Three saxes, a hyperactive synth player, a drummer who doesn't use much cymbal, and clustonic principles applied to tone rows. What's not to love?
“I was most certainly following some very strict compositional rules in writing ‘A Panoramic View from the Top Floor’ but, rather than getting too theoretical about it, would like to describe the view instead...”
So writes Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen, neatly summing up what makes his noisy jazz album Clustrophy so lovable. Though the guy’s on some next-level theoretical wavelengths, he rarely settles for dry academic technique, preferring to grip listeners with thematic tone poems or violent skronk. Poetic case in point: “Panoramic View” makes you feel like you’re surveying some hazy cityscape in which little is moving but the clouds. Seppo Kantonen’s synthesizer sets the mood with a shimmering drone. Fredrik Ljungkvist’s clarinet starts ruminating over an abstruse atonal melody. After a while Joonas Riippa’s drums rattle in, and all three woodwind players (including saxophonist Daniel Erdmann) join the angular tune while Kantonen punctuates with dramatic synth stabs and flourishes. This seven-minute song should be boring, but it’s not. That programmatic title helps -- Innanen wants you to see his panorama. But more importantly, the Innkvisitio band plays his strictly composed dissonances with flair and high drama. The only thing dry about them is their sense of humor.
Ever the good host, Innanen has placed “Panoramic View” between two of the most kickass blowing sessions of this or any year. He composed “Clustrophy” and “The Grey Adler Returns Again” according to “clustonic principles” understood by approximately six people in the world, none of whom are friends with me on Facebook. Even more obscure than Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, clustonics outlines methods of extrapolating melody and harmony from non-repetitive tone rows. Or something. At any rate, “Clustrophy” repeats its nine-tone synth bassline over and over, the saxes buzzing overhead like a cloud of gnats. It’s a head-solos-head tune, accessible to jazz neophytes and elevated by the band’s vibrant tone colors and visceral interplay. (Or vice-versa.)
“Grey Adler” is something else again. It’s introduced by an aggressive group head -- another nine-tone row punched out like a paddleball -- before everything breaks up into chaos. Kantonen plays a wild atonal synth solo, and then Ljungkvist plays the tenor sax version of a synth solo -- dry and choppy, an inhuman squeak, until some longer notes finally remind you that a breathing creature is creating these sounds. At this point, the other guys feel compelled to come in and blow whatever the hell they want, and it’s glorious. Before the final head, we hear a crackling sound, as though drummer Riippa is unwrapping a candy bar, while the saxes play long and slow and Kantonen meditates on the tones of the atmosphere. Over in the corner, Innanen pulls out his slide whistle, because...well, why not? The head may be derived from clustonic principles, but the rest seems like people freaking out in whatever entertaining ways occur to them.
On Clustrophy, Innkvisitio never does any one thing for too long, and the band is pretty good at whatever it attempts. The opening improv “Earth’s Second Moon” conjures ‘50s sci-fi soundtracks, with synths that go poingggg; “Jantaraboon II” is a lovely atonal swinger with some wriggly solos. Only towards the end does Clustrophy start to drag. Kantonen’s solo feature “Detto the Magician” lacks the puckish invention of his keyboard comps, and “757” is a generic funky strut that wears out its eight-minute welcome.
When these guys are on, though, they blend theory with practice in ways that are smart, breathy, goofy, and sexy. Just listen to Innanen’s solo improvisation “Underground”, a spontaneous series of herky-jerky honks that serves as a prelude to “Grey Adler”’s violent composed rhythms. Innanen’s intuition informs his ideas. He makes it easy to heed his own liner note advice: “Lose your fears. See with your ears.”