Jazz musicians have offered up as many definitions of "jazz composition" as there are notes in a John Coltrane solo. Yet the basic challenge remains: how to find the right balance between improvisation, the lifeblood of jazz, and composed structures. Kari Ikonen, on his Fiasko Records debut Karikko, artfully answers this challenge with a set of organic, graceful compositions in which one cannot tell where his composing ends and improvising begins. He uses spare instrumentation to create an expansive sound, then he uses a larger ensemble to paint subtle Impressionistic moods. Still, he retains a sense of dynamics, rhythmic intensity and vitality.
Ikonen, 29, has already garnered positive critical acceptance of his work. Karikko was given the Jazz-EMMA (Finland's Grammy) as the best Jazz album of 2001. In 2000, the Jazz Composer's Alliance recognized Ikonen's wind ensemble piece, "Luoto", with the Julius Hemphill Composition Award in the jazz orchestra category.
"Luoto" means "islet" in Finnish, and like its namesake, this short piece gently drifts alone, small but surrounded by spaciousness. "Luoto" seemingly materializes out of the mist, trombone and bass sax blowing long, low muted tones, converging with the fluttering flugelhorn and saxophones until merging into a hypnotizing whole for a few moments, then dissolving into the ether whence they came.
Ikonen composes structures that ebb and flow naturally, a characteristic which generates the always important mood of spontaneity. "Erakko" (Hermit) sprouts from Tony Elgland's pizzicato bass intro that slowly winds its way into a bowed duet with cello, forming a stem from which diverges Sonny Heinilä's impassioned tenor sax flowerings. Ikonen's hushed Rhodes commentaries on "Epäkkään kosto" belie Elgland and Mika Kallio's turbulent rhythmic underpinning, which occasionally swells to the surface only to smoothly recede again.
The players' detailed contributions give Ikonen's subtle compositions a unified sound, in both the small combo settings and larger ensembles. The horn section on the opening segment of "Oraakkeli" masterfully builds suspense with a fragmented ensemble phrase. Between the fragments Ikonen intersperses space for delicately brief guitar, trumpet and trombone extemporizations, heightening the sense of mystery. On "Yö kaaliossa" the band suggests a song fabric ready to disintegrate. The rhythm section fades in with a lazy swing that sometimes threatens to stumble to a halt. At moments the horns blow loud brassy big band figures, then slip into the background and make distant, flitting commentary. All the while Ikonen insinuates a strange subterranean layer with Moog flourishes slithering around the edges of melody and rhythm.
On Karikko Ikonen has defined jazz composition in his own terms, a definition that invigorates the jazz tradition. He has created a body of challenging, engaging work that rewards concentrated listening and promises more gifts for the future.