Bassist Kaisa Mäensivu formed her ensemble Kaisa’s Machine in 2015 and made her debut with the group in 2017 on the tight-knit, imaginative In the Key of K. In the midst of this, in 2016, she moved from her native Finland to New York, and thus began a process of artistic growth and transformation. She earned her master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music, studying with the likes of Dave Liebman and Ron Carter. And though she brought new players into her orbit, she kept the Kaisa’s Machine name, landing on Dave Douglas’ prestigious Greenleaf Music label for the follow-up release Taking Shape, her first album as a New Yorker.
“This album represents a new, progressive and hard-hitting direction in my music that is a reflection of New York,” says Mäensivu. “I was more of a straightahead bassist when I moved here, but the city has changed me as a player and composer. I feel like this music captures the magic of New York, where we all have this symbiotic language and the atmosphere is open to new things.”
The lineup on Taking Shape, she adds, “is a perfect and fresh mix of old and new musical relationships, including people I’ve played with ever since moving here (drummer Joe Peri) and some incredible new members (Sasha Berliner, Tivon Pennicott) that I played with only once or twice with before this session. Pianist Eden Ladin, too, was someone I’d played with in a more traditional standards setting, but I knew he would capture the vibe of my music right away. Max Light has been in the NYC version of this band since the beginning — I’d been wanting to add guitar to the lineup for a while, and Max’s sound was exactly what I was looking for.”
The combined piano/guitar chemistry is a consistent feature throughout Taking Shape, as Light and Ladin seamlessly tackle Mäensivu’s soaring melodies and intricate ensemble parts. Light, first runner-up in the 2019 Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Guitar Competition, plays with clarity and fire throughout — his solo on “Better Intentions” is especially intense. Ladin’s unaccompanied piano on the interlude “III” is resplendent, and he keeps that inspiration flowing for his solos on “Shadow Mind” and “Sizzler.”
Pennicott, a leader in his own right with sideman credits including Gregory Porter and Esperanza Spalding, brings bracing solo chops and tremendous richness of tone to the five tracks on which he appears. His solo on the brisk “Floating Light” and ethereal echo effects on the slow, stretched out funk of “Aurora Unbound” are key highlights. Sasha Berliner, the poll-winning vibraphonist, with two acclaimed releases to her credit, fills out the dense and dramatic “Dream Machine” and is heard to great effect as the sole chordal instrument (no piano) on the fast odd-meter piece “Gravity.”
Mäensivu’s writing is richly emotive and demanding, though her playing is just as deep and frequently in the foreground: her fullness of tone and attack is immediately evident on the brief opening intro and in every solo she plays. Her bass solo on “Dream Machine,” she points out, is the transition that “brings the listener effortlessly from a soft and pretty field of flowers to a chaotic cityscape.” Her arco part on “Sink or Swim” interweaves with Light’s guitar almost like a classical invention, laying the groundwork for Peri’s explosive drum breaks toward the end.
All through Taking Shape there’s a sense of story, a sonic richness and surprise. With Kaisa’s Machine, Mäensivu has found the ideal platform to realize her vision. The music aims to be relatable in its pureness — sometimes bouncy and groovy, celebrating with you, other times making you ponder all the mysteries and tragedies of life on our planet. Playing bass is Kaisa’s way of dealing with it all. Her group has performed at Ronnie Scott’s in London, Smalls in New York, and the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland. The band was selected to represent Finland in the Nordic Jazz Showcase in Paris in December 2019. Kaisa’s Machine will be touring in Europe in June, July, August and October in support of Taking Shape. Stay tuned!
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