the album at large.
The musicians change the techniques and methods in their playing, what makes the compositions sound different. Still, the record is rather homogeneous than not, as well as the great majority of one-take free-improvised albums. It means you should not seek all sorts of things here. Because in general it is an ambient album, capturing in its 43 minutes a journey to a small quiet village of Tuhalaane in the South Estonia, home for a hundred inhabitants — and a home for Andre Maaker at whose place the whole thing was recorded. The home ambiance by the way is what’s great about the record. You hear inhales and exhales, some moaning, the squeaking of floor. A beautiful sound of someone taking (drum?) sticks can be heard in the Main Theme at 3:18 (check this out :-) If you’re a musician and ever had any completely improvised rehearsals or performances you sure will recognize this way of creating while listening to the album. I think most jazz musicians have home records of such kind. But what makes this “rehearsal” worthy of being a CD on your shelf is its lucidity and precision in performance, decent improvisations, and a good sound quality. It really is well-recorded. Sure not a Grammy nominating stuff, but with a warm home feeling. I love it.

Finally I think the guys did their best and the record couldn’t be better than it is. The CD is worth buying as I’m sure you’ll return to it over again with pleasure.