Since I reviewed the Ilmiliekki (“ablaze”) Quartet’s debut March Of The Alpha Males in 2004, the Finnish four-piece are no longer promising young musicians worth keeping an eye on. They’re now fully fledged artists and leaders in their own right, and followers of contemporary jazz simply cannot afford to ignore them.
What hasn’t changed is the group’s embrace of classic post-bop traditions. Nothing about this relaxed and understated set is driven by a pursuit of novelty, and if Pohjola takes the lion’s share of the solo space, Prättälä, Lötjönen and Louhivuori’s simpatico interplay generates an essential edge-of-the-seat sense of tension and suspense.
Each musician contributes at least one composition, and in a nicely balanced programme there’s not a weak link to be found. The off-centre, slightly staggered groove of Lötjönen‘s Three Queens carries a touch of 60s Andrew Hill. Pohjola’s clean Milesian solo is bright and unpredictable, Lötjönen’s dark rubato interlude almost oppressively claustrophobic, while Prättälä’s harmonically daring outing gives this shapeshifter an impressive third wind.
Prättälä’s Sgr A* is a spacious mid-tempo ballad, very European in its freewheeling approach. Pohjola glides through his vast timbral range in a wonderfully constructed solo, while Prättälä‘s tense solo walks the dangerous harmonic and rhythmic tightrope of Lötjönen and Louhivuori’s gameplay.
Just as with 2019’s Land Of Real Men the album includes a seemingly unlikely pop cover. Aila, by Finnish pop group Karina, is an unexpectedly beautiful piece that falls into two distinct halves. The quartet’s dreamy sotto voce exchanges are nothing less than sublime, but as it abruptly explodes into free time, Pohjola’s biting solo will leave warm-blooded listeners whooping for joy.
The insistent pulse of Pohjola’s elegant Follow The Damn Breadcrumbs musters one of the trumpeter’s most searching solos, a masterclass in risk and restraint. But Louhivuori‘s Night Song is probably the one great standout track. Deep and reflective, as its atmosphere slowly builds parallels emerge with Stanko’s landmark quartet with Marcin Wasilewski.
In Prättälä’s Kaleidoscopesque, another piece that gathers momentum as it goes, the quartet’s elliptical exchanges are slowly transformed into a brilliantly vibrant form. It typifies a set characterised by its emotional range, refined group dynamics and unabashed respect for melody. Ilmiliekki Quartet is about as compelling as it gets.
Three Queens; Sgr A*; Aila; Follow The Damn Breadcrumbs; Night Song; Kaleidoscopesque (41.00)
Verneri Pohjola (t); Tuomo Prättälä (p); Antti Lötjönen (b); Olavi Louhivuori (d). Järvenpää, Finland, 25-27 January 2021.
We Jazz Records WJCD/LP 38