Five Corners Quintet & Timo Lassy: Helsinki Jazz

by Marshall Bowden

Listening to Five Corners Quintet instantly transports the listener back to a time when modern jazz was still hip and cool despite the advent of rock n’ roll.

The Helsinki group’s first CD, Chasin’ The Jazz Gone By is a sumptuous concoction that includes everything from Bacharach-esque orchestral swing to hard bop to crooner cool to greasy Latin soul. And that’s only a few of the disc’s dozen tracks (plus the bonus track “Taxi Driver,” a suite of Bernard Herrmann music composed for the film score).

Five Corners opens with the smooth, cool sound of vibes and a touch of Gerry Mulligan-esque baritone sax that perfectly supports Okou’s vocal. At times Okou evokes Dionne Warwick, while the string and French horn-laden arrangement gives this a Burt Bacharach feel. It immediately transports one to a groovy space, and that continues as the group locks into the groove of “Trading Eights.” This track perfectly outlines the group’s philosophy: get the toes tapping with a groove that invites listeners to the dance floor, then overlay it with sharp, tight mainstream 60s jazz arrangements. It helps mightily that the horn section plays live, not loops, and that there is room for improvisation within the tightly structured arrangements. Listen to trumpeter Jukka Eskola offer a focused solo statement, echoed perfectly by tenor sax player Eero Koivistoinen as they trade eights halfway through the track.

Five Corners Quintet/Chasing the Jazz Gone By (Full Album)

Eternal hipster Mark Murphy checks in on the fourth track, a swinging take on the old Steve Allen chestnut “This Could Be the Start of Something.” Not only is it a perfect musical amalgam of the traditional and the new, Murphy’s vocals perfectly convey the playfulness and good humor at the heart of Five Corners’ music. Murphy also sings his original composition “Before We Say Goodbye,” another perfect vehicle for the Finnish quintet. Murphy returns for the track “Jamming (With Mr. Hoagland)” on which he mainly declaims the poetic lyrics while the quintet provides a variety of moods in the background. The whole piece is rather reminiscent of the heady days when Beat poets would perform in front of small jazz ensembles.

While Murphy’s contributions to the CD are well done and welcome, the group can hold the listener’s attention perfectly well without a vocalist. “Straight Up” recalls the gospel-drenched bluesy jams of the classic Ramsey Lewis Trio or one of Horace Silver’s Blue Note bands. “Lighthouse” could come directly from one of the era’s classic albums by Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, or any of a long list of other performers from the period considered by many to be jazz music’s heyday. “Unsquare Bossa Nova” kicks off with a choppy organ figure that sounds like one of today’s loungey remix projects, but the sharp horn section figures make it clear that this is a tight live jazz ensemble. Finally, the group’s take on Bernard Hermann’s Taxi Driver soundtrack closes out the disc with a really fine bonus track.

Chasing the Jazz Gone By works so well because the musicians who make up the Five Corners Quintet understand the era of jazz music they are trying to evoke, and they do so very well, without resorting to mere sonic imitation. At the same time, they provide a nice modern edge to the proceedings that could help listeners not familiar with classic jazz to overcome their fear of the music. In short, Chasin’ the Jazz Gone By has all the earmarks of a classic: music that honors and evokes the past but remains modern enough that you’ll still be listening to it a few years from now.

Five Corners’ main reedman, Timo Lassy, released his CD The Soul & Jazz of Timo Lassy, in 2007, two years after the release of Chasin’ The Jazz Gone By. For this outing, Lassy is joined by Five Corners musicians Jukka Eskola (trumpet) and Teppo Makynen (drums/percussion) as well as trombonist Mikko Mustonen of UMO Jazz Orchestra and Greek pianist Georgios Kontrafouris, whom the liner notes refer to as ‘the man with a Wynton Kelly tattoo.’

Timo Lassy “African Rumble”

As one might expect, the sound and overall approach here aren’t terribly different than that of the Five Corners Quintet, but there are differences. Lassy’s tenor sax sound is sweet and lyrical, with enough edge to keep from sounding saccharine. Half the eight tracks here are composed by Lassy, with drummer Maykynen providing two, and the remainder being collaborations between Lassy and Maykynen.

The opener, “Early Move” is a driving swinger that would not be out of place on any number of early ‘60s Blue Note dates. Kontrafouris plays an effortlessly swinging solo that indeed reminds one of Wynton Kelly, as well as of Red Garland and maybe just a bit of early Ramsey Lewis. “Live At the Timber Yard” has a Latin flavor, with a nice voicing of trombone, trumpet, and Lassy’s tenor. “The Call” also has Latin flavorings, and Lassy unveils his deep, robust baritone sax sound. It’s great to hear Lassy on baritone, as the instrument doesn’t get nearly enough play amongst younger jazz artists. “Universal Four” slows things down a bit and allows Lassy to display a more Coltrane/Pharoah Saunders side of his musical personality, with welcome results.

Both “Weldon” and “Sweet Spot” also display Latin beats, and Lassy adds his flute to the combination of trumpet and trombone for a nice ensemble sound. Lassy is not an ostentatious player who throws a lot of notes around. He does his thing but keeps within the boundaries of the overall sound that is being created. The ballad “Love Moan,” composed by Lassy, allows him to play a gorgeously romantic piece on baritone sax, with a sweetness not heart since Art Carney played the instrument. The album concludes with the spicy “African Rumble,” with Lassy’s tenor taking the lead while the group burns behind him.

Anyone who enjoys the small group jazz of the 1950s and 1960s, with tightly structured arrangements that allow the musicians to stretch a bit without becoming self-indulgent will definitely enjoy both Chasin’ the Jazz Gone By and The Soul & Jazz of Timo Lassy.

And in 2009 there was more Five Corners Quintet for everyone to listen to, with the release of the group’s sophomore effort, Hot Corner. The band continues to mine its signature small group jazz sound, adding some dancefloor rhythms and even bringing back Mark Murphy for a couple of tracks—“Kerouac Days In Montana” and “Come and Get Me.” Once again the music features the arrangements and studio patina of the late 1950s/early 1960s, and again the band has a winning formula.

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