August 22, 2005
Jazzaway Records JARCD 007
Life is a Beautiful Monster
Jazzaway Records JARCD 009
Jazzaway Records JARCD 005
By Ken Waxman
August 22, 2005
You could probably chalk up the more-or-less 30 year gap in the recording career of Norwegian bassist Bjørnar Andresen, who died 2004, to changing tastes in jazz fashion. There are little-recognized veteran stylists like him playing around wherever theres some sort of scene, but their recording opportunities are limited.
Someone who gained some attention in the early 1970s in bands with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and guitarist Terje Rypdal, Andresen, didnt seem to fit in with the glacial ECM sound to which the others migrated. Nor was he iconoclastic enough to pursue his own Free Jazz muse until he found international musicians with which to play, as did another local iconoclast, Stavanger-based saxophonist Frode Gjerstad. Instead Andresen continued gigging in Oslo, finally ending up as a sort of father figure for young jazz players there.
When one of them, alto saxophonist Jon Klette, founded Jazzaway records in 2003, Andresen got a few more recording dates in the last year of his life. The most distinctive here is Rock, the second CD by Bayashi, a co-op Free Jazz trio in which the bassist was involved. Bayashis first CD, from 2001 is Help Is On Its Way (Ayler aylCD-053). On the other hand, Life is a Beautiful Monster, although described as featuring Bjørnar Andresen, and with his picture on the booklet front, is a more atypical outing. In truth, hes merely one of 10 players in the Crimetown Orchestra (CO), where hard-core improvising taking second place to electronica and rock-tinged beats.
Tenor saxophonist Vidar Johansen, another journeyman who went from jamming at Oslos Club 7 in the 1970s to a gigging with leaders as different as American composer George Russell and local pop-jazz keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft, is another third of Bayashi. Both he and Wesseltoft show up in the CO as well.
Bayashis third and much younger member is drummer Thomas Strønen. Besides leading Food, a British-Norwegian combo with saxophonist Iain Bellamy, Strønens involved with a clutch of mainstream, pop-jazz and jazz projects. Trinitys CD Sparkling, features him with even younger tenor saxophonist Kjetil Møster also in the CO and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, one of the more widely known of Andresens successors.
Håker Flaten, another CO member, is an integral part of Gjerstads well-traveled Norwegian trio, and has also played with American saxophonist Ken Vandermark and Finnish guitarist Raoul Björkenheim. Tellingly, Andresens influence is such that among the tune dedications on Sparkling is one honoring the older bassist, who died between the recording of the CD and its mixing.
Key to all this is Rock, which despite its misleading title and short less than 43½ minute running time, is an outstanding example of near-telepathic trio music. Johansen is someone whose stints backing the likes of singer Van Morrison and playing in radio big bands didnt blunt his Free Jazz expertise. On tenor and alto saxophones, bass clarinet and flute hes able to adopt the perfect riposte to Strønens polyrhythmic displays and Andresens sophisticated bass work, which encompasses weirdly-voiced effects as well as standard lines.
Most multifaceted is the interconnection displayed on the more than 13½-minute So Give It Time. Subtly tinkering with his percussion patterns, Strønen bounces and resonates tones on his toms and snare as he simultaneously slaps his cymbals. Even as Andresen turns from walking to scraping to shuffle bowing sul ponticello, the drummer adds vibes-like resonation, ratcheting cow bell patterns and hand drumming pitter patter from his seat. Meanwhile, Andresen slurs out meandering mid-range tones that get thicker as the pitch lowers.
Reconstituting himself as a veritable gamelan orchestra, Strønen begins rattling different temple blocks, tubular bells and a sound tree as Andresens rhythm begins to resemble tones forced from a taut rubber band. Climax is reached when the drummers Africanized beats cross the bassists unexpected wah-wah rhythm, presaging the reedists rough-hewn tenor sax obbligato.
Escape is another stand-out, which at its exposition contrasts gentle, twittering flute textures and powerful drum rolls and bounces. Andresens string effects then wash over the improvisations of the other two, as stuttering, accented reed pitches find common ground with the drummer creating what sound like waves of plastic washboard rubs. Staccatissimo hand-drumming paradiddles and rebounds meet the bassists rubberized thumps, as Andresen produces natural register cadences, completing subsequent rubberized string pulses and bell-tolling sounds with a concluding single-note coda on tenor saxophone.
Elsewhere Johansen on saxophone or bass clarinet spews geysers of triple tonguing and pitch variations or a mist of heavy breathing vibratos over certain tunes. Andresen leans into his strings for measured whole tones or exhibits scrapping spiccato textures. Strønens reverberating cymbal accents are definitely acoustic, but at points the offbeat patterning from his kit suggests preset electronic drum pads.
Powerful rhythmic configurations coupled with more regular beats characterize Sparkling, which in non-neo-con terms is a more mainstream effort than Rock.
