Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Ilmiliekki Quartet...

Finland is a small country sandwiched between Northern Sweden and Russia. I've only been there once and remember little, if anything, about it. True, I was under 5 years old at the time, and although I'd love to visit Helsinki I just haven't got round to it yet.

This small insular nation excels not just in motor sports, but also in the arts - be it the symphonies of Jean Sibelius or the contemporary design of Marimekko.

This is just flannel. Needless pre-amble. Finland will forever be synonymous with the great Edward Vesala, the late jazz maverick who did as much for walrus mustaches as any man since Otto von Bismarck.

There is little of Vesala's midas touch about this release, though you could hear a lot worse. Ultimately, you've just got to love both the gorgeous sleeve (no apologies for posting it large) and that great album title...

March Of The Alpha Males
TUM (CD 006)

ICO; Anchor Song; Old May Become New; Answer Kahlo, Answer; Monastery; March Of The Alpha Males; Melankolinaa; Blue Jyvvaskyla; The Tourist; What Reason Could I Give.

Verneri Pohjola (t, melodica); Tuomo Prattala (p); Antti Lotjonnen (b); Olavi Louhivouri (d); Jaska Lukkarinen (perc)

Ilmiliekki, which translates from the Finnish as ‘open fire’ or ‘full blaze’, could lead listeners to anticipate another young Scandinavian outfit competing in the same free-jazz inferno as The AALY Trio or Raoul Bjorkenheim’s Scorch Trio. Yet despite the name, it’s clear from the opening bars that the disc’s title is also ironic. Describing their music as ‘meditative’ and ‘impressionistic’ improvisation, they occupy that very European place where free-jazz crosses the paths of both classical and folk musics. Enrico Rava and Tomasz Stanko were perfecting the blueprint while these lads were still wearing nappies. Yet Ilmiliekki, all well under the age of 30, have so much individuality that you can’t help but applaud. A determination to play the music closest to their hearts - material by Björk and Radiohead is presented alongside a classic Ornette Coleman dirge and a smattering of their own compositions - also suggests that they’re not about to settle for comfortingly familiar safety-nets.

The opening bars of ‘ICO’ give a misleading first impression, setting the listener up for an hour of Northern European claustrophobia. Piano and melodica state a funereal theme before the gloom is dramatically dispelled. From nowhere a galloping groove emerges to fan the embers and Pohjola’s Miles-ian trumpet truly smokes. The group’s choice of name suddenly seems to be more appropriate. Björk’s ‘Anchor Song’ receives the full Nordic free-ballad treatment but fails to convince as a potential standard for the future. By contrast, Radiohead’s ‘The Tourist’ offers far more possibilities and could well catch on with the post-EST generation of improvisers.

The tongue-in-cheek title track, played in stiff military march time gradually sabotaged by guest percussionist Lukkarinen’s increasingly anarchic clatter is both hilarious and refreshingly unselfconscious in its use of irony. ‘Old May Become New’ and ‘Answer Kahlo, Answer’ are the two pieces that best illustrate this ensemble’s greatest virtue - the ability to combine complex compositional structures with simple accessibility. Not to be outdone by the Radiohead piece, Ornette’s melancholy anthem is chosen to bring this fine debut album to a suitably solemn close. All in all, a genuine breath of fresh air, and there’s plenty to suggest life after Vesala in Finnish contemporary jazz.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, June 2004)

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