The Environmental Control Office
Ayler Records aylCD-021/022

Nearly unknown outside of Sweden, in a way tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Bengt Frippe Nordström’s history is more fascinating than the music on this two-CD set.

An important footnote to the Albert Ayler story, Nordström (1936-2000), usually known as Frippe, was the first person to be fully convinced of the American saxman’s talent. He also put his money where his mouthpiece was and paid for Ayler’s first recording in November 1962.

When Ayler returned to the United States, Nordström virtually cloned his playing style to such an extent that he spent years being ignored and insulted by the sort of professional Swedish boppers who also put down Free Jazz. Although encouraged by visitors like American trumpeter Don Cherry Nordström didn’t get to organize his working unit, called Miljövårdsvert or The Environmental Control Office, until the mid-1980s. This 1988, two-CD live set is one of its few recordings. Since then, emerging Scandinavian free improvisers like Mats Gustafsson have acknowledged his pioneering work.

Historically this disc provides a more compelling glimpse of Nordström’s talents, then the sub-par energy pastiche he sprayed out in duet with Sunny Murray in 2000 on an earlier Ayler CD. To be honest, though, Frippe was no Ayler by a long shot, and it’s this lack of inventiveness that weighs down the title track. Although he gamely spits out honks, slurs, split tone and multiphonics in the Ayler tradition, there are times Nordström seems to be operating in his own private world, not even trying to match the musical thrusts of his associates.

Bassist Björn Alke (1938-200) is a sturdy timekeeper who for a time was house bassist at Stockholm’s famous Golden Circle club. Drummer Peeter Uuskyla, who also maintains a steady beat throughout this session, has since recorded with German-Swedish alto saxophonist Biggi Vinkeloe and German Free Jazz reedist Peter Brötzmann

Still, it’s Nordström’s contributions that make the more than 50-minute title track alternately soar and sag. It’s made up of an overly-wide vibrato smearing out slurs, split tones and honks in extended passages that like Ayler’s work includes references to half-remembered children’s song and folk material. There are times, in fact, when Frippe appears to be quoting from “Heart and Soul” [!] and “America the Beautiful” [!!] — bizarre source material for a Swede.

Recalling Ayler’s later work with violinist Michael Sampson, fiddler Lars Svanteson here appears to be Frippe’s closest associate, constructing counter melodies to complement the saxist’s initial themes and often falling into Aylerian emulations as well. There are times when he too seems to be quoting from nursery rhymes and folk ballads; at other points he scrapes out caustic staccato single lines or slides a descending scratch across the strings. A tower of strength in other contexts, here Alke works very hard to keep the bass line walking — rarely bringing out his bow — while Uuskyla’s ratamacues, flams and rolls vary the time from standard jazz accents to free pounding.

To encapsulate: Frippe spends a little too much time offering up his pet licks and Ayler emulations and not enough time listening to the others. The tune would have been much more successful at half its length.

The same sort of scenario plays itself out on the second CD. On “Fripping”, for instance, when the violinist tries to pick up the theme — which Frippe has been mutating with clarinet squeaks — and figuratively run with it, the woodwind player suddenly halves the tempo, forcing the whole band to apply the brakes. Frippe double tongues and Svanteson triple stops until a march-like tempo from Uuskyla takes the piece out.

Frippe’s muzzled reed flutters only appear rhythmically appropriate at the end of the sprightly “Fasching”, but the CD’s first track is another matter. Nordström’s puppy love before the Ayler romance was directed towards the clarinet style of American Tony Scott. His relatively compact — less than seven minute — version of Scott’s “Swinging in Sweden” played on clarinet is a unique undertaking. Taken mostly in coloratura or a much, much higher register of the woodwind, the piercing split tones give you an idea of how Ayler may have sounded on the licorice stick, if he had played with a sympathetic bop-oriented rhythm section.

Frippe’s footnote status in Ayler’s career is expanded a bit with this set. Historically it shows how the messianic power of Ayler’s playing really affected one saxophonist. But musically it’s only partially fulfilling.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1: 1. The Environmental Control Office Disc 2: 1. Swinging in Sweden 2. Fripping 3. Fasching

Personnel: Bengt Frippe Nordström (tenor saxophone, clarinet); Lars Svanteson (violin); Björn Alke (bass); Peeter Uuskyla (drums)