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Kari Ikonen: Bright and The Helsinki Suite

John Ephland By

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Enter the album name here Kari Ikonen Trio
Bright
Ozella Music
2013

The 40-year-old Finnish keyboardist Kari Ikonen—first heard by this reviewer in a live context in his native homeland with another, much more open and unconventional trio Slo Motive—lets his jazz chops shine, his groove glisten and his range within the music flourish with these two releases. From the first bars of Bright with his frolicking swinger "Bapmgwala" it becomes apparent that Ikonen can be both lyrical and slightly mysterious, not to mention show write. Augmented by bassist Ara Yaralyan's surprise, tender arco lines and the tasteful pulse of drummer Markku Ounaskari, this opener sets the stage for a eight-tune journey that includes mostly originals with fresh, fitting, slightly quirky covers of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Jule Styne's "I Fall In Love Too Easily," "Steps" full of hops, skips and jumps, "I Fall" a kind of slow descent that massages the loveliness out of that blues that isn't a blues.

The subtleties come, in part, from the group's melding of European jazz influences with more standard American jazz sensibilities laced with folk elements that include traditional Armenian strains. Hence, whatever makes for the somewhat obscured melody of "Ambivalsante" suggests ambivalence, to be sure, but also more lush lyricism in the form of a ballad that contains selective sparks. Gushan Ashot's quiet "The Testament Of My Heart" and dervish-like "Trance Oriental" both speak to this Armenian flourish in ways that seem embedded within, again, the standard jazz trio form even as fellow Armenian Yaralyan's keening bass lines create a fourth voice through his cello-like bowing. The afterglow of the beautiful, delicate, dreamy "Pacific" closes out this program in the spirit of a moonlit night. Throughout Bright, one gets the sense that freedom runs through three who know each others' moves instinctively. The music is bright as in light, defying gravity in very musical ways.

Kari Ikonen & Karikko
The Helsinki Suite
Eclipse Music
2011

With The Helsinki Suite we get even more of Ikonen's pen on display, this time across six numbers with a treatment of Duke Ellington's "Prelude To A Kiss," again the standard a fitting, if quirky, addition to this fairly idiosyncratic set. The suite is geared around a sextet with sonics that upend the format in very tasteful ways. Part of the allure comes from Ikonen's range to include some Fender Rhodes and moog treatments, heard from the start with the jazzy overture "Harmaja," which also features the vivid reeds of Sonny Heinila. Classical flourishes color the up-tempo swinger "Too Many Times," Ikonen's piano now on display, the tune containing sudden tempo shifts as when Vincent Courtois's cello introduces elements of airy mystery amid a quiet, swinging grind. Laurent Blondiau's trumpet forcefully navigates the uneven, haltering emotional contours of "Kafe Moskva" followed by some loose funky Rhodes from Ikonen. "Bossa Novaya Zemlya" is Cal Tjader meets horn charts and playful/loopy solos meeting splashes of hip-hop, "Bossa" a window, perhaps, into the city's cosmopolitan flavors. "Segundo Tango Alegre," the most classical piece in the suite, hints at what is truly possible for Ikonen as he employs all the instrumental tools in his kit, the melody multi-layered, the sounds textured, the slow movements unresolved.

Bright

Tracks: Bapmgwala; Ambivalsante; The Testament Of My Heart; Plumbum; Giant Steps; I Fall In Love Too Easily; Trance Oriental; Pacific.

Personnel: Kari Ikonen, piano; Ara Yaralyan, bass; Markku Ounaskari, drums.

The Helsinki Suite

Tracks: Harmaja; Too Many Times; Circular; Kafe Moskva; Prelude To A Kiss; Bossa Novaya Zemlya; Segundo Tango Alegre.

Personnel: Kari Ikonen, piano, Fender Rhodes, moog; Sonny Heinila, flute, alto flute, tenor saxophone; Laurent Blondiau, trumpet; Vincent Courtois, cello; Ulf Krokfors, bass; Mika Kallio, drums.

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