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Marc Mommaas / Nikolaj Hess: Ballads & Standards

Budd Kopman By

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Many, if not most, of today's jazz players end up, sooner or later, becoming composers. Hence, on top of searching for and hopefully finding their personal means of expression when performing (composing in real-time), they now must also develop a personal compositional style which fits their aesthetic outlook, and which is accessible enough by other players to allow group expression.

While there are relatively few completely sui generis "performing composers" (Satoko Fujii, Gebhard Ullmann and Carla Bley, to name a few), broad stylistic groups do exist as in the New York City "downtown" scene, or the ECM-ish "northern European/Scandinavian" scene. The players within each relatively amorphous group know each other, play with each other and form groups which might last for one recording or many years.

This is jazz as an attitude, an aesthetic if you will, and not a style. And yet, there still exists "mainstream" jazz which takes its stylistic, harmonic and rhythmic starting points from the "Golden Era" and modernizes it in various ways; there is even a jazz-as-repertory movement. Easily accessible, this is where "standards" are improvised upon, and everyone has a good time.

All of the above is in preparation for the extraordinary album Ballads & Standards by tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas and pianist Nikolaj Hess, with support on three tracks by bassist Thomas Morgan and guitarist Vic Juris on one track. The immediate back-story to this recording is that the duo was performing at the 2012 Copenhagen Jazz festival, playing two or three concerts a day of their own music, but ended with a set made up of ballads and standards only. To quote Mommaas, ..."It felt incredible to play a ballad after all that activity, and recognizing this as a very special moment we decided to keep the ballads and slower standards coming until the music would give us the cue to shift gear. But that never happened, the magic kept coming..."

This "magic" has been transported to the studio, and for almost an hour, the extremely close musical connectivity of Mommaas and Hess stops time, allowing us respite and solace from this increasingly frightening and seemingly mad world.

Of course, one does not know this until the music is heard, and glancing at the set list might give one pause. While the first tune is the gorgeous "The Peacocks" by Jimmy Rowles, and the last is Johnny Green's ubiquitous "Body And Soul," in between are two tunes that almost epitomize the saccharine and pop: "The Shadow Of Your Smile" and "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." However much the thought of slogging through those two is ameliorated by Jay Livingston's "Never Let Me Go" (see Essentials by Daniel Schlaeppi and Marc Copland for a stunning version of this tune), it might feel like a high price to pay.

But no —in the end, these tunes are treated like the others, and, in fact end up feeling like a purposeful challenge. For each tune, Mommaass and Hess use the familiar methodology (with one exception) of melodic declamation followed by an investigation into the very nature of what makes the tune tick. It is here that Hess and Mommaas shine in that one or the other (and sometimes together) are dissecting the melody, harmony or both. The results are far, far away from tune and improvisatory variations closed by a recap.

The works exactly because the tunes are well-known, after all they are "standards," and hence the ear has a kind of scaffold on which to hang, allowing the improvisations to go where they may. Yes, this all sounds like a description of a "normal" jazz set, but the mastery of Mommaas and Hess completely overwhelms any feeling of normal.

There is not one second of flab, not one note which is extraneous, especially on "Shadow" and "Rainbow." A set completely made up of slow and/or romantic tunes is bound to have a delicious intensity, but could easily collapse under its own weight. Not here, not for one moment.

The one exception mentioned above is Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood" which is introduced by what could be a take on Debussy's "Cathedrale Engloutie" leading to a saxophone rumination which only in retrospect is related to the tune proper.

There is much, much more to savor on Ballads & Standards, which fairly begs for the replay button to be immediately hit. This is art of the highest standard, and a record which will most definitely be a "best of" 2016.

Track Listing: The Peacocks; Ask Me Now; The Shadow Of Your Smile; In A Sentimental Mood; Somewhere Over The Rainbow; Never Let Me Go; Body And Soul.

Personnel: Marc Mommaas: tenor saxophone; Nikolaj Hess: piano; Thomas Morgan: bass (tracks 2, 3, 6); Vic Juris: guitar (track 5).

Title: Ballads & Standards | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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