An emergent Finnish free-reed master, Maria Kalaniemi took up the five-row button accordion in 1972 at the age of eight, dedicating herself to classical studies for the first 11 years of a musical career destined for international acclaim. With a long-nurtured affinity for Finnish folk music, Kalaniemi formalized the relationship at age 19 after winning the 1983 national Golden Accordion competition. Earning her first recording shot, she crafted an album of traditional Finnish dance tunes and joined the folk music program of the Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, where besides accordion she studied violin, mandolin, composition and arrangement.
That same year, Kalaniemi helped form the pioneering acoustic ensemble Niekku, whose adventuresome synthesis of folk and contemporary strains propelled it to the forefront of the “New Finnish Folk” movement. Henceforth, through a daunting series of recording and performing projects, Kalaniemi has continued to burnish a rare blend of abilities: evocative recital, technical exactitude and compositional brilliance. Aldargaz, which Kalaniemi founded in 1995, is a superlative sextet of players from the Sibelius Academy folk program. The composing and arranging core includes Kalaniemi, pianist Timo Alakotila and guitarist Olli Varis, Kalaniemi’s spouse. Alakotila contributes four of his own compositions and has a hand in six arrangements, all honed to jazz-edged keenness. Arto Järvelä (violin), Petri Hakala (mandolin) and Tapani Varis (Olli’s brother, double bass), all superb instrumentalists, round out the core ensemble which-with an array of able guests on vocals, strings, reeds, brass and drums-forges a lively collective whose artistry is orchestral in conception, feel and execution.
Kalaniemi’s symphonic attack and dazzling technique make her a musician’s musician, while her muse makes Ahma a composer’s siren call, an erudite, evocative twining of local and planetary strains from classical to folk, jazz, rock and pop. There are echoes of a host of kindred experimentalists here — think Marcel Azzola, Astor Piazzolla, Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, Romane, Tchavolo Schmidt, Tony Rice, Bela Fleck and beyond.
But Aldargaz claims none of these, sustaining something apart, its own serene, unrelenting creation. The title track lays down a driving double-time encounter between acoustic guitar, mandolin, violin, piano and the reedy textures of Kalaniemi’s accordion, extending into-almost imperceptibly-the unexpected, stunningly complementary registers of trumpet, trombone, sax and drum kit, building to a joyous, studiously restrained climax. Tango’s poignant atmospherics electrify “Huuma”, issuing from the transient realm of the sublime. Guitarist Varis’s “Nibe” is a sweetly waltzing blend of inspired acoustic guitar, ringing mandolin and the lingering musette tones Kalaniemi conjures from her instrument. Mia Simanainen’s haunting wordless vocals wind through several selections, including Alakotila’s “Melos”, a brooding, ice-cool alloy. Alakotila’s “Arctic Paradise” phase-shifts between a Celtic 2-3 clave shuffle and a free-time waltz, calling down a shimmering Nordic aurora, while his pensive “Namas” drifts and glides into an untracked musical stratosphere, shuttling upon the interplanetary electric guitar of Varis. Hence, while Ahma shapes a soundscape intended primarily for contemplation, the music never relinquishes the lively roots of Finnish folk dance from which it coils and springs. Turning tradition inside out, Kalaniemi will take you there.