Are Portico Quartet really a cut above the average jazz, or is it just that somewhere along the line, they’ve managed to cross the uncrossable divide to become the indie kids’ jazz quartet of choice? With a Mercury nomination behind them for their debut Knee Deep In The North Sea, they recorded their follow-up, Isla, at Abbey Road with John Leckie, a man who has nurtured The Stone Roses and Radiohead.
Rock’n'roll credentials to die for, in other words. But while there’s drum and bass aplenty to be found here, it’s hypnotic, sultry and mesmerising in a way no guitar band could ever dream of being.
Throughout Isla’s nine tracks, the quartet’s unique selling point – the echoing steel percussion instrument known as a hang – is foremost in the mix, providing gentle repetitive beats to lull its blissed out listeners into a sense of warm, velvety security.
Ilsa begins with Paper Scissors Stone, a brassy North African beat offering the sounds of an autumn sunset over a red hot beach. Though familiar by now to long-term fans, their choice of odd instruments place them very much at the alt end of jazz, while the Steve Reich-style phasing, especially towards the end of the track, offers newcomers a comfortable way in.
Second track The Visitor is haunting and barely there – quiet, eerie and echoing. Even when the volume does pick up, its woodwinds and equally woody percussion whisper late night tales of opium wastes that segue seamlessly into Dawn Patrol, an audio sun rising on a dust blown desert. Pipes echo against repetitive drums to gradually bring the music up from the dark, calling you towards the morning.
Next comes Line. Lighter than its predecessors, its percussion and timpani skit across the air to tickle your ear drums awake, prodding you gently into giving it your full attention.
Life Mask Interlude has the most way out name but is actually the most traditional of the tracks, a gentle piano tiptoe through relaxing chords that comes across as a kind of jazz therapy. If you thought you couldn’t be any more laid back, this track is out to change your mind.
It’s followed by Clipper, a piece that screams pure jazz club (man), with brass noodles that improv along just fine before the return of Life Mask sinks to inky depths with heavy bubbles that fight their way to the surface. Title track Isla follows in the same bent. Luscious, chilled, ambient jazz so laid back it’s fallen over the edge, it flows into the deep, sultry bass cloud of Shed Song, the album’s soporific closer.
This is red wine music, no doubt about it, but red wine music for the discerning indie intelligentsia, perfect for a long night where the only ambition you’ve got left is to sink so far into the floor cushions that you’ll never get up again.
A week after the album’s release, Portico Quartet set off on a tour of the UK. As the light of summer withdraws and the air chills, what better way could there be to warm your heart than to let this post-modern delight waft you away on its dream of desert nights?