When I think of Finnish jazz, I tend to think of cutting edge electro-acoustic, outside or world fusion jazz. Shame on me, because there’s also prime good ol’ American mainstream acoustic jazz coming out of this Nordic country, and the Kari Ikonen Trio is one excellent case in point.
Pianist Kari Ikonen, along with Ara Yaralyan (double-bass) and Markku Ounaskari (drums), comprise a trio that finds the balance between improvisation and arrangement; between songs and musicianship; between individual acumen and chemistry. They make music that’s at once catchy and complex, and does so without any reliance on technology or merging with other styles, a tactic that’s becoming increasingly rare when you find it successfully executed as they do it.
It’s like that no matter if the material is an Ikonen original or some old standard. Ikonen’s “Bapmgwala” ambles through ambiguous rhythms, a playful piano, and a sharp, readily responsive rhythm section that can swing strongly at any tempo. “Ambivalsante” and “Pacific” are examples of Ikonen’s winding, esoteric and whimsical melodic sense. The former is enhanced by rhythmic shifts and beautifully poetic bass from Yaralyan, both of which add more complexity to the song. The latter feature Yaralyan’s bowed bass and Ounaskari’s tonally pretty cymbal accents, both lightly floating around Ikonen’s melodically focused motions. The way the group is able to modulate the cadence in perfect symmetry on the frisky waltz of “Plumbum,” emulates Chick Corea’s supreme 1968 trio with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes; Ikonen himself masters Corea’s knotty but harmonically sound single note progressions.
The trio handles the covers with the same aplomb, easily molding them into their style. The piano intro used for Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is unrecognizable at first, until Ikonen slips in hints and then gives away the plot when the rhythm section enters. Yaralyan and Ounaskari play free from tempo and Ikonen dances around it in a very playful and teasing way, and the song stumbles up to its climatic end. Gusan Ashot’s “The Testament of My Heart” is not as well known, but Yaralyan’s arrangement does much with this ballad, which begins with his very rangy bass solo and moving into a bowed bass to accompany Ikonen’s piano on this whimsical tune. Back by brushed drums pizzicato bass, Ikonen carries out a solo with real depth and delicacy.
I don’t know that the Kari Ikonen Trio and their Bright album will get the chatter stateside as being among the best acoustic jazz trio records out this year, but it should. Inventive, spright and clever, Bright is not just a good Nordic jazz record, it’s world-class good.