Trying to unravel the interconnections and collaborations in jazz is often like code-breaking. Players are likely to be in several groups at a time, they form their own units, perform solo, take a guest spot, record a one-off with new people to keep up that spirit of adventure. The four members of Helsinki’s Ilmiliekki Quartet, Verneri Pohjola (tumpet), Tuomo Prattala (piano), Antti Lotjonen (bass) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums), are no different. Since their group got together two decades ago they have all been involved in an eclectic mix of projects and partnerships, essential contributors to the euro-jazz soundtrack and beyond. But the Ilmiliekki Quartet has a magnetic attraction, a recurring pull that brings the four musicians back together to re-connect with their collective magic.
The Quartet’s new self-titled album, available from 11th February on We Jazz Records and their first since 2019’s ‘Land of Real Men’ yet again underlines the strength of this musical relationship. Writing duties are once more shared between all four members to keep things fresh but with the guarantee of consistency conjured by the four piece’s uncanny intuition. Ilmiliekki Quartet is not about one-upmanship or showboating, the emphasis is on combined dynamics, atmosphere, melody and mood.
You could take any one of the tracks here as evidence of the band’s subtle but scintillating approach. Tuomo Prattala’s ‘Sgr.A’ sees the four piece nurture a warm slow motion ballad with some classic deep-rooted tunefulness. His piano often hugs Pohjola’s trumpet lines tightly, doubling up on the melody’s impact, and then softly falling away to leave the brass player’s hovering minimal notes. It’s graphic music, Ilmiliekki Quartet sketching out a dim-lit late night corner blues that closes with a haunting echo fade. ‘Night Song’, written by drummer Olavi Louhivuori, reverses the process without lessening the effect. The opening Jon Hassellesque atmospherics use a Fourth World fusion of pattering piano strings and rattling percussion as a backdrop then overlay it with hypnotic trumpet yearning. The resolution comes with a conventional song-line to close the track, exquisitely articulated by Pohjola and Prattala’s connecting melody and chords.
Elsewhere on the album, Ilmiliekki Quartet’s focus shifts to more rhythmic possibilities although with a compositional purpose that steps beyond any need to simply raise the temperature. Opening track ‘Three Queens’ eases into an insistent but fluid post-bop swing, all skitters, jitters and understated tension. The tune’s architect Antti Lotjonen spiders his bass strings urgently throughout, guiding the band across the cymbal washed mid-section and onto a closing roll of chords that almost shudder without restraint. ‘Follow The Damn Breadcrumbs’ raises the pulse a little further with its uptight staccato riff beating against Pohjola’s probing exploration of single note possibilities. It’s an impressive juxtaposition, a demonstration of how to create a sense of foreboding without the tried and tested bangs and crashes.
As on previous releases unsuspecting source material goes through the Ilmiliekki Quartet remix to find itself in a different dimension. This time they take Finnish indie band Karina’s floaty dream pop song ‘Aila’ and hone in on its drifting, misty tunefulness. Pohjola’s breathy trumpet leads with a vocal quality and delicate whisper before isolating the rising peak of the melody with a heart aching swoon. Neither is the crunchy closing rise of Karina’s original lost on the band. It may be deconstructed in characteristic Ilmiliekki style but the quartet do so with care and attention to detail to heighten the finale’s surging sense of loss.
For a record rooted in slow movement and the need to pause, the final track comes around all too quickly. ‘Kaleidoscopesque’ is, well, kaleidoscopesque. A tune that refracts and circulates themes with an almost dizzying frequency without losing shape or impact is some achievement. From a gently padding opening, all bass harmonics and glissandos, to a light soul sway then gorgeous rumba, from the unraveling piano solo to the final hushed fade, the track confirms that Ilmiliekki Quartet rarely resort to noodling. Here is a band that brings the listener a sense of fulfilment that recalls EST at their most masterful.
At a time when scale of sound and rhythmic drive pushes so much nu-jazz to the fore, it’s so refreshing to hear something equally dynamic and essentially moving that draws on slightly different ingredients. To file away as conventional, or refined, or the dreaded chamber jazz misses the whole point of Illmiliekki Quartet’s music here. The album requires time and space, it rewards listening and undoubtedly deserves it, over and over and over….
The Ilimiliekki Quartet album is available now. Check your local independent record store or order direct from: https://wejazzrecords.bandcamp.com/album/ilmiliekki-quartet