JANSON/KULLHAMMER/NILSSEN-LOVE

Live at Glenn Miller Café Vol. 1
Ayler Records aylCD-012

Existing as a big blank mass at the top of Europe for most North American jazz fans, Scandinavia occasionally swims into consciousness either when some famous American takes up resident or records there, or when a musician from Norway, Sweden or Denmark moves to the United States.

Improvised music in those three countries involves a lot more than that, of course. Most interestingly is the recent emergence of a pan-European musical generation that treats the tenets of so-called free jazz as much a part of its heritage as Bop or Dixieland. It’s that accepting openness that enlivens this first-rate blowing session.

Tenor and baritone saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar, 24, is a certified Swedish young lion, with all the requisite awards including that of Jazz Musician of the Year for 2001. He has played with everyone from The (International) Noise Conspiracy to clarinetist Peanuts Hucko and from pianist Ran Blake to the Latin Lover Big Band. Yearning to record in a less regimented style, this live session was organized at a Stockholm club. Young veteran freedom ringers, bassist Peter Janson, who plays with saxophonists Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark in the AALY Trio, and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, who performs in another Vandermark group and as part of Norwegian free jazz forefather alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad’s trio are his partners here.

Like many live dates, as each succeeding tune gets longer and the musicians — especially Kullhammar — loosen up, the results pinpoint the rhythm section’s supple potency and the saxman’s ability to work in the free idiom. Initially apparently fearful of leaving the song-form behind, the reedist seems to find his feet — or is it fingers? — by the third number that he starts on baritone saxophone, a Swedish specialty since the 1950s heyday of Lars Gullin.

Once Nilssen-Love’s nuanced press roll and cymbal display is succeeded by Kullhammar’s deeper-than-a-mine-pit tone though, he becomes brave enough to jump octaves, playing in the honking tenor register as well. Perhaps this is what Sonny Rollins would sound like were he a little younger and decided to investigate the bigger horn.

Spurred by power drumming to more room-filling sax overblowing, you suddenly note the transparent clarity of the sound. Rather than being overwhelmed by the more vociferous instruments, Janson’s consistent bass patterns come through loud and clear. Of course it does help that his percussion partner is someone who has proved his equal sensitivity in a memorable solo session and driving bigger bands. Often quiet and unprepossessing as Chico Hamilton’s drumming was in the 1950s, Nilssen-Love sees his role as generating short counter motifs that complement the other musicians. Finally the piece ends with an extended coda that finds Kullhammar, now on tenor, squeezing out extended notes bar by bar as if he was encasing a lengthy sausage.

Sufficiently liberated, the three turn the last track into a more than 28-minute freebop seminar. Coltranesque and Rollinsesque on tenor, Kullhammar unroll matching licks, which he consistently introduces in one register, then answers in another — usually lower — one. Soon he’s wound up enough to repeat the same note patterns over and over again, as the drummer makes like Elvin Jones, doubling, tripling and quadrupling the metre, smashing sticks onto his drum heads, alleviating the harshness with the occasional cymbal splash. Not yet assured enough to pull off an Aylerian speaking-in-tongues solo, Kullhammar does the next best thing, repeating a four bar phrase over and over until it takes on a cadence of its own.

While Kullhammar does not yet have the subtlety or extended technique to join the first ranks of free improvisers, this is certainly an impressive effort and notable signpost on his route. He definitely shows he isn’t afraid to try anything. Nilssen-Love again proves his MVP status and Janson showcases his steady, guiding pulse. Foreigners can fill in their knowledge about Scandinavian music now and avoid the larger crowds that will likely be attracted to these musicians as their imagining matures and deepens.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Cold thrills 2. Slowdown 3. Smash-and-grab 4. Blow-out (28.16)

Personnel: Jonas Kullhammar (tenor and baritone saxophones); Peter Janson (bass); Paal Nilssen-Love (drums)