Jazzahead 2011: April 28 - May 1, 2011
Following Vallon's well-deserved encore and a short break, Mathias Eick delivered a potent set that, concentrating largely on Skala (ECM, 2011), but also featuring select tunes from his 2008 ECM debut, The Door, demonstrated just how far his quintet has come since its 2010 Natt Jazz performance in Bergen, where he premiered some of the music that would ultimately find its way to his latest recording.
The lineup for Jazzahead in Bremen was the same, with the exception of Torstein Lofthus replacing drummer Erland Dahlen, and also including keyboardist Andreas UIvo, electric bassist Audun Erlien and drummer Gard Nilssen. Lofthusa drummer who can kick it hard with the aggressively metal-tinged Black Jazz of Shining, the Tony Williams Lifetime/Weather Report-informed fusion grooves of Elephant9 or the ambient-meets-anthemic sound of guitarist Eivind Aarset's Sonic Codex groupworked in uncanny synchronicity with Nilssen. The two drummers often complemented each other, like two friends finishing each other's sentences, occasionally locking into a unison that gave the second half of "Oslo" its driving power, with Erlien and Ulvo pushing a strong ostinato, over which Eick tastefully built layer-upon-layer of sound with his array of effects before returning to the song's memorable, melancholic theme.
Eick opened the set by running Skala's first four tunes in sequence, and while the quintet performed the material with more fire and abandon, it was much closer to the feel of the album than Eick's Mai Jazz 2008 show in Stavanger, where he turned the relatively subdued The Door (ECM, 2008) into a far more kick-ass affair. Still, despite the more electrified energy of Skala, it can't come close to the firepower of Eick's group in performance. Ulvo is a charter member of the quietly groundbreaking Eple Trio, as well as saxophonist Frøy Aagre's quartet and, along with In the Country's Morten Qvenild and Splashgirl's Andreas Stensland Løwe, represents the next generation of Norwegian jazz pianists; astute listeners and mind-expanding sonic manipulators all, who bring a pop sensibility to an improvised music context..
A context that fits perfectly with Eick's emerging vision as a leader. As a charter member of the progressive-leaning Jaga Jazzist, Eick had already proven himself a masterful improviser with strong roots in the plaintive melancholy of Kenny Wheelerwhile equally well-versed in the traditions of Clifford Brown and Miles Davison ECM recordings by guitarist Jacob Young and pianist/harpist Iro Haarla, but it's been in the emergence of his own recordings where he's managed to consolidate the broad musical interests that appear endemic to so many young Norwegian musicians. A pop sensibility colored his approach to singable melodies, while hints of European classicism imbued form and harmonythough hints of folk music could also be found, in particular on "Joni," which married Joni Mitchell's harmonic ambiguity with Wheeler's sense of yearning. Like fellow Norwegian trumpeters including Per Jørgensen, Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvær, Eick treats embouchure as a palette, rather than a definer of sonic specificity. But while he adopted a breathier tone at times, overall his sound was more burnished than that of Henriksen or Molvær, even leaning towards a sharp, piercing tone during some of his more energetic moments.
Audun Erlien (Torstein Lofthus in background)
Nilssenanother broad player who ranges from the extreme, high volume freedom of Puma to the more controlled and acoustic environs of Zanussi Fiveplayed a smaller kit than Lofthus, who favors a big bass drum over the smaller one usually found in jazz contexts. But while Nilssen may not have had Lofthus' oomph at the low end, he more than made up for it with the rest of the kit, as he locked in during the climactic peaks of "Oslo," only to pull back for the return to its lighter theme. Now in his forties, Erlien (another member of Aarset's Sonic Codex group), has been steadfast with his commitment to electric bass, and his ability to simultaneously act as harmonic anchor and thematic partner made him far more than "just" a rhythm section partner, as was also true of Nilssen and Lofthus. Yes, there were plenty of places in Eick's music where groove was paramount, but there was an inherent flexibility that transcended straight-ahead timekeeping. There may have been stronger roadmaps to follow in Eick's music (in contrast to the more sketch-driven music of Vallon's group) but Eick's remained a deeply interpretive unit, and one that continues to connect on deeper and deeper levels, the more time it works together.