Finland’s hardest-working jazz bassist begins his second album as a leader – and recent live shows – on a jaunty note. The whole Antti Lötjönen Quintet East plays a brief fanfare, with the boss trading in his upright bass for a plastic horn. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola squeaks a toy-like Japanese electronic instrument while drummer Joonas Riippa toots a pocket trumpet, accompanying saxophonists Jussi Kannaste and Mikko Innanen.
This introduction to Circus/Citadel, the album’s title suite, signals a looser, yet more assured sound than on the quintet’s 2020 debut. The group is made up of top-notch Helsinki players, selected from the dozens of bands Antti Lötjönen has anchored over two decades.
While the band’s name nods to bassist Charlie Haden, its curious mix of noisy playfulness and cerebral exploration suggests another American bass giant, Charles Mingus, who also delved into circus music. Lötjönen too relishes slightly off-kilter horn arrangements with echoes of modern and classical music, hymns and folk between fiery improv.
Lötjönen too now turns to longer forms, with the Circus/Citadel suite as the album’s centrepiece. After that brass fantasy opening, Lötjönen’s supple, muscular bass leads the band into Pt II, one of this sometimes-challenging album’s most accessible sections. A gentle baroque horn arrangement floats over a taut, mysterious film noir-like rhythm pattern from Lötjönen and Riippa. Various horns let loose with individual frivolity and brief mellow solos before they all land together, cooing and murmuring like birds gathering at sunset.
On Pt III, things get goofier and wilder, with Riippa rattling an array of percussion and the free-jazz segments – which get quite intense – interspersed with brief composed modules, the band shifting gears abruptly like a John Zorn cut-up. Lötjönen himself used a cut-up technique for the next track, Ode to the Undone, which is calm and lyrical despite its experimental origin.
There’s more wild-eyed improv on the seven-minute Defenestration, which may refer to the fate of dissidents who question the official truth. Innanen leads the others on a merry chase that teases the nursery rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel, epitomising this album’s heady mix of seriousness and frolic.
Antti Lötjönen Quintet East: Circus/Citadel
Antti Lötjönen, bass
Verneri Pohjola, trumpet
Mikko Innanen, saxophones
Jussi Kannaste, tenor sax
Joonas Riippa, drums
We Jazz Records, 2023