xTet Project: Phase First (2010)
With the continued upsurge of music coming from Norway, it can be a challenge keeping track of which player is on what axis; equally revealing is the near-relentless cross-pollination taking place amongst artists young and old, and from an unfettered variety of musical spaces. Oslo's Kennel Collective may consist of young groups traversing the seemingly wide chasm between country and free improv, but the ultimate goal of this eight-ensemble collective which includes Splashgirl (whose Doors. Keys. (AIM Records) was one of 2007's best debuts) is remarkably simple: "Making good music with good people." xTet Project, the brainchild of woodwind multi-instrumentalist Lars. H. Kurverudguest on Doors. Keys. and member of the extended Splashgirl Sextetis another fine debut, mining similar territory in terms of spatial use and decay, but possessing its own distinct personality.
The link to Splashgirl is further cemented by the participation of that group's primary composer, Andreas S. Løwe, an ambitious young pianist who curated the Punkt Elope series in 2008 and 2009, at Kristiansand's ever-intrepid Punkt Festival, shining a bright spotlight on some of Norway's most intriguing up-and-comers. He's an ideal musical companion for Kurverud; a sensitive player capable of breathing hazy soundscapesa combination of prepared piano and electronicsonto the abstract and rarefied landscape of "Linje," one of two collective improvs that reach back to saxophonist Jan Garbarek's wind harp-driven Dis (ECM, 1977) as a touchstone. He's also capable, however, of more directalbeit characteristically spare and delicatepianism on the melancholy opener, "Intro," one of four tracks that balance Phase First's greater spontaneity with resonant song form.
In addition to a rhythm section featuring bassist Glenn Ph. Nilsen and drummer Gunnar Sæter, xTet is fleshed out to a quintet with guitarist Håvard Skaset. Another fearless yet selfless guitarist who, in addition to employing a variety of by-now conventional unorthodoxies, Skaset simultaneously shifts xTet Project to the west and the east on "Banjari," where his solo banjo intro curiously references American folk concerns but with a touch of Indian linearity, before the group enters with a quirky pulse not far distanced from Bill Frisell's more drily comedic writing, but with a different instrumental focus. Elsewhere, on the ambling "Liamé," Skaset supports Kurverud's long-toned but dynamically ebbing-and-flowing melody with rich, sustaining chords, before turning to a tart, slightly gritty solo that, by moving in, out and around the beat and harmonic center, becomes an unsettledand unsettlinghigh point of the 55-minute set.
The combination of fluctuating tempos, volume shifts from a whisper to a roar in a matter of moments, and a sonic approach ranging from spare and direct to ethereal and atmospheric, might make xTet Project's music seem inaccessible. Taken as a whole, however, what's most surprising is that even on tracks like "Iene,"beginning in Ligeti-like microtonality but, with the entry of Nilsen and Sæter, assuming a distinctly Norwegian approach to temporal elasticity and traditionalismthis deeply cinematic music remains strangely appealing...and undeniably beautiful. Once again, Norway's courageous improv scene delivers another fine group of great nuance, power and profundity.
Track Listing: Intro; Linje; Liamé; Ludosant; Iene; Langsam; Ladies Bird; Pile; Banjari; Svitte; Part II; Part III; Part IV.
Personnel: Lars H. Kurverud: saxophones, flutes, bass clarinet; Håvard Skaset: guitar, banjo; Andreas S. Løwe: piano, electronics; Glenn Ph. Nilsen: bass; Gunnar Sæter: drums, percussion.