Spiritual Cycle, the sophomore album from the Swiss band Ilja, is a dark alley of a jazz album. Led by guitarist Dimitri Howald, this band is almost meta–at least in the same way that the Lounge Lizards were meta. You know, before meta in general and long before John Lurie had a hit TV show. This is jazz that’s often described as sinewy, or even sinister in a film noir sort of way, but in truth Dimitri Howald is hiding a secret about his so-called jazz guitar. It might not be jazz per se, but a strange conduit exists between him and the rest of this quintet.
Try to get a fix on Spiritual Cycle after the first couple of songs. Go ahead, that should be easy considering there are only six compositions on the entire album. You won’t be able to, and that’s where Dimitri Howald and Ilja–which includes tenor sax player Michael Gilsenan, pianist Tom Millar, bassist Jeremie Kruttli and drummer Tobias Schmid–throws the first in a series of musical curveballs at the listener.
Howald is not afraid to step out of that dark alley and head into the studio where he has plenty of tricks up his sleeves, electronically speaking. But before you imagine this as yet another clumsy hybrid between jazz and New Age, or jazz and prog, or jazz and just about anything else other than jazz, know that Dimitri Howald’s touch is light and Ilja is, at its core, a thrilling jazz band. Howald prefers to use analogue electronics to augment the quintet, so you’re hearing added textures such as reverb and drones and other ambient flourishes. It’s a tasteful approach, blended with serious be-bop chops and perhaps just a splash of fusion.
During a period where my sound system is reaching new heights in terms of performance, a complex jazz album such as Spiritual Cycle can release such a wealth of detail–both sounds and ideas. On its surface it’s an easy listen, with melodies that stick and a swing that’s far from subtle. Down deep, between the notes and the spaces between performers, you’ll hear something else. It’s youth, it’s a new vision that might just carry us forward. Dimitri Howald and Ilja have checked off a multitude of boxes with this release–it sounds fantastic, it’ll make you think and it will make you ponder the future of jazz, and if this is it.