September 10, 2001
The Blessing Light: For John Stevens
Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1126
To mix a couple of metaphors: Frode Gjerstad is a throwback finally able to benefit from the fruits of his labors.
In other words, the Norwegian reed man is a go-for-broke, emotive stylist, whose impassioned reed forays call to mind iconoclastic free jazz forefathers like Ornette Coleman or Charles Tyler rather than the hushed chamber timbres of many of his northern European peers. Furthermore, after spending nearly two decades limited to playing with foreign musicians, because only they were sophisticated enough to grasp the nuances of his sound, he's finally put together an all-Norwegian working band. But the veteran improviser had to himself organize and lead the Circulasione Totale Orchestra of very young Norwegian musicians to finally find local playing partners to fill out his trio.
Yet just as Coleman's bands took on a confident supple maturity once he was able to fill them with young musicians he personally taught the ins and outs of his
Harmolodic theory, so this impressive band is easily the equal of any other Gjerstad three. Considering the reedist's playing partners have memorably included the likes of bassists Johnny Dyani, Kent Carter and William Parker and his preferred drummers were John Stevens and Hamid Drake this is high praise indeed.
Poignantly, the music is dedicated to the Stevens, who with an elder's sagacity and guile similarly guided a clutch of young musicians through the intricacies of free music. Gjerstad's relationship with the British percussionist, which started when the two began playing together in 1981 and lasted until Stevens' death in 1994, was important for social as well as purely musical reasons. Not only did it introduce the saxman to audiences beyond Norway, but it literally reassured him that he wasn't deranged in following his own muse, despite what seemed to be the opposition of every other established jazz musician in his native country.
As for the playing on this live session, the reedman is as powerful as always, turning out elongated lines of nearly limitless inspiration, with multiphonics able to suggest two horns at once. His alto tone can range from the highest canine-calling territory to protracted mid-range cries that will probably remind folks more of delta floods than fjords. As speedy in execution as a bebopper, he never lets an expected phrase fall where an unanticipated twist will make the music that much more exciting.
Bassist Øyvind Storesund, who cites Parker and Jamaaladeen Tacuma — a former Coleman sideman — as inspirations, is a powerful time keeper, who seems to operate full-throttle at all times. Probably the trio member who shouts encouragement throughout, he's traditional enough to work his bull fiddle as a double bass. Eschewing high string cello-like forays or bridge filigrees, he has an impressive, deep, dark tone that ties every disparate phrase together and helps to steamroll each tune forward.
Known to North Americans for his work with forceful saxophonists Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love has been a part of disparate bands in his native land and recently put out an impressive solo disc on the SOFA label. Here, though, he's merely an unshowy part of a team, keeping the relentless rapid pace going with little feints, jabs, rolls and stresses. Ranging all over the kit, he restricts himself to the rhythmic function, only occasionally moving forward for a tom tom exploration or a sticks on snare display.
All in all, an impressive piece of work from musicians whose country too often is off the jazz radar screen.
—- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. For John Stevens Part 1 2. For John Stevens Part 2 3. For John Stevens Part 3
Personnel: Frode Gjerstad (alto saxophone, clarinet); Øyvind Storesund (bass); Paal Nilssen-Love (drums)