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KalevIi Hämäläinen Group’s debut album, First Days of Summer, is one I’ve had for review for quite some time, yet have never managed to put down words for it. The one major reason for this is that every time I have decided to do so, I’ve ended up just listening to the album, and losing myself in the music. I think this is largely due to the way this year has turned out, and First Days of Summer has provided an effective antidote to some of the more depressing aspects of 2020. This album from the Finnish fusion musicians is a breezy and refreshing blast of summery jazz that effortlessly removes me from the here and now, and transports me to a happy place.
Mostly in major keys, the compositions of Kalevi Hämäläinen Group are uplifting, energetic, refreshing, and overwhelmingly positive. The piano playing of Kalevi Hämäläinen is reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi, being deceptively simple, yet sophisticated, incredibly melodic and approachable, and with just the right amount of repetition to instantly engage, without becoming stale. The mix of improvisation and composition is also just right. In fact, everything about this release is just right. The group took some years after their formation to record their debut album because they wanted it to be perfect, and that dedication and care has paid off.
Grasshopper starts off with an incredibly bouncy rhythm section that is instantly infectious, before the piano takes the lead, and runs with a particularly gorgeous and engaging melody. Full of joie de vivre, I find this number to be irresistible, and where every intent to review the album has fallen away until now. In fact, I have made the deliberate decision to begin listening to the album from the second track today, as otherwise I know these words would never be written, as I’d be off with the grasshopper. Grasshopper is definitely the right piece to open an album dedicated to summer with, as it is full of feelings of freedom, liberation and playfulness. I’ve never experienced a warm Finnish summer under the midnight sun, but this music speaks of summer to me. In this regard, First Days of Summer is a more effective concept album than many others that attempt to tell a story with words. This album, with only music, fully evokes the theme of summer.
Flying Desires continues the high tempo, energetic feel of Grasshopper to begin with, before becoming more relaxed. Kalevi Hämäläinen’s breezy piano again dominates, but there’s no denying the impact of the rhythm section of Ilmari Hämäläinen (drums) and Valtteri Rouhiainen (bass), who deftly groove along with the twists and turns in the music. The grooves become even more relaxed with Exit 68. It’s quite a change of tempo, and almost too relaxed for me. However, just before the point of no return, there’s a shift…
Juho Koskivirta’s guitar is subtle and understated. His delicate and airy presence is not often put at the forefront, but when it is (as it is in Exit 68), it shines. Indeed, the extended guitar passage in Exit 68 uplifts the piece enormously, and is my favourite part of the track. It’s moments like that guitar passage that help First Days of Summer really feel like a group effort. Despite the compositions and arrangements being by Kalevi Hämäläinen, there are significant contributions from all members of the group, which stand out. The gentle guitar solo in Exit 68 is just one example of this.
Sense of Urban is quite incredible to me, for having that urban sense evoked so well. There are squalls and dirty sounds and I can almost smell the hot tarmac. This is definitely summer in the city, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the concrete jungle, before heading into a more pastoral Midnight Sun. Time to unwind during long, languid evenings. Although it doesn’t remain entirely relaxed and tranquil, as Juho Koskivirta adds some real colour to the palette with another great solo, that absolutely soars! The final passage of this number is simply sublime. Easily one of the most beautiful on the album.
For Better Times is the only track on this album which doesn’t do a lot for me. I don’t dislike it at all, but compared to the remainder of the album, it just doesn’t reach the same heights. Those heights are reached again, though, with the following Phellooti, which spiral up dizzily into the sky. It reminds me quite a bit of the more jazzy moments of Polish prog band Osada Vida, and it is definitely the most rocking number on the album. Strangely, though, I don’t enjoy the guitar solo so much here, even though it is a more natural placement than in Exit 68 and Midnight Sun. Perhaps this is because it provides a far greater contrast in those numbers, and therefore has far greater effect. It’s a rollicking great tune, nevertheless, and has an absolutely beautiful finale, which leads perfectly into the title track.
First Days of Summer starts with some delicate piano, almost melancholy (the first moment on the album where the music is not unambiguously joyful). I do say almost though, as there is still a palpable positivity and optimism to the notes. This is borne out when the rest of the band bounces in. I love the space and expansiveness of this piece. It’s definitely a case of less is more, with the group knowing the importance of which notes not to play. And while I love Kalevi Hämäläinen’s playing throughout the album, he’s saved the best for last with the title track. Despite having the longest track length on the album, this number is over far too quickly. And just like that, Summer is over, leaving you wanting more. There’s nothing really to do, except to skip back to the start and listen again…
01. Grasshopper (6:04)
02. Flying Desires (5:13)
03. Exit 68 (6:51)
04. Sense of Urban (7:37)
05. Midnight Sun (7:18)
06. For Better Times (4:49)
07. Phellooti (5:42)
08. First Days of Summer (7:51)
Total Time – 51:25
Kalevi Hämäläinen – Piano
Ilmari Hämäläinen – Drums
Juho Koskivirta – Guitar
Valtteri Rouhiainen – Bass
Record Label: Eclipse Music
Country of Origin: Finland
Date of Release: 24th April 2020