Jazzahead 2011: April 28 - May 1, 2011
With only two shows and a whole evening, the beauty of the ECM Night was that both groups got to perform full setsunlike most performers at Jazzahead, who were restricted to 30-minute slots, meaning that every second counted. With a purpose of presenting as much music as possible, an audience that ranged from industry folks to fans were able to purchase tickets to attend the event and peruse no shortage of label booths selling their discographies, as well as a couple of vendors selling new and used CDs, vinyl and books. When he played in his native Finland at Tampere Jazz Happening 2010, Kari Ikonen was a member of saxophonist Markus Holkko's quartet, along with über-guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim, it was far more visceral and freewheeling than his Jazzahead showcase with Karikko. But in many ways, the keyboardist's groupwhich already has one album out, 2008's Oceanophonic, with a follow-up imminentdelivered a more satisfying set, even if it was considerably shorter.
Kari Ikonen & Karikko, from left: Kari Ikonen, Vincent Courtois
Ulf Krokfors, Sonny Heinilä, Laurent Blondiau
Ikonen's group included three other FinnsUlf Krokfors (Iro Haarla, Krakatau), replacing Karikko's original bassist, Tony Elgland; drummer Mika Kallio, also a member of Holkko's quartet in Tampere; and flautist/saxophonist Sonny Heinilä, lesser-known, but truly Karriko's hidden treasure. The addition of French cellist Vincent Courtois (Louis Sclavis, Rabih Abou-Khalil) and Belgian trumpeter Laurent Blondiau, who replaced charter member, Norway's Gunnar Halle, turned Karikko into a multinational group, the perfect choice for Jazzahead. Considering the relative proximities of European Union countries (and its few remaining holdouts, like Norway) and their porous borders, there's far less cross-pollination amongst its musicians than people living in North America, with its greater distances and more tightly controlled borders, might expect. So it's encouraging to find groups like this, where the concept of boundaries simply doesn't exist, and each and every member of the group, in addition to the common musical language that links them together, brings the distinct culture of his own country to the mix.
The result, in the case of Ikonen and Karriko, is a blend of clear jazz rootsOceanophonic has hints of Brazilian music, meshed with modal concerns and, at times, a clear sense of swingwith a variety of other interests, and a sonic palette that, considering the instrumentation, was surprisingly electric. In addition to Ikonen's synth and Fender Rhodes, Courtois' cello adopted, at times, a far more aggressive tone that was as much about amplification as it was the cellist's choice of hard-edged lines. Ikonen's choice of synth tones fell into the realm of "love it or hate it," but they were used relatively sparingly (and tastefully), never dominating, as the keyboardist proved as capable and comfortable on a grand piano as he was on anything of the plugged-in variety.
Kari Ikonen (Vincent Courtois in background)
The trumpeter Blondiau was also a captivating player, bringing his broad résumé (Willie Nelson, Lee Konitz, Magik Malik Orchestra) to bear throughout the set. And the combined team of Krokfors and Kallio meant that groove was never an issue when warranted, but that freer concerns were possible, as the quintet moved into more liberated territory on occasion. But as strong as everyone in the group wasand as engaging as Ikonen's detailed writing was, much of it from the forthcoming albumit was Courtois and Heinilä who shone the brightest: Courtois for his stunning sense of invention, whether bowing his cello with near-reckless abandon, or delivering sharp pizzicato lines with lithe dexterity; and Heinilä for his flute work, which, despite its softer tone, was riveting throughout. The combination of cello, trumpet and flute was an unusual but inspired choice, and it gave Karikko a sound all its own.
Norwegian bassist Mats Eilertsen's discography as a leader may be small, but like Krokfors in Finland, his résumé as a band member is much larger, including high profile work on ECM recordings with Jacob Young, Wolfert Brederode, The Source, Thomas Stronen and, perhaps most visibly, with Tord Gustavsen on the pianist's Restored, Returned (2009), which was supported by some North American dates, including a stop at the 2010 Ottawa International Jazz Festival. But, over the course of the past few years, Eilertsenno stranger, either, to more aggro free play with Crimetime Orchestrahas released a series of fine albums under his own name, the most recent being Elegy (Hubro, 2010), a trio date featuring Strønen and Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje. For his Jazzahead 2011 showcase, the bassist reunited the group responsible for 2009's Radio Yonder (Hubro), and it was another case of a short set that did exactly what it was meant to do: generate interest from the familiar and unfamiliar alike.
