Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen was born in 1978, yet he has managed to record an album with bassist William Parker and drummer Andrew Cyrille while still in his 30s. Normally, when some young upstart wants to jam with two iconic legends like Parker and Cyrille, they would probably owe the jazz world a favor akin to a mafia slaying. But since the jazz world (probably) doesn’t work like that, we have to assume that Innanen has already accomplished something profound in order to earn his stripes. The beginning is a good place to start.
In the liner notes for the double-album Song for a New Decade, Mikko Innanen describes growing up in a small Finnish town with his father’s record collection to keep his imagination afloat. Young Innanen’s mind would wander off to the bohemian lives of New Yorkers without exactly knowing what the city was like or how he could ever get there. In the meantime, he just played his saxophone alongside dad’s vinyl of Coleman and Coltrane. After years of perusing Downbeat and jamming away on his horn, Innanen took the plunge and visited New York. He met up with whomever he could, played wherever he could, and learned whatever there was to be learned. Within two years time, Innanen fell into good graces with the two aforementioned jazz legends and was already composing music with them in mind. Whatever the “it” is, Mikko Innanen has “it”. His hunger for jazz, his appetite for reading about, listening to, and performing music as a young man has led him to a fruitful recording career already. How many Finnish guys in the thirties have recorded with William Parker and Andrew Cyrille?
Song for a New Decade is sizable. The first disc is the studio album, featuring seven Mikko Innanen originals and one co-written with his new dream rhythm section. The second disc is a live performance of just Innanen and Cyrille improvising freely for close to 55 minutes. The young saxophonist may admit to being both excited and nervous about recording with Parker and Cyrille, but his performance belies any timidity. “Quite soon I realized, however, that with these kind and supportive men all I needed to do was relax, by myself and enjoy the ride,” says Innanen. Not long into Song for a New Decade‘s first disc, the sax playing starts going for broke. The title track gets him squealing and skronking by the halfway mark, as if Innanen were an avant-garde leftover from the ’60s with nothing left to prove. It is difficult listening, to be sure, but Innanen doesn’t string the listener through the storm the whole time. “The End Is a Beginning” is watching an urban sunrise form a park bench, “Karl’s Castle” is a peppy, staccato dance, and “A Morning, a Day, a Night” is off-kilter blues with featured solos. “Look for the Red Door”, the one track composed by all three musicians, doesn’t even sound like it has a category. It’s blue, it’s quiet, tense, creeping, and always on the harmonic search. In other words, no one knows where the hell that red door is, but the journey’s the thing.
For the second disc, Mikko Innanen and Andrew Cyrille didn’t write a note. Subtitled “Songs for This Decade” and divvied up into six numerically-titled tracks for convenience, Innanen is able balance his untethered sense of freedom with the fact that music needs to keep moving while engaging the listener. Cyrille is versatile on the drum set, a multifaceted musician who can probably pat his head, rub his tummy, walk, and chew gum all while whistling. He is an ideal drummer off which to play and Innanen takes advantage of this. How else do you explain two people playing unrehearsed music for almost an hour?
The explanation is similar to explaining how a guy like Mikko Innanen was able to prove himself to William Parker and Andrew Cyrille so early, so quickly, and so thoroughly. It’s hard to tell if the Finnish musician is anywhere near his peak, but he’s definitely on the climb with the blessed gift of momentum. Song for a New Decade probably won’t be remembered as a classic, though it really should since it seems to have it all: an impressive young talent, fine writing and performances, a controlled sense of freedom, and two living legends holding it all down.