Live at Finlandia Hall, Helsinki 1972 by Sonny Rollins with Heikki Sarmanto TrioRelease date: June 2, 2023
Label: Svart Records
From 1969 to 1971, saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins embarked on a second sabbatical from public performing. Around that time frame, Rollins visited Jamaica and studied yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophy in the district of Mumbai, India.
After he came back from his sabbatical that same year, he performed in Kongsberg, Norway while releasing his 1972 album the following year on the Milestone label simply titled, Next Album, which featured keyboardist George Cables, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummers David Lee and Jack DeJohnette (on two tracks), and percussionist Arthur Jenkins (on two tracks as well).
He was then invited to Finland during the summer in the same year. Sonny played a concert at the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki with the Heikki Sarmanto Trio. Recorded by the YLE (The Finnish Broadcasting Company), this concert was one of the highlights to show Rollins on top of his game. He also handpicked Sarmanto and his trio which considered Heikki’s brother Pekka on double bass, and the late Esko Rosnell on drums.
The music from this show has the magic, the beauty, and the structure. It proved that Rollins and the Sarmanto trio, are bringing all of these ingredients to the performance that Summer. Two standards and one composition by Rollins, he and the trio, are proving to audiences that jazz is more than just a four-letter word.
After a spoken introduction, they delve into Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ as Sonny blares through a beautiful construction of the spiritual guidance of John Coltrane’s take of ‘My Favorite Things’. You can just imagine Rollins dancing to the rhythm section from Rosnell’s intensive drum exercise as he guides them to follow the saxophonist by keeping the pace going.
I can imagine the audience were in awe, watching these incredible musicians bringing the sound of jazz into the heart of Finland. Yet with such crafted textures, Rollins isn’t letting go of his sax during the first track. He’s going up and down the stairs to make sure he doesn’t miss a beat while the trio are ready to take turns on their improv.
Heikki and Pekka are involved in a duel between each other. It’s not just a race, but showing that the band of brothers have each other’s back, creating a lushful concerto-sque structure that bears to mind; Wigwam’s Fairyport, Eumir Deodato, Joe Zawinul, and Dave Holland.
Not only there’s the Bitches Brew section that’s on the recording of ‘Night and Day’, but elements of Mike Ratledge’s arrangements from the Fusion years during the post-Wyatt era of the Soft Machine. Once Rosnell joins in on the fun, the gloves are finally off. This is how you improvise with stronger attitudes and bringing down the thunder to unbelievable momentum.
After going through an incredible beginning, they take a relaxing situation on the 1954 popular song, Guy Wood’s ‘My One and Only Love’. You can just close your eyes and imagine it’s the 1950s where the jazz scene in Paris is rising.
It’s a quarter ‘til midnight, and picture the scenery of the Sarmanto trio and Rollins themselves, are in this smoky nightclub, playing this rendition in a Monk-sque tone thanks to Heikki’s tribute to the master. He hypnotises his electric keyboard, to do a tap-dancing motif for a brief moment before the brushes and double bass come at you in a nanosecond.
Then, they close off the show with Rollins’ ‘St. Thomas’ as they bring the light and energy of the R&B genre in Helsinki. You can hear almost aspects of Sam Cooke and Jerry Butler’s ‘Wonderful World’ and ‘He Will Break Your Heart’ (which featured Curtis Mayfield on backing vocals) rolled into one. I can tell that Rollins was listening to those two songs for admiration by making sure that the Soul sound is riveting throughout the number. Not to mention a bossa-nova beat which makes it more fun and enjoyable.
While I’m not an aficionado of Rollins’ work, I have to appreciate what is on this live recording in Helsinki. It made me open my eyes more about what Sonny Rollins was doing during that time frame when he came back from his Sabbatical for the second time.
It shows that he is having a ball with the Heikki Sarmanto Trio and letting them have the time of their lives at the venue. And boy is this a live recording that you want to have in your jazz collection. If you’re very new to Rollins’ music, this is a start.