Middle of Mist
NOR CD0348

Ninth World Music 025CD

Making assumptions about anything at all can be self-defeating; ascribing national characteristics to improvised music and musicians can be even more of a mug’s game.

These are the conclusions you come to when listening to these two admirable Scandinavian-created CDs. Despite coming from Denmark and Norway, neighboring countries that were united for a good 400 years, you probably couldn’t find more unalloyed studies in contrasts if you compared medieval madrigals and death metal.

In honor of its 25th CD, the Danish label Ninth World Music asked improvisers throughout the word, but mostly from Europe, to create unique solo performances. The 26 results, which in the main clock in at about the three minute-mark, are selections of improv instrumentals cross bred with jazz inflections, electronics and sampling. Unmistakably individual, the tunes still fit solidly in the mindset favored by label regulars, who on this disc include drummer P.O. Jørgens and tenor saxophonist T.S. Høeg.

MIDDLE OF MIST on the other hand is a solo performance by Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset. A specialist in jazz and ethnic Scandinavian music, he fashions his own instruments from local natural elements and plays them in tandem with conventional ones.

Each disc is fascinating in its own way.

Unsurprisingly, some of the improvisers who come across best on 25TH RELEASE are acknowledged solo specialists. There’s French bassist Jöelle Léandre with her powerful, abrasive pizzicato work on “Solo”; German trombonist Johannes Bauer, who mixes tape and his horn to create a sackbut choir; Portuguese violinist Carlos Zingaro, who demonstrates his fiddle and computer mastery on “Vital Process”; and the sustained right-handed boogie echoes from Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove on “Roll”.

An over-reliance on samplers, computer programming and electronics seems to be less satisfying. For instance, Victor Nubla’s “Short Promenade” is merely cute; Amanad Stewart’s three layers of breathy vocal improvisations sound unremarkably like experiments Maggie Nichols tried years ago; Pat Thomas’ “Yaquin” for electronics is merely video game-like noisy; while “Butterfly going Home”, John Tchicai’s piece for flute and programming, is too simple when measured against the talents of that veteran improviser.

Conversely, unheralded Greek clarinetist Floros Floridis creates an exceptional mini-clarinet concerto with “You need two hands to wash your face”; German Martin Klapper invents a squealing romp from his toys and amplified objects; and, on the four-minute longest performance, Norwegian Arve Henricksen uses scrapes, rustles and horn tones from a live recording at a church to conjure up an aural version of a rural Nordic past.

Should that intrigue you, Isungset’s MIDDLE OF MIDST is slightly more than 44½ minutes from a similar sound world. But the end product is even more concentrated and primitive sounding. Isungset, who recently recorded the first CD using instruments made entirely out of ice, here expresses himself on drums, percussion, voice, Jew’s harp, ram’s horn, stones, water, waterphone and whirling overtone hose.

In an echo of The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s slogan: Great Black Music, Ancient to Future, the percussionist has produced Great White Music, Ancient to Future, which refers as much to Scandinavian winters as skin pigmentation. While his titles all relate to natural phenomenon, the tracks were actually recorded — with no effects added during postproduction — in a Vigeland museum and an Oslo church.

So while Isungset may mix blood-curdling, reverberating echoes and thunderous log reverberations, and make the Jew’s harp sound like a primary weapon of mass destruction, you shouldn’t listen to this as a field recording in any way. After all, he has been a full-fledged modern improviser for over two decades. With tenor saxophonist Karl Seglem he performs as the Isglem duo, and he’s played with many other Norwegian musicians, some of whom are part of the ECM school.

You’ll certainly become aware of his percussion technique on “The Boulder”, a nine-minute extravaganza. He begins by manipulating a log drum, rolling sticks around to create definite patterns, and ends by accenting the ride cymbals and bass drum of a regular kit, accenting the rhythm and whacking away at drumheads. Imagine Elvin Jones meeting some Aboriginal hunters in a drummer’s circle.

Other sound explorers might be adapting industrial and post-industrial sound techniques to their own ends as 25TH RELEASE demonstrates. Yet here Isungset demonstrates that by using instruments as traditional as sheep bells and wooden logs you can create a sound as futuristic as any produced by a G4.

Of course it helps to have an innovative conception as well.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 25th: 1. Mystery dub 2. 2. Gioco #6 3. Brisk (03.06); 4. Mister F.C. 5. Touring around 6. Sonic scripts 7. A state of mind 8. Midnite Express 9. Inner moat 10. Residue 11. Yaqin 12. Vital process 13. Short promenade 14. Savannah serenade 15. 29/E.M.R./H.M. 16. Roll 17. Butterfly going home 18. Bastard 2 19. HiHat 20. Solo 21. Elapsed 22. Sunset behind the mouse 23. You need two hands to wash your face 24. Frem/Tilbage 25. Bells for my child 26. In the nature without thinking of man

Personnel: 25th: Mark Cunningham (trumpet, loops [track 1]); Walter Prati (electronics [track 2]); Johannes Bauer (trombone, tape [track 3]); Diane Labrosse (sampler [track 4]); Ko DeRegt (obukano: [track 5]); Yasushi Miura (computer [track 6]); P.O. Jørgens (steeldrums [track 7]); Ikue Mori (electronics [track 8]); Arve Henriksen (all instruments [track 9]); Amanda Stewart (voice [track 10]); Pat Thomas (electronics [track 11]); Carlos Zingaro (violin interactive with computer [track 12]); Victor Nubla (sampler, electronics [track 13]); Ian Smith (flugelhorn [track 14]); 15. Krztysztof Knittel (electronics [track 15]); Fred Van Hove (piano [track 16]); John Tchicai (flute, programming [track 17]); Jørgen Teller (bastard [track 18]); Raymond Strid (drums, percussion [track 19]); Jöelle Léandre (bass [track 20]); Gunter Müller (electronics [track 21]); Pierre Dørge (guitar [track 22]); Floros Floridis (clarinet [track 23]); Martin Klapper (toys and amplified objects [track 24]); Zvi Joffe (vibraphone [track 25]); T.S. Høeg (saxophone, turntable, keyboard [track 26])

Track Listing: Middle: 1. The Gorge 2. The Summit 3. The Midst 1 4. The Bog 5. The Boulder 6. The Knoll 7. The Midst 2 8. The Glen 9. The Midst 3 10. The Reed 11. The Tarn 12. The Path

Personnel: Middle: Terje Isungset (drums, percussion, voice, Jew’s harp, ram’s horn, sheep’s bells, log drum, stones, water, waterphone, whirling overtone hose)