Displaying its evolving status, Trinity includes dedications to Argentinean tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, novelist Paul Auster and American miocrotonal reedist Joe Maneri among the CDs tunes. In truth, however, on Trinity the nearly 10½-minute Barberi salute, Møsters coarse double-tonguing and vibrating side-slipping slurs make him sound more like Sonny Rollins or Frank Wright than the Argentinean. Truthfully, Møster doesnt sound as if his tone could sheer paint off the wall as Gatos did in his heyday. However, as the instant composition alternates faster and slower segments, Håker Flaten displays his tough, plucked rhythm.
Puzzlingly, Swing it baby! which honors Andresen, is even more traditional. It could, in fact, be an outtake from Rollins 1958 The Freedom Suite LP, with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach. Strønen bounces, ruffs and rebounds; Håker Flaten meanders between a walking beat and double-stopping; and Møster lobs pitch and tone variation after variation. Speedily double- and triple-tonguing, his tone is as rough as Rollins was in those days, although his overblowing takes a more modern cast. Talk about retro, after a short bass solo, the tunes finale features the drummer and saxman trading fours.
Trinitys magnum opus is the four-part Suite for Marge, which is actually a little longer than the original The Freedom Suite recording. As Strønen appears to be rolling tones out of his drum tops with his palms, Møster occupies himself with bleating in false registers, tongue stopping and doits. As he snorts and slurs his reed, the drummer shakes his cymbals in a bop mode and the bassist sticks to 4/4 time.
Following an extended straight line of triple-tongued cadenzas, emotions rise as Møster begins squalling altissimo lines, chromatically providing his own counterpoint by pitchsliding his way down the scale. Pantonally he stretches his sound, alternating grunting bell-textures from the solar plexus and higher-pitched repeated arpeggios and key percussion. At points he could be playing two saxophones at once, with one sax line providing the melodic content, and the other developing and reshaping the theme.
As the sonorous reed output slows down with a diaphragm-expelled vibrato, theres a time when his breath could be vibrating Strønens cymbal or the sound could arise from stick movement on the drummers part. Fittingly, Håker Flatens accompaniment in passing tones steadies in the final section as the drummer adds torque to his cymbal statements, building up to a floating modern swing feel. With Møster evolving rubato slurred note patterning, the suite concludes as the bassman echoes each saxophone tone until both men slow to stasis.
Perhaps stasis would have helped Life is a Beautiful Monster, which, especially when compared to the other CDs, comes across as a sprawling, overblown literally example of pop/jazz/rock. Perceptibly, the hearts of the other nine musicians trumpeter Sjur Miljeteig, trombonist Øivind Brekke, guitarist Anders Hana and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love as well as Johansen, Klette, Møster, Wesseltoft and Håker Flaten were in the right place when they dedicated the CD to Andresen. Its just a shame their mouths and hands werent other places as well.
For a start, the less than 3½-minute Rest in Peace, which concludes the CD is really untypical of Andresens work, if Bayashi is the standard. Mostly made up of low frequency , unison horns moving in romantic melodiousness, as Andresen faintly thumps and thwacks bass effects, it almost flat lines at the end. After a pause, the final minute consists of an occasional buzz and a grating sound, as if Andresen was pushing his double bass across the studio with its spike abrading the floor.
Most of Life is a Beautiful Monster is taken up by a seven-part suite of the same name. As instrumentally sophisticated fusion, it inhabits an alternate universe to Rock and Sparkling. Most tellingly, Nilssen-Love, who has provided multi-dimensional backing for everyone from Gjerstad and Vandermark to Swedish pianist Sten Sandell, is reduced to playing exaggerated backbeat here, while Håker Flaten sticks to stuttering electric bass.
Enthusiastically rather than precisely recorded, the textures often bleed into one another. With extended synthesizer glissandi from Wesseltoft that often resemble electric piano output, drums high up in the mix, and occasional, muted fusion-era Miles Davis-like trumpeting from Miljeteig, the effect brings to mind some big band version of The Headhunters. Its more contemporary of course, since the electronic wave modulations from the synthesizer adds a curtain of diffused oscillation to the foot-tapping beat.
Confined mostly to vamps that sound closer to Neo Funk than the New Thing, the horn section doesnt often rise above riffing. However, the third cut includes a blistering, orgasmic reed screech. Considering it resembles Barbieris style more than anything on Sparkling, perhaps this is where Møster sincerely expresses his homage.
Before the suite ends with trigged samples and sine wave pulses that insinuate themselves among the hocketing sax cadences, Hana unleashes some slick, whammy-bar- distorted lead-guitar work, extended with wah-wah bass shimmies from Håker Flaten. Buried among the quivering outer space-like whooshes and whinnies from the synth, guitar riffs and saxophone overblowing, sporadic tones suggest Andresens presence. A standard bass pulse is heard one time as is a tone that resonates between an electrical socket buzz and squeaky door hinges,
By happenstance, Life is a Beautiful Monster was the bassists last recorded performance he died only three weeks later. No matter its own merits, COs sound wasnt really his music. His legacy is better served by listening to Bayashi and the players he encouraged who make up Trinity.