There have been great sophomore albums in the past – think of Love’s Da Capo or The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. In the jazz world, how about Out There from Eric Dolphy in which his signature sound was forged or Robert Glasper’s second album Canvas, his first for Blue Note and the sign of far greater things to come?
This is another great second album. Isla is a giant leap forward from Knee Deep in the North Sea, Portico’s Mercury-nominated debut release. Cosmic Jazz saw the quartet in Colchester and were only averagely impressed. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that Jack Wyllie’s soprano sax had to be borrowed at the very last minute (he’d forgotten his) but I think not.
The truth is that this is simply a much better record- production that does them justice, great melodies and a real integration of the Portico sound this time round. There’s more than a feeling of the expansiveness of the Cinematic Orchestra with acoustic bass well forward in the mix to and subtle use of loops, electronics and additional instrumentation (marimba, cello, violin and viola) all balanced by John Leckie’s major league production. Responsible for Radiohead’s The Bends, here he’s miraculously contained and expanded the Portico sound and has recognised that their unique use of the Swiss made percussion instrument the hang is much more about colouration rather than as a solo gimmick. Nick Mulvey’s hang drum – which looks like a giant version of the old Cadbury Smash alien character – is a unique kind of steel pan that adds delicate gamelan tones to powerful soloing from Wyllie and sympathetic support from Milo Fitzpatrick on bass and Duncan Bellamy on drums.
Interestingly, Wyllie is strongest on soprano rather than tenor and ironically the music woks best when it steers away from conventional free jazz blowing (as in Clipper) where the gentle percussive soundworld clashes with Wyllie’s tenor rather than enhances it. But the way that key tracks like Isla and Dawn Patrol build and grow and then hang around in the memory (no pun intended) is impressive. Portico still has the cyclical minimalism of Steve Reich but the mood is darker than on Knee Deep… and across all seven tracks it works.
This is a CD to come back to and linger over. It is deeply cinematic and could well serve a future film soundtrack. Equally, I predict an album of remixes on the back of the Subtrak mix of Line you can hear on the Portico Myspace site. It’s exciting to hear a band that have moved so far forward for a second album. The anticipated ‘sophomore slump’ doesn’t apply here so the only question now is can the Porticos can raise the bar again for album number 3? I’m looking forward to seeing them try – and in the meantime I can’t wait for the Colchester show next week.