Years ago I was driving through a countryside of low hills with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the tape deck, and the sound of violins was lifting and arching and rolling downwards along with the hills as they went past the window. There are times when Scandinavian fiddles move the same way. They lift forward into graceful arch-shapes, falling and rising and repeating the motion easily, over and over, but a little differently each time, as hills are different. You could also say that they’re like waves in the sea, moving constantly but subtly. These aren’t the surf waves that crash down and smack rugs of tormented froth on the beaches; these are the calm, ongoing waves that roll and roll, with no two waves the same.
Artology is like this in places. The feeling is not as consistent as it was on Live In Japan, a recording of a Väsen concert that came out late last year, but more so than on Frigg’s Oasis, which was released at roughly the same time. Artology falls somewhere between the other groups’ albums, with some of Väsen’s classical sound, and some of Frigg’s fondness for springy, jiggy Americana.
JPP is Finland’s best-known fiddle group. The acronym expands to ‘Järvelän Pikkupelimannit’, which translates into ‘Young [or Little] Järvelän Pelimanni Musicians’. They take the name from their hometown Järvelä, a village in Kaustinen, an area of Finland known for an annual folk music festival that has been running there since 1965. One of the tracks on this album is a recording taken from a gig they played at the festival in 2005. The track, “Stuffologie”, is a tribute to an American fiddler named Stuff Smith. “When it comes to jazz/blues fiddlers he’s my all-time hero,” Arto Järvelä reports in the notes. Most Scandinavian fiddle music that borrows inspiration from North America ends up sounding like country, but “Stuffologie” takes its cues from boogie-woogie. You can almost hear the Andrews Sisters wanting to come in over the top.
The headquarters of the Finnish national folk music institute was established near Kaustinen in 1974, and in 1997 the modest and purposeful building was joined by a folk arts centre, or Kansantaiteenkeskus, which holds a museum, a folk music library, a recording studio, and a 400-seat concert hall. The area breeds talented pelimanni fiddlers and accordion players, and, with two decades of experience in tow, JPP is one of its most influential groups.
Pelimanni music is Finnish folk music, instrumental, danceable, and distinct from the older sung-poetry variants such as runolaulu, with their epics and laments. Pelimanni gigs are where you’ll find polskas and waltzes, and, oddly enough, the tango, which arrived in Finland during the 1920s and never left. There are two pieces of tango on Artology, both of them original compositions by Arto. “Murhe” is crisper and lighter than the average Argentinean tango, a dry white wine compared to a sweet red. “Tango de Caro” is more amorous, but there are moments when the clean-scrubbed innocence of a polska wants to creep through.
The other tracks are mixtures of traditional European dances. “Tomahuta and Pöhölö” is a schottische mated with a waltz; “Hämmennys” is a polska in front of a quadrille. A bass makes occasional guest appearances and the group is sometimes accompanied by a harmonium, but the focus is on the four fiddlers.
Artology was originally released in Finland by OArt and then licensed in the U.S. to NorthSide, who have a solid track record when it comes to Scandinavian music. Artology is not radically different from JPP’s earlier releases, but the group is reliably excellent, and there are always those magic rolling-hill moments, the ones that make you feel both relaxed and smarter at the same time.