Jazz musicians have longed mined popular song forms. Two legends in particular – Miles Davis and Chet Baker – devoutly explored them. In his biography of Miles Davis, John Szwed ponders their interest: ”They both saw that despite the naive optimism of most pop songs, they were essentially sad; in fact, they formed a long chain of shared anguish, one song linked to another in the deep consciousness of their audience...”
On their TUM Records debut, the Ilmiliekki Quartet taps into this ”chain of shared anguish” with ten intimate and expressive compositions. They movingly interpret two modern songs from Radiohead and Björk, find life in an obscure Ornette Coleman tune, and build stark, gritty moods with originals. With sensitive interaction and the dirty, strangled trumpet of Verneri Pohjola, the quartet at times evokes a vocal ensemble. At others, they sing together as a chorus, four voices intersecting in harmonious dialogue.
On pianist Tuomo Prättälä’s ”Melankolinaa” the group doesn’t so much play together as breathe together. Into the piece’s meditative silences Bassist Antti Lötjönen inhales a beginning and then Prättälä exhales the conclusion, as Pohjola smears penetrating notes over drummer Olavi Louhivuori's rising and receding atmosphere. Coleman’s “What Reason Could I Give” and Radiohead’s “The Tourist” show the band sculpting statuesque, introspective melodies. Pohjola roughs up the downtrodden themes and Prättälä etches dark corners in the harmony while Lötjönen and Louhivuori support and shadow with chiseled strokes.
The quartet expands on its collective ear for potent melody, imagining sweeping cinematic structures that develop contrasting scenes. Lötjönen’s spacious ruminating opens Pohjola’s ”Old May Become New.” Prättälä, Pohjola and percussionist Jaska Lukkarinen strike up an insistent fugal passage, and as the mystery builds bass and ride cymbal are interweaved until the piece bulges with melody. The gentle tension rises, then releases as Pohjola brushes a romantic theme against Louhivuori’s slowly syncopated snare strikes. He injects a new spirit with a meticulously constructed drum interlude joined at its peak by an energized ensemble hitting stentorous unison accents.
Pohjola’s ”Blue Jyväskylä” and Louhivuori’s ”Answer Kalho, Answer” also evolve through episodes. The latter expresses a solitary air as the quartet combines solo, duet and trio voices in a floating dialogue that climaxes in a subdued group statement buoyed up by Lukkarinen’s udu drum. “Blue Jyväskylä” juxtaposes a variety of motifs – Pohjola mourns, Louhivuori thunders, Prättälä and Lötjönen ponders – then synergizes them to generate a simmering clash of moods.
Neither a nostalgic trawl of the past nor an experimental push into the future, March of the Alpha Males both seethes with youthful abandon and muses with thoughtful maturity. the Ilmiliekki Quartet has traveled collectively into the musical spirit of our age and returned with a haunting, dimly lit portrait for the 21st century.