Portico Quartet – Isla
[Real World, 2010]
Jeff Pearson, September 1, 2010
Originally published by Life’s Sweet Breath
London jazz outfit, the Portico Quartet, come forth with their second offering, Isla. The album pulls you in so many emotional directions while remaining very cohesive and grounded.
Portico Quartet’s sound is characterized by the use of the hang drum throughout, played by Nick Mulvey, who also covers various other percussion on the album. The hang drum is closely related to a steel pan drum in timbre, although much less pronounced. On Isla, the hang, along with the subtle saxophone playing of Jack Wyllie, colors the music delicately and adds a depth to the mood of the album. The percussion on the album is the most impressive feat of this band, and the beauty with which it is captured on record. The production of the album, specifically the percussion, is nothing short of amazing. You can feel this album as if you are sitting in a small club having them play it right in front of you.
The album kicks off with “Paper Scissors Stone”, which is really a blueprint for how the album is shaped. It slowly builds a moody, almost down-tempo theme, until the drums and saxophone explode onto the record as one. Drummer Duncan Bellamy gets some room to work with thunderous fills and extraordinary cymbal work until melancholy explodes just as quickly as the chaos had. This is a main idea of the album; they never give away too much at once, and never leave you wanting something more. “Dawn Patrol” is another track where that pure joy for telling a story through song shines vibrantly. The calm created in the intro quickly rolls over into a funky, galloping bass line played by Milo Fitzgerald. It’s an interesting part because while the rhythm of the song is very upbeat, the saxophone lines are very reflective and calm. That is all until the drums come in. It all gets swept up in a (controlled) chaotic storm of drum fills and saxophone shrieks. Just when you think you’ve had enough, they let it wash away into a coiling chase scene bass line. “Clipper” calls to mind an autumn stroll, by painting such a picture of colorful sounds that you can’t help but think of leaves turning their final shades. The album closes off with “Isla” and “Shed Song”, the former being a building wave of emotions, finally breaking into the latter, which is mainly a reflective, quiet number with fluttering piano lines and saxophone drones.
The beauty of this album is the atmosphere that is created completely through the means of instrumental jazz. Images fly through your head during the quieter moments, only to be replaced with gorgeous colors and tones to go along with the joy that breaks through those moments. It is true that the quartet really shine when everything is let loose. However, without the introspective downtime, those uproarious, joyful moments wouldn’t seem as special.