Although jazz guitar players have been amplified since the days of Charlie Christian, for the most part they’ve been fairly cautious about how they used that amplification. Even after fusion found some players moving from Fender tweeds to Marshall stacks, the majority of jazz guitarists have chosen to keep their sound clean, not crunchy.
Finnish guitarist Olli Hirvonen would rather have it both ways. Best known for his work with Brian Krock’s groups Big Heart Machine and Liddle, Hirvonen happily embraces the electric guitar’s wide range of tonal possibilities, roaring when needed, purring when not, and producing a sweetly singing tone when that’s what suits the material. Having such a broad palette does, of course, make his playing a little less instantly recognizable than someone with a singular sound, but as his second album, Displace, demonstrates, the variety of tones at his disposal means that his guitar can serve a wider range of roles within the ensemble.
“No Light,” the album’s opener, kicks off with a driving rumble, but that’s pianist Luke Marantz at work, pounding the lower keys with the sustain pedal depressed. Once bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell join the fray, the raging, compound-time pulse gives the tune a fusion-style edge, except that apart from Hirvonen, everyone’s unamplified. Still, when Hirvonen cuts loose with Ellman-Bell, it’s hard not to think of John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham squaring off in the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Even when the sonic palette changes, the rhythmic intensity remains. However much Hirvonen may dazzle—whether in fingerpicked folkie arpeggios on the gently pastoral “Unravel” or the clangorous power guitar at the top of the prog-tinged title tune—it’s hard not to be as impressed by the rhythmic counterpoint Marantz, Ellman-Bell, and Kenney provide. No matter what they’re doing, this band manages to take it to 11.