Portico Quartet

(Gondwana Records)


It’d be dangerously easy to breeze past this new Portico Quartet album. Its three tracks of viscous synth and string layers, coaxed along by delicate rides and wistful tuned percussion, are unobtrusive, graceful things, more babbling brook than cresting wave. But that’d be a mistake: pay attention, and you’ll find real beauty here.

On Terrain, the London jazz group lean into the minimalist and ambient textures that have lurked beneath the surface of much of their work for some time, not to mention the sound of the band members’ various side projects and collaborations (2018’s Szun Waves album and last year’s Paradise Cinema record in particular). The scope of the album is broad, and widescreen (as, indeed, they describe themselves), but there’s more to this stuff than the kind of bland universalism one might often hear soundtracking nature documentaries, and that’s due to the small details that are woven into the record’s every seam. The close, insistent toms on ‘III’; the gluey bass that underpins ‘II’ almost imperceptibly; the just-so application of reverb to the cymbals in ‘I’ that transforms them from rolling percussion to crystalline harmonic foundation, each stroke a ray of light breaking through the watery, looping textures above.

This kind of ambient-jazz-minimal crossover can so often land directly on the coffee table, any hint of subversion or risk-taking drowned out by some wrong-headed commitment to ‘good taste’. To their credit, on Terrain Portico Quartet manage to steer just clear of such Fast Show ‘nice’-ness by taking painstaking care with every part of the record, meaning that if at first it might seem a little too polite for some, close, repeated listens will be richly rewarded.