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Mind-bending originality from Jonah Parzen-Johnson

Last updated on January 6, 2022

Helsinki 8.12.18 is a work of mind-bending originality from Jonah Parzen-Johnson. Parzen-Johnson’s oeuvre is baritone saxophone with synthesizer accompaniment; this idea alone should give you a sense of what type of unusual territory we are entering into. On the one hand, Parzen-Johnson does what many musicians of all genres aspire to do: he creates spectacularly interesting soundscapes and populates them with all sorts of sounds and feelings. On the other hand, the first draft of this review had me comparing “You Don’t Get to Finish” to a coastal jungle adventure and “Find the Feeling” to a hardboiled detective narrative. You can compare Parzen-Johnson’s work to less adventurous contemporaries for safe RIYLs, but why would you? This is boundary-smashing, genre-dismissing work of the highest order and if you’re here for that, I’m here for that.

My favorite is opener “Everything is Everything Else,” where Parzen-Johnson’s lead saxophone melody sounds like a lost gospel tune. The warm, phased synthesizers kick in and give that gospel melody a beautiful space to play around in. The results are a surprisingly emotional, surprisingly evocative tune for synthesizer and bari sax. He follows it with three other long pieces that show off various sonic soundscapes: ominous, ambient, percussive dread (“It’s Better If You Don’t”); dense, intricate, pounding post-rock (“Find the Feeling”); and tropical, enigmatic, soundtrack-esque brilliance (“You Don’t Get to Finish”). All of them show off Parzen-Johnson’s main skills: he can wring almost any sound imaginable out of his saxophone, he knows how to place those sounds in context to create strong atmospheres, and he can build to real high-point moments in a piece. If you’re a fan of adventurous, unique, never-heard-that-before type of music, you need to check out Helsinki 8.12.18.