Karikko: Variations on a Theme

Matthew Wuethrich By

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Jyväskylä, Finland
November 14, 2003

Ever since bebop and its progeny hard bop, jazz compositions have been vehicles built for soloing. Composers have written relatively simple unison melodies based on some kind of chord progression, both complex and simple. With some notable exceptions, in jazz compositions form (the melody/song structure) has generally followed function (the solo). Finnish pianist Kari Ikonen is working from the opposite direction, exploring the possibilities of powerful themes for smaller jazz ensembles. It therefore fits that his working group Karikko performs in the Finnish Conservatory’s main concert space in Jyväskylä, because they develop the musical elements more frequently associated with classical music: dynamics, mood, ensemble colors and interpreting written passages. But the sextet combines these elements with jazz’s essentials: rhythmic vitality and spontaneous interplay.

”Keijukki” lilts along on the thrusting rhythm set up by drummer Mika Kallio and bassist Tony Elgland. Kallio’s light cymbal work joins with Elgland’s active lines to create a beat that is more pulsing then metric while Sonny Heinilä’s flute dances along backed by Ikonen’s intricate comping. At points Heinilä and Kallio drop out to make space for a dense descending duet passage between bass and piano. The passage sounds scored but feels improvised, like much of Ikonen’s writing.

Ikonen’s compositions are short, all timing in between 4-6 minutes, but such lengths are not a product of short solos or unfinished ideas. Rather, Ikonen’s melodies are so strong that they leave little room for wild embellishment. The compositions challenge the musicians by restraining them. With such limits they cannot rest on standard techniques or their standard soloing devices. Every note and each phrase must adhere to Ikonen’s luxuriant themes. “Neptunus,” a drum-less piece, floats along as a sonorous cloud as each voice emerges for a moment to enrich the melody, then recedes back into the group voice.

The ensemble voicings and combinations can change from performance to performance, each change altering the mood. Tonight “Neptunus” drifts sadly with Ikonen on melodica, but in the past it has sounded oddly futuristic by featuring a Moog synthesizer. Osmo Ikonen’s aching cello tone and Heinilä’s full-bodied tenor bring more weight to “Kuru,” a tune that has before used the more delicate combo of guitar and soprano sax. Trumpeter Jarkko Hakala uses his low, dirty tone to change “Erakko” into an even more introspective piece than on Karikko's debut album .

”Azure” and “Kolme Medusaa” most strikingly highlight how Ikonen has succeeded in fusing the rich dynamics of classical music with jazz’s propulsive beat. On the latter, Elgland repeats a spacious bass figure as Kallio pushes forward on his ride cymbal, double-timing the beat. They pull the music in two directions and short, unison theme statements from the cello, flute and trumpet pull in yet another. There is nearly no soloing, but the group captures that delicious tension between rhythm and melody so central to jazz.

”Azure” creates the perfect end to the evening. Kallio sets the piece up by turning his toms and snare into lively melodic voices, then Elgland injects an even deeper layer of melodic rhythm. With his blistering yet meticulous lines he represents Karikko’s music in a microcosm. At first he plays what sounds like a traditional walking bass line but then it mutates into an intricate melody; he is not suggesting chords for the soloists, he is actively contributing to the group’s theme while furiously propelling them. The piece becomes a dizzying swirl of pulsating, expressive colors.

Karikko compresses the grandeur of classical music into a small jazz combo and hearken back to the early days of jazz, where the melody was never more than a stone’s throw away. Along the way, they underline a central feature of improvising: it is not about freedom; it is about being creative within a defined space. Ikonen has defined a fertile space of his own, and Karikko eloquently expresses it with him.

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