Longtime fans of the brilliant, critically acclaimed Estonian duo of guitarist Robert Jürjendal and trumpet/corno da caccia player Aleksei Saks – collectively known as UMA – must have thrown a bunch of coins in a gift-giving fountain, hoping for a deeply soulful, playfully melodic, richly reflective and rhythmically eclectic new set of tunes. Because at a juncture where we collectively need it most after a most challenging, anxiety filled year, the two musicians have released Wishing Well, their first album in eight years.
From the gentle, lyrical and easy grooving opening title track through the ambient and deeply meditative moods of “Beyond Skyline,” the duo – whose group name means “own” in the South Estonian Seto dialect – once again creates a master class in that sacred space where new age, chill, electronica and the classic ECM Records jazz aesthetic join together to create an immersive and transcendent experience.
For those new to the UMA experience, a little colorful history is in order. Jürjendal and Saks met in the later 2000s after a recording project where Saks was the producer, recording improvising Estonian guitar players for a DVD. Being familiar with ECM recordings, he was looking for an opportunity to move away from traditional forms of jazz towards more open improvisations. Jürjendal at the time was using looping and live electronics. In their early concerts, they improvised freely, mixing in free form tunes with more melodic pieces written by the guitarist. On their quick flurry of early recordings, starting with Civitas Soli (2008), they vibed with producers Markus Reuter, Robert Rich and Andi Pupato to build the final sound and mix. Over the next five years, they released a flurry of dynamic albums: Hymn To Undiscovered Land (2010), Meeting Unknown (2012) and Peidus pool, with the singer Iris Oja (2013).
UMA’s approach has evolved to some degree in the intervening years leading to Wishing Well. The duo moved towards what Saks calls a “lighter sound picture, involving a very natural and open drummer. We are using less disturbed, clear though still processed sounds. The compositions have specific melodies and written chords, composed by each of us separately in equal amounts. As we are very much a live band, playing together in a variety of situations helped us further develop the duo feeling over the years. The concept on Wishing well was to record rather short melodic tunes, most of which were written a year or two before recording took place.”
Elaborating further: These clear melodic lines are supported by acoustic guitar with synchronized electronic sounds, rhythmically driven by variously accented drums. Saks creates the melody and harmony on piano, and later adjusts it for the trumpet or horn (corno da caccia, or flugelhorn) because these instruments have very different approaches for melodies and sounds. The rhythms and chords are then adapted for guitar by Jürjendal.
The guitarist says, “Compared to our previous albums, the music on Wishing Well sounds quite equal in live and studio situations.It’s more acoustic, focused on beautiful melodies, supported by tasty harmonies and rhythmic grooves. Beside a semi acoustic Breedlove custom which is tuned in fifths, I'm also playing a traditional classical guitar in standard tuning which I haven't done on UMA records before.
Often in instrumental music, artists tend to offer generic pretty titles that seem to be chosen randomly rather than reflect the true spirit of the music. The often simple but unique titles of the ten tracks on Wishing Well support UMA’s overall vision and desire to create a sense of calmness, tranquility and reflection of universal beauty. Some of these, like the intimate and soothing “Pilgrim’s Path” (which features a seductive swirl of graceful acoustic guitar, a wafting horn melody and subtle drum brushes) and the lighthearted and whimsical “Lightness of a Soul” feel spiritual in nature.
Others, like the spirited, jazzy “Lost a Dream,” the breathy and haunting “Longing” and the moody, immersive “My Days,” feel designed to tap into our memories to celebrate their joys and reflect on their sorrows - hopefully leading to a better understanding of our past and what our future may hold. Two other gems worth noting are the plucky and whimsical “Old Diaries,” driven along with a marching beat; and the hypnotic, soundscape rich trumpet and synth romp “Petite Ouverture a Danser.”
As with many recordings coming out during this time of fresh hopeful light after the darkest days of the pandemic, Wishing Well’s cool, inviting rhythms, tones and intricate textures offer a sonic space to take stock of our lives and gather courage, kindness and compassion and a spirit of hope for the road ahead. Saks says, “We really hope our record will help people find a balance point in their minds and start growing positive energy for the future.”
Jürjendal adds: “Composing and recording melodic music during such a critical time is certainly healthy for ourselves. I hope that our listeners will take this music as a remedy which makes their mind stronger in this complicated world. Sometimes difficulties make you work.. I think it has been good timing to record Wishing Well for release in 2021.”