Album reviews

Iiro Rantala – ‘Potsdam’

Iiro Rantala – Potsdam

(ACT 9946-2. Album Review by Alison Bentley)

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“Jazz needs melodies,” says Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala. “It needs things that people can latch on to.” And melodies bring together the variety and virtuosity of this solo album recorded live in concert at the Nikolaisaal in Potsdam in 2021.

Six of the nine tracks are composed by Rantala, beginning with Twentytwentyone. It combines a strong theme with jazz harmony, the way composers Kander and Ebb or Hamlisch might, with subtle dynamics and powerful emotive pull. It’s a concert of striking contrasts, and Time for Rag conjures the spirit of James P. Johnson and Scott Joplin with dazzlingly playful cleverness as sparks fly. Peace combines classical elegance with jazz idiom in three minutes of introspective stillness.

Can You Be Bob? launches into energetic bebop where a muscly walking bass line bounces gleefully off the playful right hand lines.

Freedom has rising, hopeful chords. There’s a YouTube film of Rantala at home, putting soft objects into the piano to create a gentle spikiness that sounds as if the strings are being plucked. A Steve Reich-ian rhythmic intensity is to the fore, but the memorable melody is never far behind.

Rantala’s devotion to John Lennon is evidenced by his album My Working Class Hero, and his treatment of Lennon’s Woman starts with some evocatively deadened sounds in the bass register before teasing out the song with rich, full harmonies. Contrasting phases fit together well: handsome classical rubato develops into agile improvising; a gospel rock groove recalls Keith Jarrett and also soulful pianist Richard Tee, two of Rantala ’s influences. His Finnish Calendar album links the months with aspects of the Finnish character, both humorous and darker. November here has a limpid gracefulness- you feel it must have lyrics somewhere in another existence. His control of dynamics is amazing- each finger seems to have an individual life of its own. The delicate improvisation with a bluesy lift is quite gorgeous.

Bernstein‘s musical Candide is not so often heard in a jazz context and Rantala plays the Overture with buckets of brio as the score demands. He breaks off for an interlude of boppish improvisation, all with sparkling energy. Potsdam was recorded the day after the death of Stephen Sondheim, lyricist for Bernstein’s Somewhere. “Sondheim was magical,” says Rantala, and he plays a slow, beautiful tribute with gospel cadences and grace notes. The spaciousness of his treatment perhaps owes something to the openness of some of Sondheim’s own musical compositions.

Rantala knows how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats with his extraordinary range of styles and moods, his incredible pianistic skills and, most of all, melodies that stay in your head.

Potsdam is released on ACT on (UK release date) 8 April 2022

LINK: Potsdam from Presto Music

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