Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 1-2, October 20-21, 2009
Norwegian trombonist/composer/arranger Helge Sunde first emerged on the international scene as a member of saxophonist Geir Lysne's Ensemble, responsible for a series of albums including The Greig Code (ACT, 2009). His own ACT debut, Denada (ACT, 2006), was an exciting combination of broad colors, swinging grooves and muscular solos. It also became the namesake for his current group, Ensemble Denada, whose first album, Finding Nymo, is out this month, again on ACT. For Sunde's performance at beautifully renovated Old Firehall (Alte Feuerwache) in Mannheim, he brought a 15-piece big band that demonstrated the potential for expanding a decades-old tradition with modernistic twists and turns.
Helge Sunde Ensemble Denada
Performing Finding Nymo in its entirety, Ensemble Denada nevertheless expanded the album with more solo space, featuring almost everyone in the group on the 10-song, 75-minute set. Running the album down in the same sequence, the affable Sunde introduced the music as a travelogue, with song titles reflecting the various stops along the way. Cinematic in expanse, with tight arrangements that were equal parts Gil Evans, Nino Rota and Frank Zappa, Sunde's compositions sometimes reflected his own dry wit, though he proved capable of deeper beauty on "MoonCrier," which began impressionistically, but gradually coalesced into a lovely feature for Børge Are Halvorsen's lush flute work. It was also a good example of Sunde's astute use of the broad palette his ensemble provided: three trumpets, three trombones, bass, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, flute, piano, guitar, bass, drums and, courtesy of Mungolian Jet Set's Peter Barden, an electronic hybrid Sunde introduced as "percelectronics."
An early highlight was drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen's powerful solo on the funky "Obstler," where the melody was passed between horns and guitar like a tag team. Johansenalso heard on The Arcades Project (Jazzland, 2007) as a member of pianist Havard Wiik's triobrought no shortage of energy and curious invention to his soloand his playing throughout the setand when he soloed in tandem with Barden, it was pure magic, orchestral in scope.
A good thing, as Sunde's approach to big band charts is equally orchestral. Brash and brassy at times, elsewhere rich, warm and subtle, Sunde took a thoughtful, lyrical solo on "MoonCrier" that supported a commonly held belief that the trombone comes closer than any other horn to approximating the nuanced expression of the human voice. Equally melodic, bass saxophonist Nils Jansen closed the set with a spare solo on the tranquil "Lullaby of Broltesia."
l:r: Atle Nymo, Helge Sunde, Frode Nymo, Even Kruse Skatrud
Børge Are Halvorsen, Erik Johannessen
Sunde's three-part "Italian Suite" reflected the breadth of his compositional acumen, as "When In Rome" began with a visceral, mid-tempo groove bolstered by Johansen and bassist Per Mathisen's deep sense of groove. It was another highlight, with Russian pianist Olga Konkova injecting occasional fluid yet abstruse voicings and guitarist Jens Thoresen playing with a combination of grit and grace, his dense tone a constant foil for the horns throughout the show. "Valse Triste," another ballad, was all color, and an early feature for tenor saxophonist Atle Nymo who, along with soprano saxophonist/brother, is the namesake for Finding Nymo's title. The album's title track, beginning with a quirky cue, lead into an open-ended improv duet between the two brothers, a clear indicator of irreproducible familial empathy, even as Barden and Johansen injected the occasional subtle punctuation. When the rest of the ensemble reentered, it became a fast-paced, contrapuntal arrangement, again bolstered by Mathisen's simple yet absolutely effective choices.
Mathisen took a solo on the closing "Bryk," which began with Konkova's economically abstract yet profoundly beautiful introduction. Combining a deep, resonant tone reminiscent of Arild Andersen and Anders Jormin, Mathisen was a showstopper as he combined lengthy glissandi, strong chords and lightning-fast lines to build a solo that received some of the loudest applause of the evening.
l:r: Jens Thoresen, Frank Brodahl, Peter Baden, Anders Eriksson
Marius Haltli, Per Mathisen, Håkon Mjåset Johansen
In these times of fiscal constraints, traveling with a 15-piece ensemble is a statement in itself, but just as big bands appear to be making something of a comeback in the United States, so too are large ensembles in Europe, with Sunde's Ensemble Denada, Geir Lysne, fellow Norwegian Trygve Seim and house orchestras like WDR in Germany and Holland's Metropole Orkest. Proving that it's possible to reference the jazz tradition while incorporating modern elements, Sunde's performance with Ensemble Denada made clear that big bands absolutely have a place in the broadening jazz continuum of the 21st Century.
AAJ's next Enjoy Jazz piece will cover "The Blue Sound: 40 Years of ECM" in its entirety.
All Photos: John Kelman