Listen … and tell me what it was
SOFA 506

Rugged coastlines, lengthy fjords and Jan Garbarek's wimpy saxophone, more-or-less sum up what the average jazz fan knows about Norway. But while the geography hasn't changed over the past three decades, a new generation of improvisers has come to maturity. Their restless experimentation has more in common with the free form breakthroughs of other European and American musicians than the cold, ethereal meandering which have given so-called Nordic jazz the reputation it has.

Case in point is this CD, a biggish band project which links 10 committed Norwegians with British keyboardist Pat Thomas and German trumpeter Axel Dörner for eight instant compositions. Results are impressive, proving once again that these sorts of spontaneous in-the-studio creations aren't limited by geographical boundaries.

Dörner and Thomas, of course, are adept improvisers in this style who have fit into as many different situations as there are countries in the EU. Yet this is more than a showcase for the guest stars. Dividing the 10 locals into two double quintets, the band has massed firepower when it needs it, or can isolate certain individuals for greater or lesser periods of time.

Some locals have already proven their mettle on the world stage. Bassist Tonny Kluften and guitarist Ivar Grydeland recorded with British drummer Tony Oxley; drummer Ingar Zach duetted with British guitarist Derek Bailey and fellow percussionist Paal Nilsen-Love has been a members of a couple of American multi-reedist Ken Vandermark's bands.

At least as impressive, is young accordion virtuoso Frode Haltli, who has formerly made noise playing Norwegian folk and classical music. Designated as partner to voice and electronics manipulator Maja Ratkje in these double quintets, he seems to be all over the tracks with in-your-face glissandos and staccato blasts. Slow moving "Moscowskaja" is probably the most instructive showcase, as Dörner's stretched, muted horn lines are slowly superceded by electric bomps and beeps then meshed with distinctive accordion tones as traditional and modern sounds coexist.

Co-existence as a form of face off turns up on "A country practice", though, as each member of what could be termed the rhythm section moves to the forefront and back again. Building up from, and finally fading into, silence, the 12 minutes in between features such highlights as scratch cymbal sounds followed by what could be a tabletop guitar solo — courtesy of Øyvind Torvund perhaps? — and intricate fingerings at the highest part of bass strings — from Kluften? — giving way to a bowed passage that introduces an intricate bass and drum duet. Two drum solos — from two different percussionist perhaps — are kept apart by Thomas' lunging, atonal keyboard runs. Before the track fades, circular breathing sounds that could be electronically manipulated, and trumpet sighs appear to duke it out. Finally the two reedmen — Håkon Kornstad, likely on tenor saxophone, and Rolf Erik Nystrøm, probably on alto sax — create a cutting contest with some raucous reed honks. But what created that deep breathy trombone-like sound that appears before track end?

A real Norwegian smorgasbord, "If mountains could sing" — at almost 16 minutes the longest track — gives everyone his or her head. Wigged out Sun Ra referencing extraterrestrial electronics share sonic space with what appears to be a symphony of noise makers blown in unison. Vocalist Ratkje, who earlier on had contributed odd voice interpolations that were midway between Julie Andrews' soprano singing and the sound of an instructor in a language learning tape, sneaks in a couple of vocal lines. Then someone — perhaps her again — leeches minute music selections and a plumy announcer's tone into the mix in a way that suggest a radio station's signal coming in and out of focus. Percussion explosions vie with throat singing. Marching bands seem to go off in many directions playing something that sounds very close to "Frerè Jacques" as atonal and standard jazz piano runs each make their appearance.

Any one of these tracks proves the truth in this disc's title. Listeners interested in a so-far-unheralded group of players and a raucous good time program of improvisation should investigate this session. Most of the musicians are unjustly unknown at present, but with luck, many folks will soon know about these fjord freedom sounds.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1.Mir 1.4 2. Drop the boy 3. Moscowkaja 4. If mountains could sing 5. The night, the death and the universe 6. A country practice 7. Spaghetti fingers 8. Mr. Thompson

Personnel: Axel Dörner (trumpet, electronics); Håkon Kornstad, Rolf Erik Nystrøm (reeds); Frode Haltli (accordion); Pat Thomas (piano, electronics); Ivar Grydeland, Øyvind Torvund (guitar); Tonny Kluften, Ingebrigt Flaten (bass); Ingar Zach, Paal Nilsen-love (drums, percussion); Maja Ratkje (voice, electronics)