Chicago Reader

Local saxophonist Juli Wood pays homage to her Finnish roots on her new album

by Peter Margasak

August 21, 2015

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that my favorite recording by trumpeter Art Farmer was his stunning 1964 album To Sweden With Love (Atlantic), a lyrical quartet session inspired by a tour his group took through the country mentioned in the album’s title. I’ve read differing accounts about where the concept came from—either a producer suggested it, or Farmer himself conceived the notion of playing Swedish folk songs in a jazz mode, after hearing some local players do just that while he was touring there—but in the end it hardly matters. Joined by a superb band including guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Pete LaRoca, Farmer—always an excellent, supermelodic balladeer—found a perfect repertoire for his sensual, pretty improvising, and his cohorts masterfully balanced swinging propulsion and lean, precise harmonic execution.

Chicago saxophonist Juli Wood is clearly a fan of that Farmer album as well. Today is the release date of an impressive quartet album called Synkkä Metsä (OA2)—the title is Finnish for “dark forest”—which was inspired by the Farmer album. The mixture of Finnish, Karelian, and Aland Islands traditional songs are probably more ingrained in Wood’s makeup than those Swedish melodies were for Farmer, though—her grandparents were all Finnish immigrants. Supported by a terrific band that mirrors the instrumentation of Farmer’s cohorts—guitarist Alejandro Urzagaste, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Mike Schlick—and beautifully recorded with a roomy two-mike setup by Ken Christianson, the album is a lovely slow-burner and its conceptual focus offers a better look at Wood’s talents than anything she’s done yet.

The melodies are tender and earthy, and the direct arrangements present the essence of the songs with little fuss. Schlick and Sommers carve out deep, rolling grooves that provide a consistent, thoughtful cushion for Wood and Urzagaste’s improvisations. The performances have a classic postbop approach; in fact, if the liner notes didn’t explain the provenance of the material, you might not have any idea these are Finnish songs. But sometimes novelty or originality don’t matter when the playing is strong and heartfelt. Wood’s tenor is marked by a warm, grainy sound smeared by a lovely breathiness, and it feels much more relaxed and nuanced here than it has on earlier work I’ve heard by her. You can check out the album’s opening piece, “Lapin Äidin Kehto Laulu (Lapland Mother’s Cradle Song”) below.

Wood is performing next Thursday as part of the Made in Chicago series in Millennium Park, coleading a band with Chicago expat Caroline Davis. Together they’re reimagining Max Roach’s influential, politically charged 1960 album Freedom Now Suite!, which they’ve dubbed We REInsist!, a clear reference to the heightened civil rights struggle led by the Black Lives Matter movement. They lead a band that includes trumpeter Marquis Hill, saxophonist Ari Brown, pianist Ron Perrillo, trombonist Tom Garling, singer Maggie Brown, bassist Dennis Carroll, and drummer Greg Artry.