Sten Sandell Trio

Flat Iron
(SOFA)

By Ken Waxman

May 10, 2004

Undeniably tough as iron, but with all the striations and curves on show, the music produced by this Scandinavian trio is anything but flat. Listening to the three tracks on this CD, you’ll note how in the right hands, standard jazz trio instrumentation can be molded into take-no-prisoners free improv.

With his harsh, jabbing piano lines, leader Sten Sandell has been exhibiting his stylistic influences from folk and ethnic musics, contemporary classical and improv since the late 1970s. Gush, a Swedish co-op he’s part of with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and percussionist Raymond Strid, is how most non-Swedes know him. But he’s also scored for music for film and dance performances and even recorded in duet with American saxist Ken Vandermark.

Another Vandermark associate, inventive Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love’s wealth of imagination has impressed nearly everyone he’s come in contact with over the past five years. He’s versatile too, holding down regular berths in bands as diverse as in the Free Jazz trio of Norway’s veteran reedist Frode Gjerstad and Finnish guitarist Raoul Björkenheim’s Jazz-Rock fusion band.

No afterthought, young Swedish bassist Johan Berthling gives as good as he gets here. No surprise either. His recording history ranges from romping, stomping Free Jazz with saxist Fredrik Ljungkvist and Strid to near-ambient microtonality in a duo with Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi.

Not that there’s any sign of that laid back persona on Flat Iron. Almost from the first notes, Berthling is in there bouncing and stretching contrasting string lines alongside the pianist’s runs, which at times take on a fleet Herbie Nichols-like congruence. Content to hold down the rhythmic function, Berthling gives the drummer enough space to rumble away on the snare and bass drum, as Sandell showcases contrasting dynamics with right handed, cascading tremolos and left handed basso swoops. Soon, the pianist is repeatedly pressing firmly on one key, building up some dramatic Silent Movie music style counterpoint until internal piano strums team up with similar motions from Berthling to ease the tension. As Nilssen-Love turns from what sounds like doorbell ringing to running a wetted finger along a drum top, Sandell’s electronically altered voicing introduces note clusters that reassert themselves as a new melodic statement.

Berthling affirms himself the most on the third and shortest track, introducing the theme with strong, Mingus-like even-handed pizzicato, with muted accompaniment from the drummer using brushes. Unleashing sine waves and altered, falsetto vocal exhortations, Sandell’s shrill tones prompt thoughts of how Frankenstein’s monster may have sounded as the electricity flowed through his head. When irregular drum pulses then appear, the pianist starts hammering out rough, left-handed key explorations, then thick, two-handed arpeggio clusters. Meanwhile, the bassist saws away col legno at the bottom of his range and Nilssen-Love provides asymmetric cymbal snaps and reverberations.

“Flat Iron 2” applies variations of all these techniques to the wiggling, double- timed sideways theme. Berthling exposes a harsh, ponticello timbre as if he’s dragging a knife blade across his strings; Nilssen-Love works his way to broken note bashing; and Sandell puts on his most impressive keyboard display.

Mixing some McCoy Tyner into his Herbie Nichols, the pianist’s irregularly vibrated touch accelerates to high frequency, doubles and triples in intensity and speeds along with a modal overlay. Finally flashing bent notes reconstitute themselves into rippling right-handed near-harpsichord timbres.

Standing Wave, this trio’s first effort in 2000 introduced an exceptional, improv piano trio. This CD confirms and enhances that first impression.