AINON ‘Drought’ LP/CD (We Jazz) 4/5

Ainon are a quartet led by Helsinki based cellist Aino Juutilainen; the hybrid sound created by the band fuses jazz and Avant-Garde classical music. Accompanying Juutilainen in the string section is Satu-Maija Aalto who plays violin and viola. On instruments more frequently associated with jazz are Suvi Linnovaara: sax, clarinet and flute. Lone male, Joonas Leppänen plays drums. The music on the album is partly improvised and partly composed; the band come at it with what they describe as a ‘playful attitude’. The album was recorded back in the summer of 2019 and released in September this year.

In a promotional video, the band performs in a domestic setting, probably somebody’s living room. The interior style is classic Scandi modern, not quite Spartan but with the emphasis on simplicity. No pictures hang on the white walls but amongst the modern furniture sits a traditional grandmother clock. I mention this because perhaps the way the band have presented themselves echoes the dictum of Arnold Schöenberg one of their inspirations: ‘innovate in order to maintain tradition’. The band are simultaneously playing with jazz and classical traditions to create new and unexpected sounds. On this ‘living room’ session entitled ‘Twenty Twenty’ a piece not on the LP, the group are playing from musical scores; some parts are composed for individual instruments while other parts are improvised.

The overall mood of the record could be described as sombre but with playful flourishes. It’s reflected in the song titles: ‘Anaesthesia’, ‘Drought’, ‘The Bird Does Not Fly’, ‘Obscure Dreams’, combined with the more playful ‘Grannies and Seagulls’ and the punning of ‘Schön Berg’. The album begins with ‘Kruununhaka’ a piece which these two distinct moods simultaneously inhabit. The cello’s low drone allows the violin part to float freely above this until it finds a sweet spot in the register. Taut and dark drama is conjured up by Juutilainen’s bowing while the sax occupies a more buoyantly expressive level within the piece.

The tracks ‘Anaesthesia’ and ‘Drought’ feel like a pair with ‘Drought’ extending the atmosphere introduced by the preceding track. A mood of austerity is juxtaposed with elements of jazz, a familiar walking bass line is somehow married with a menacing rolling drum to give an unexpectedly satisfying chill. ‘Spell’ adds a touch of humour as strings evoke the cartoonish imagery of Sylvester and Tweety Pie. The theme continues with ‘The Bird Does Not Fly’, the impression of flight is suggested by a flute part but the attempt seems to be aborted before take-off; a tension is evoked between this desire and an aviary full of enclosed birds, all calling. As the album progressed I wanted to know more about the track simply called ‘O’, I wasn’t sure if this referred to the structure of the music or whether the initial stands for something else. Whatever it is, the music has astounding beauty.

As a person who knows almost nothing about Avant-Garde music many of the reference points within the album were probably lost on me and I suspect flew straight over my head. I approached it on a purely sonic level and found great satisfaction hearing the jazz tropes so artfully spliced into a new context.

James Read