The quartetEilertsen, saxophonist Tore Brunborg (Masqualero, Tord Gustavsen), guitarist Thomas Dahl (BMX, Dingobats) and drummer Olavi Louhivuori (Tomasz Stańko = 4585}})also appears on Eilertsen's forthcoming SkyDive (Hubro, 2011), due out later in the year, but there fleshed out to a quintet with the addition of Louhivuori's Stańko band mate and fellow Finn, pianist Alexi Tuomarila. Tuomarila was, in fact, at Jazzahead, playing with saxophonist Nicolas Kummert Voices earlier in the day, but Eilertsen chose to focus largely on the quartet and its repertoire from Radio Yonder for his showcase, playing only one new song from SkyDive.
Lyricism dominated the set, whether it was in a rubato tone poem or over a more propulsive groove. Brunborg's profile has been on the upswing the past year or so, also appearing in Ottawa last summer with Gustavsen and Eilertsen, after changing hats quickly from another festival date, just three days earlier, with ECM label mate Manu Katche, after appearing on the drummer's Third Round (2010). Brunborg also appeared on pianist Ketil Bjornstad's Remembrance (ECM, 2010), and his last record as a leader, the critically acclaimed Lucid Grey (DRAVLE, 2009), was a fine entry into saxophone trio territory. His attention to sound and economical approach can draw, perhaps, excessive comparisons to Jan Garbarek, but his sound is warmer, even though it possesses some of the same bite at times. And though his work with Gustavsen is intrinsically restrained, and he's not exactly an expressionistic player, in the context of Eilertsen's group he did let loose a little more, delivering some of the set's most exhilarating moments.
Louhivuori may be the youngster of the group, but he's already proven himself on an international stage, contributing both textural color and firepower in his work with Stańko, especially during the Polish trumpeter's show at the 2010 Ottawa Jazz Festival Improv Series. With Eilertsen, Louhivuori combined fervent forward motion with the kind of comfortable rubato playing that seems a particular purview of his neck of the woods, as he used his hands and mallets to broaden his timbral possibilities. Eilertsen, who also wrote all the material, combined robust tone and unshakable time with perfect choices and, on occasion, a real ability to make his bass sing in ways few can except, perhaps, Sweden's Anders Jormin.
But, as with most shows at Jazzahead, Eilertsen's group featured an artist who, with less international visibility, proved the hidden gem of the set. Dahl may not have the same presence outside Norway, but he's been a busy player at home since the early 1990s, first with KRØYT (an avant/electronica act with then-emerging singer Kristin Asbjørnsen, and a few years later, the more overtly jazz-centric and horn-driven Dingobats, which also featured Eilertsen in his formative years. In those early years, it was easy to hear the influence of Bill Frisell, but Dahl has since subsumed that and other influences, creating fine sonic backdrops ranging from picked arpeggios to broader, sustaining sonics. When given the opportunity, he also demonstrated an ability to patiently build solos from the ground up, most notably during the set's second piece where, innate melodism aside, a simmering sense of tension built almost relentlessly, pushing towards a release that never came.
The quartet also took the opportunity to expand on the relative brevity of the album tracks, stretching the songs so far as to only permit three songs during its 30-minute slot. But half an hour was all that was necessary to capture what Eilertsen and his group was about. With SkyDive set for release in the fall, here's hoping Eilertsen gets to take his group on the road, especially the quintet version with Tuomarila, and with some North American dates to give it the broader exposure it deserves. Fans of Eilertsen's ECM collaborations will, no doubt, be rewarded when given the chance to hear this increasingly ubiquitous bassist's personal take on Nordic lyricism.