Flutist Elsa Nilsson
is a strong voice performing on an instrument that has historically received secondary status in jazz music. Often the second or third instrument for saxophonists such as Eric Dolphy
, Charles Lloyd
and Tia Fuller, it would seem even the most passionate fans of the genre have relegated the flute as such. Modern times in jazz have however, cast that notion aside. Flutists covering a wide musical swath through the annals of modern jazz include the eclectic sounds of Nicole Mitchell
, the modern/post-bop works of Jamie Baum
, and the diverse, fearless approach to the instrument by Nilsson, a Swedish born, New York based whirlwind.
While the three aforementioned women willfully dispel the notion of the flute as somehow lacking the bold colors of trumpet and saxophone, Nilsson may be strides ahead in expressing the boldness of the instrument aside from electronic assistance. While her recording history includes electronics and mastery of the entire flute family, her sound is a combination of superior tone, physical strength, and a direct reflection of her personal human dynamism.
Her recent release Hindsight
(Bumblebee Collective, 2020) was a reactionary effort reflecting the confusion and betrayal experienced after the election of 2016. It joined the plethora of recordings of the past four years that have saturated jazz airwaves. Hard edged and broad based, the album is well conceived and brilliantly performed in expressing the narrative of our times. It is as well, a difficult listen, as its emotional efficiency is so plain as to return the listener to this place of anguish and outrage. It is the personal expressions of a collective of musicians unvarnished by lyricism and over- production.
In forming the trio SXNE (South by Northeast), Nilsson convenes bassist Bam Rodriguez and percussionist Rodrigo Recabarren
for an all improvised five movement suite, For Human Beings
(Bumblebee Collective, 2020). Recorded in January 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic, the trio decided to release the suite as a means to help people navigate these difficult and epic times. Though not created as such, the free, at times meditative music is like a peaceful response to Hindsight
. This is not to say the music is somehow soft and reflective-the suite has a broad range of emotion, from rising tides of deep percussive immersion, to Nilsson's gale force playing. It emulates in a way, five dance movements, each featuring its own unique cadence and athleticism.
Indeed, the entire notion of a suite was born in Baroque dance. The opening movement, "Forward," begins as a modal wash of sounds in meditative sequence, erupting into an elevated pulse of sound. As is the case throughout the album, Nilsson's imaginative melodic improvisation sits upon the groundswell of support provided by Recabarren's orchestral percussive canvas, and the eerily proficient bow work of Rodriguez. The second movement, "Opaque," dials things down a notch, with Rodriguez offering a strong pizzicato matched by Nilsson's long, deep, respirant tones.
"Perception," the third movement, is reflective of the suite in its entirety. It is the notion that all participants are "playing music," without regard to groove, harmonic structure, or preconceived notions of any kind. That may or may not be true, but this music is by title for the listener and left up ultimately to their sense of intuition. The piece does progress to a groove accentuated by Recabarren's tight snare and high-hat work. It falls into a march form at one point as well, ending in more of a march to oblivion, as the brief dalliance with rhythmic conformity obliterates into the void.
The fourth movement, "Within," is deeply meditative. It is as if three entities are seamlessly interacting without ever falling into direct contact. At this point, the listener's attachment to the music begins to fade, and understanding the message of the piece becomes essential. Our human instinct to always be doing one thing and thinking of yet another, becomes a barrier to understanding. The mindset clearly becomes the unification of our human dualism.
"Path," brings us down the home stretch-the energy level rises to levels not yet experienced, and provides an open stretch of interaction between the participants. It might well be described as a movement of hope within the unknown.
Nilsson has a purity of tone, and astonishing facility as a player. Her duo effort with pianist Jon Cowherd, After Us
(Self Produced, 2019), perhaps best exemplifies her talents as both an instrumentalist and composer. Her recordings largely include a concept, or express a narrative. As a sidewoman playing jazz, Brazilian, or any form she chooses, she can blow with the best of them, whether they be trumpeters, saxophonists or trombonists. Talent wise, she is the logical choice to provide a needed next step for her instrument in the world of jazz and improvised music. She has shown that outside of the music itself, she is an important voice for social justice, as well as innovation in form. Along the way, she lays to waste preconceptions often attached to her instrument. After all, it is she, not the instrument, that is expressing beauty in turbulent and epic times.