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Album review: Portico Quartet, "Isla"

portico quartetPortico Quartet: No words needed. (Photo courtesy of Portico Quartet)

By Bill Friskics-Warren

This instrumental ensemble, whose 2007 debut was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize given to the best album released in the U.K. that year, is back with a quietly impassioned set of originals that fuse elements of pop, jazz, classical and electronic music. Built around saxophones, piano, double bass and hammered steel drums, the music is suffused with tension. The arrangements beg for resolution, but the performances are ultimately so sublime that it hardly matters whether they achieve it or not. (Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.)

Its lack of vocals aside, the contemplative intensity of "Paper Scissors Stone" would have sounded right at home on Van Morrison's 1968 landmark, "Astral Weeks." The propulsive "Dawn Patrol" makes use of Middle Eastern modalities, while "Life Mask," with its exquisitely glacial calm -- especially on the identically titled interlude that appears two tracks before it -- calls to mind the breathtaking meditations of the great jazz pianist Bill Evans.

"Clipper," meanwhile, sounds like a cross between "Haitian Fight Song"-era Charles Mingus and Moby at his most gospel-inspired. And "Line," with its hints of Balinese gamelan music, evokes a storm gathering over the desert, complete with birdlike cries of soprano sax and plashes of cymbal that conjure images of earthbound creatures scurrying for cover.

Other antecedents, from Cecil Taylor to Brian Eno, can be heard among the at once ruminative and ecstatic performances here. The aggregate, however, is wholly original, 21st-century experimentalism that stirs both body and soul.

Recommended tracks: "Line," "Clipper," "Paper Scissors Stone"

By Click Track  |  September 7, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Quick spins  | Tags: Portico Quartet  
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