The East London modern jazz outfit Portico Quartet achieves its distinctive sound from an instrument barely older than the band itself. Percussionist Nick Mulvey’s hang (pronounced “hung”) is a white whale for drummers all over the world. Invented in 2000, the drums are forged by hand by two Swiss artists who have a rumored waitlist of five years for new orders. Portico Quartet began experimenting with the hang around 2004 after borrowing money to purchase one on a whim from a tent at a music festival.
Isla, the quartet’s second album, is a vibrantly atmospheric collection of music that pioneers an entirely new sound. The steel drum-like chimes of Mulvey’s hang act as the reinforcement for the band’s deft double bass work and expert drumming. The hang’s somber, novel presence is fast becoming the band’s calling card, however, tenor saxophonist Jack Wyllie proves to be the most outstanding musical personality on Isla. From the dynamic introductory “Paper Scissors Stone” to the extraordinary “The Visitor,” Wyllie’s horn neatly constructs each track’s slowly developing melodic narrative before joyously tearing it apart, the frantic disassembly as captivating as the formation.
At the record’s midpoint is drummer Duncan Bellamy’s beautiful solo piano piece “Life Mask (Interlude),” a melodic precursor to one the album’s concluding tracks. The song’s simplicity magnifies the rest of the album’s innovation: The hang, spiraling bass, and looping sax components are deafening in absentia. Yet the assembly reappears in a controlled triumph, spreading out gradually in “Life Mask” proper, a song as solemn as its interlude suggests, carefully decorated with Milo Fitzpatrick’s upright bass solos.
The inclusion of the improvisation “Shed Song (Improv. No. 1)” is somewhat questionable, and seems largely unnecessary given the succinctness of the record’s first nine tracks. Nevertheless, Isla boldly showcases an unconventional combination of instruments and melodic ideas, a revolutionary musical terrain that Portico Quartet will hopefully continue to explore.