in Reviews

Prepared piano with an Arabic accent

by Wif Stenger

"Kari Ikonen alternately figure skates, tap dances and prances across the keys, sounding like a jaunty, syncopated one-man band."

Kari Ikonen differs from most other Finnish jazz keyboardists in that jazz is only part of his busy musical career. Besides composing for chamber orchestras and brass bands, he has played piano and Moog synthesiser on more than 40 albums since the late ‘90s. They range from Armenian and Bollywood songs with the Kari Ikonen Trio to West African sounds with Trio Toffa and work with French and Belgian musicians in Orchestra Nazionale della Luna. They recently released There’s Still Life on Earth, a stirring meditation on climate change.

For his latest album on a German label, he turns for inspiration to Middle Eastern sounds, the Japanese koto, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and jazz giant Wayne Shorter. Ikonen’s affectionate reading of Shorter’s Pinocchio, originally recorded with Miles Davis, is the jazziest – and perhaps most conventional – moment on the album.

The spotlight of the record though is on the Maqiano, a micro-tuning device designed by Ikonen that allows any acoustic piano to play Arabic scales (maqamat) and other micro-intervals, giving it a mysterious, tantalising sound. The adaptation emphasises the piano’s links to ancestors such as the dulcimer and the zither, which have been played around the Mediterranean region for centuries, and even the koto, which Ikonen references in one of the song titles.

The result is a showcase of the range of sounds that can be produced by a piano, and of the range of Ikonen’s keyboard artistry. He alternately figure skates, tap dances and prances across the keys, sounding like a jaunty, syncopated one-man band on Maqtu’ah on Maqam Rast. At other times, he strikes the keys, showing the piano’s alter ego as a percussion instrument, then zitherizes it with strums across the strings.

While much of the album is a show of virtuosity and technical invention, Ikonen shows his deeply affecting side on the last two tracks. Trance Oriental, reprised from a 2013 Kari Ikonen Trio album, gets a sensitive Maqiano reworking that is reminiscent of Anouar Brahem’s jazz maqams. The album concludes with the limpid simplicity of The Evergreen Earth

Ikonen has introduced this album in late summer and autumn with a carbon-neutral Uusimaa Bike Tour, which wraps up on November 27 at Espoo’s April Jazz Club.

KARI IKONEN: Impressions, Improvisations & Compositions

OZ1097LP, 2020 (Ozella Music)