Atomic at Nighttown

Matt Marshall BY

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Cleveland Heights, OH
February 10, 2015

Fresh in the glow of its 50th anniversary celebration, kicked off by a party a few nights earlier and extending through the end of the month, Nighttown put its eclecticism fully on display February 10, presenting powerful Scandinavian free-jazz group Atomic. The Nighttown faithful are, by and large, a straight-ahead crowd (two Manhattan Transfer shows set for Friday, February 13, sold out well in advance, for example), so it's good to see the folks there are still willing to push the envelope—it is, in fact, part on the club's vitality. Atomic, in just their second visit to Cleveland—the first a 2004 go at the Beachland Ballroom—made that vitality palpable, exploding with an orchestrated chaos that the 30 or so in attendance will likely not soon forget.

Over the course of two 45-minute sets, the quintet previewed all seven tracks from its forthcoming release, Lucidity (Jazzland), due out in March, plus one additional tune, "Stuck in Stockholm." That title notwithstanding, the group seemed ever- present in Cleveland, ever-present in the moment, fleshing out original post-bop compositions with an intensity and purpose that never waned. Leader Fredrik Ljungkvist, alternating between tenor sax and clarinet, occasionally directed traffic, most notably on the first-set closer "Major" where, with waves of his hand, he led pianist Håvard Wiik in exquisitely chosen, cutting charges into a roiling torment of trumpet, bass and drums. But in the main the group was guided by the music charted on its lone metal stand—full-bodied refrains that launched jagged individual and group lines in a braying but precise—even, at times, hummable, and always musical—clatter. It often recalled the cerebral passion of Andrew Hill's music.

Credit bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the group's new drummer, Hans Hulbækmo, for maintaining both mayhem and cohesion; Flaten aggressively attacked the strings with full-throttled strumming, stretching and other inventive manipulations (it was good to see him afforded two extended solos during the night, as well), Hulbœkmo likewise raged through all manner of invention from sawing the edges of his cymbals with a bow to knocking the rims with metal implements and employing a scattering of handheld percussion instruments. Yet the continual sonic shocks were concomitant with an ever-propulsive—even foot-tapping—rhythm.

Wiik was, perhaps, the least heard from of the group, using the piano more as a soloing instrument than as one to supply rhythmic comfort. Hard to pin down, he blinked in and out of a terrain groomed by visionaries as diverse as Cecil Taylor and George Gershwin, completing an inviting, dot-linking composite in the process. On the front line, Ljungkvist and trumpeter Magnus Broo were equal parts forceful and lyrical, pegging the music in place with shared, occasionally siren-like, refrains, then braiding perhaps before fraying to follow individual paths of soapbox squawking, bluesy introspection and carefree sauntering.

Anchored by points of leaving and return, Atomic's music throughout the evening was a richly tangled, frenetic cord that razzled listeners with both its freedom and cohesion. No icy intellectualism this, the boys from Norway and Sweden attacked the Cleveland night with a jazz as likely to kick in your teeth as stroke your brain. "A McGuffin's Tale" of sorts, as one of their latest compositions would have it—the journey, not some mysterious objective, being the thrilling part.

Set list: First Set—"Lucidity," "Start/Stop," "A New Juncture," "Major." Second Set—"Laterna Interfuit," "A McGuffin's Tale," "December," "Stuck in Stockholm."

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