Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: June 23-25, 2011
Two nights later, Scandinavia's Atomic delivered its own kind of high energy setrock music, no, but certainly rocking music. With Swedish saxophonist/clarinetist Fredrik Ljungkvist the quintet's spokesperson, with comments like "Thank you thousand times, much. Nice town, Ottawa; tomorrow we leave for Toronto, perhaps you've heard of it?" it was clear that, while Atomic's music requires some serious players, it didn't preclude them from having all kinds of fun throughout their 80-minute set at the NAC Studio.
Atomic, from left: Håvard Wiik, Fredrik Ljungkvist
Magnus Broo, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (hidden), Paal-Nilssen-Love
Ljungkvist is also a member of the recently formed The Deciders, having played at Bergen, Norway's Natt Jazz just a couple weeks prior. Both The Deciders (its music largely written by leader, Norwegian bassist Ole-Morten Vågan) and Motifanother Vågan project, featuring a different Atomic alum, Norwegian pianist Håvard Wiikare clearly inspired/informed by the now ten year-old Atomic, even as the younger Vågan takes those groups in their own directions, heard most clearly on Motif's outstanding three-CD box, Facienda (Jazzland, 2010). But Atomic was there first, a quintet that belies a popular international misconception that all music coming from that part of the world all falls into the category of "Nordic cool." Atomic is no misnomer for this group that also features Swedish trumpeter Magnus Broo and, both from Norway, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, who performed the previous evening at the same venue with The Thing, an outrageous improvising trio featuring the massively extroverted Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson.
But as much as Atomic was capable of generating heat, it was not about an all-out and relentless sonic assault. Combining new music with tracks culled from the recent two-volume live Theatre Tilter (Jazzland, 2010), Atomic's two primary composersLjungqvist and Wiikwrite music that's episodic, expansive in its reach and as likely to cull influences from contemporary classicism as it is from the American jazz tradition. And make no mistake, Atomic clearly comes from a lineage that blends, collage-like, the music of saxophone adventurers Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Peter Brötzmann. The Brötzmann connection is particularly relevant, with Nilssen-Love a current member of the elder saxophonist's Chicago Tentet, and both the drummer and Flaten connecting through their work with another Brötzmann alum, veritable cottage industry mult-instrumentalist Ken Vandermark.
The set kicked into high gear immediately, with Wiik's "Green Mill Tilter," perhaps a nod to trumpeter Kenny Wheeler's recently uncovered classic, Windmill Tilter (Fontana, 1969). But Atomic's version of structure-driven free jazz is distanced from the expat Canadian trumpeter's characteristically melancholy music, though Broo does, at times, demonstrate the same remarkable control in the upper register that Wheeler has made a touchstone throughout his career. But Wheeler has never written music of such maelstrom-like intensity: a brief, swinging theme from the horns leading to a pulsating ostinato over which Broo's unbridled energy and occasionally gritty tone set a high bar for the set to come.
But if Broo is a virtuosic player with a tone that ranges from burnished to gritty, the rest of the members of Atomic had no trouble keeping up, and twisting and turning the free passages into directions so unexpected, that it was clearfrom the eye contact, smiles and, at times, outright laughter amongst the groupthat, ten years on, it's still playing with the same infectious energy, commitment and sense of fun that it did when it first came together. Ljungqvist, at one point, delivered a tenor solo of no small poignancy, in a passage where space was a sixth member of the group, but it wasn't to last, as he pushed forward into a groove-driven section where his expressive screams, squonks and wails were matched by Nilssen-Love's intuitive ability to anticipate where the saxophonist was going next, and meet him head-on.
Wiik was occasionally lost in the mix, at least in the front rows of the venue, as the horns and drums dominated, but his engagement was absolute throughout the set, as Atomic broke down, into various permutation and combination subsets, his early solo in "Green Mill Tilter," a marvel of seemingly reckless abandon, but always with a purpose.
A purpose that was at the core of the entire set. Flaten's sawing arco, hard slapped pizzicato and excursions into riff-based groove were the fire in the engine room, along with Love, who combined loose, around-the-kit, ebbs-and-flows with plenty of swing, the occasional backbeat, and the kind of acutely interactive rubato playing that's a particular strength of the Scandinavian scene. But no matter how wild and extreme Atomic got, there was always a form around which the quintet rallied. At one point, during a Ljungkvist solo, he suddenly raised his right arm, and in a wide swoop, pulled the group back to form. It was the kind of strongly visual direction that Atomic has made a defining marker, and its Ottawa set was an exhilarating combination of complex, episodic writing and absolutely freewheeling and sometimes even hilarious improvisational interplay. The group received a well-deserved standing ovation from the roughly two-thirds capacity crowd, but they didn't ask for an encore, because after 80 minutes of Atomic, everyone needed a rest.
Coming up: Kurt Elling, Brad Mehldau/Joshua Redman, Return to Forever IV, Chet Doxas, and Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig.
Days 1-3 | Days 4-6