Photo: Sofia Mänttäri

I saw OK:KO play in their home city of Helsinki in December, as part of the city’s annual We Jazz festival. The performance was held in an art gallery, and the large abstract paintings by Heidi Lampenius, which reminded me of the work of photographer Adam Fuss, provided an excellent complement to the music.

OK:KO are a quartet, led by drummer Okko Saastamoinen and including saxophonist Jarno Tikka, pianist Toomas Keski-Säntti, and bassist Mikael Saastamoinen. They received We Jazz’s annual Rising Star award, and have just released their debut album, Land E. (punctuation in original). (Get it from Amazon.)

Land E. is a short album—five tracks in under 36 minutes. But in that limited time, the four players demonstrate that even at a young age (they’re all in their twenties), they’ve got the ability to combine their individual strengths into a unique and compelling collective sound.

“Kesäranta” opens the album with a slow-walking sax-and-drums theme that modulates slightly when Keski-Säntti’s piano enters, and gradually builds to a crescendo before decelerating again and fading away.

At 10:33, “Song of Bulls” is the album’s longest track. Tikka’s saxophone begins as a murmur, but when he’s in full cry, he’s pumping out notes and phrases at a frantic clip, recalling John Coltrane during his Atlantic Records tenure. Behind him, the Saastamoinens are driving hard, the drummer swinging like a boxer as the bassist keeps a powerful pulse.

“Rälssi,” a three-minute interlude at the album’s midpoint, is built around a simple melody (started on piano, and picked up by the saxophone) that’s naggingly reminiscent of the chorus to Nirvana‘s “In Bloom.”

Tikka gets the first three minutes of “Kottiin” to himself, and when the band does come in, they shuffle quietly into place like they’re trying not to break his train of thought. When Keski-Säntti takes over, his solo transitions seamlessly from modern post-bop lyricism to the edge of free clamor and back.

Mikael Saastamoinen finally steps into the spotlight as the album closer, “To Rantsila by Tractor,” begins. He’s not soloing so much as striking the strings just aggressively enough to be noticed. Over the course of just under 10 minutes, the piece transforms from an ECM-ish meditation to a thundering blowout, Tikka and Okko Saastamoinen roaring and hammering away as the other two mostly stand clear.

OK:KO aren’t the Okko Saastamoinen Quartet—they’re a band. Everyone’s voice is crucial, and the power of the work lies in the collective sound. Land E. is an excellent debut (get it from Amazon), and if they ever tour outside Finland, or you find yourself in Helsinki, they put on a good show, too.

Phil Freeman

Stream Land E. on Spotify:

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