Album Review: Oiro Pena – ‘Puna’ : An intense and essential take on spiritual jazz-tones.

The Breakdown

‘Puna’ keeps the visceral, immediate energy of Pharoah Sanders/Don Cherry jazz as it’s centrifugal influence and then spins off meteorically from that. There's a real grasp of beauty and brutalism here.
We Are Busy Bodies 8.9

You have to be paying close attention to pick up on the whispers and murmurings from the dynamic Finnish underground scene but when you catch the signals it’s usually something that needs shouting about. That certainly goes for multi-instrumentalist Antti Vauhkonen’s Oiro Pena project which has been beaming messages packed with outsider jazz innovation for a good few years now. First came a couple of digi-releases via Häzling Records in 2018, niftily re-visited on vinyl by the 2 Headed Deer label and demanding investigation. Then followed the much treasured, maybe more expressive ‘Oiro Pena’ in 2020 and 2022’s ‘Cooper’s Test’ and the rumour mill of Vauhkonen’s essential take on raw jazz spirituality cranked up another notch.

Well the signs are things maybe due to become more intense for Oiro Pena as their new album ‘Puna’ gets a wider exposure via the indispensable We Are Busy Bodies. It’s a recording that’s prepared for greater attention as Vauhkonen (aka Pentti Orionen) continues to explore a collective sound. This time around he’s again taken the drum stool plus his customary swathe of other instrumentation and electronics while re-grouping the players he used on wild, long form improv testimony that was ‘Cooper’s Test’: Johannes Sarjasto on sax and flute; double bassist Philip Holm; and Staffan ”Wolf” Södergård on piano. The twist on ‘Puna’ comes with the indication of a more compositional starting point plus introduction of established vocalist Merikukka Kiviharju to add extra pep and personality.

That’s not to suggest that the lo-fi spontaneity and quirkiness of those early Oiro Pena recordings has been abandoned. ‘Puna’ keeps the visceral, immediate energy of Pharoah Sanders/Don Cherry jazz as it’s centrifugal influence and then spins off meteorically. The title track is a testament to that trajectory. An erratic cascade of drum rolls and cymbal clatter, piano flashes and saxes craning for the higher ground, mantra choirs and swelling chants, usher in the cosmic vibes before coming to an unexpected still. With the delicate twang of the kantele, a rhythmic shuffle and some jaunty flutes, Kiviharju strikes up a song line that’s stoically Northern European. Atmosphere shifted you get that nothing is certain with this Oiro Pena presentation.

‘Puna’ is clearly an album that’s bristling with ideas but that’s not to say it’s distractingly overactive. Somehow through the flurry of improv, post bop and spiritual jazz ascendancy there’s a grounded focus to the whole thing. It’s a record that’s wonderfully loose but which never falls apart, anchored by its song-based tracks. Take the soul stepping Kuinka kukaan where the pre-house piano vamp and Sarjasto’s twirling sax lines introduce Kiviharju’s majestic vocal. The raw swing may be earthy enough but the singer’s delivery of traditional folk narratives, powerful but uncluttered, elevates the tune with a rootsy passion. On Kaiju Kaiju, the vocals mesmirise while that sax slaloms between effortless flow and driving skronk but perhaps Calamity Caravan captures Oiro Pena at their intangible best. Here is jazz with a new base, the mandolin strum and harmonium vamp, a faux-smooch polka from a slightly spooky hemisphere which tingles with bric-a-brac percussion and latin vocal croons. Besides prime Art Ensemble where else could you find such a thing.

All this novelty doesn’t mean the full instrumental tracks on ‘Puna’ are any less significant. They are key to making the album a wild and expansive whole. Joo Thai draws close to Oiro Pena’s seventies era Impulse inspirations and Sun Ra comparisons, the tangling flute and sax plus Vauhkonen’s sensual percussive timbres making a particular impression. Pianist Staffan Södergård’s atmospheric improv ballad Mythical Mist drips with electric keys and flaying sax patterns but the fractured blast of Joona’s Abs takes early pole position. Flicking between a relentless stampede of free jazz and paused minimal recovery, there’s a real grasp of beauty and brutalism here.

Oiro Pena’s ‘Puna’ certainly highlights, along with the mighty We Jazz community, the continued vibrancy of the Finnish jazz scene. It also marks another major step in Antti Vauhkonen’s transition from his electronic/experimental starting points to spiritual jazz expressionism. He may have been the sax playing component of Helsinki’s jazz rock sextet Soft Power for some time now, but Oiro Pena’s music is really on another plain. ‘Puna’ is a release that along with Asher Gamidze’s ‘Turbulence and Pulse’ makes a significant new entry on the contemporary jazz landscape but to label this music as either cosmic or spiritual in many ways smooths over its real identity. These feel like pagan sounds, earthbound, natural and of the moment.

Get your copy of ‘Puna’ by Oiro Pena from your local record store now or direct from We Are Busy Bodies

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