More than most other instruments, the jazz vocal tradition has resisted change. Some vocalists, like Kurt Elling, Cassandra Wilson, Phil Minton, and Irene Abei with Steve Lacy, have expanded the technique and repertory of the voice, but they are a minority. The songbook for vocalists, comprised mostly of popular standards, and vocal technique, like scat solos and an emphasis on blues phrasing, still dominate the art. On One Note Stories
, its debut album, Warp! makes an attempt to invigorate the song tradition.
On the nine pieces here, eight of which were composed by keyboardist Aki Rissanen, the young Finnish quartet fuses the muted (at times too much so) dynamics of chamber music with a sensitive and integrated use of electronic keyboards and a Steinway grand. Eeppi Ursin, who also penned all the lyrics, sings more like a classical vocalist. On each piece she displays an impressive range and phrases strings of clean, vibrato-less notes with crystalline clarity.
Acting as perfect accompanists, Rissanen, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, and percussionist Joonas Riippa build measured, delicate accompaniment around Ursin's hushed, yet strong vocals. Riippa utilizes all the colors of his kit, plus selected percussive devices, while Pohjloa, with his breathy sound and juxtapositions of spittley bursts of notes and held tones, shadows Ursin's innocent voice like a dirtied, yet emphatic stalker.
Unfortunately, the accompanist manner spills over too much into the solo passages, making the album feel in places too subdued, too polite. The dissonant chords at the end of Rissanen's solo on "High Expectations lose their weight, and what could have been an intense transition to Riippa's solo falls flat.
The opening Blind Desert sets the mood of restraint for the entire record, as Rissanen gently places frozen chords in space, with ample room for silence. Riippa does not enter until two minutes into the piece, and only then slowly, piecing together a rich rhythm of resonating ride cymbal and full, rounded snare accents. Throughout, the quartet evolves its songs with a similar compositional flair.
"Absence of You weaves in modern electronic gestures, like a subterranean bass synth and layers of ringing Fender Rhodes. Latin-derived rhythms, like Rissanen's Chucho Valdez-meets-Keith Jarrett piano riff on "Haute Couture and Riippa's percussive engine on "Gokkuru, provide launching pads for more emphatic, electric improvisation.
Another way Warp! indicates its willingness to push at the barriers of jazz vocal tradition is by treating the album as a studio product. The group makes limited, but effective use of overdubbing, especially on "Absence of You, on which Ursin contrasts her plaintive lyrics with whispers and R&B-tinged wordless vocalizing.
The whispered echoes appear again when the quartet interprets Björk's "Joga. They accentuate the harmonic changes by slowing down the tempo and inserting heavy pauses. Musically it works beautifully, but dramatically it pulls out the guts of the piece. They trade the emotional catharsis of the original for a distant mood of abject cool.
Personnel: Aki Rissanen: Steinway grand piano, Fender Rhodes, synthesizers, programming,
percussion; Eeppi Ursin: vocals; Verneri Pohjola: trumpet; Joonas Riippa: drums,