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Excess Luggage: Hand Luggage Only

Dave Wayne By

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Given this Norwegian trio's two keyboards-plus-drums instrumentation, there may be the expectation of something avant-garde, or perhaps something reminiscent of '70s-era prog rock. However, on Hand Luggage Only, Excess Luggage's core values are firmly oriented towards aggressive, swinging modern jazz. This is clear from the CD's first track, the bobbing, weaving "Annoying You." The title may refer to the tune's mechanical-sounding, syncopated, repetitious melody—though nothing about it is truly annoying. Another thing that's immediately apparent is how well the instrumentation works, even in a relatively straight-ahead jazz setting. Steinar Nickelsen's Hammond organ provides bass lines throughout, while both keyboardists can comp during the other's solos, and the sounds are distinct enough to provide plenty of timbral contrast. Håkon Mjaset Johansen's driving rhythms tie the whole thing together. He's the sort of drummer who doesn't need to display formidable chops on every tune—his first priority is to support the soloists with crisp, beautifully executed fills and accents. Speaking of chops, the leader of the trio, veteran pianist Vigleik Storaas, is a world-class modern jazz player, known for his work fellow Norwegian Terje Rypdal, among others, who matches dazzling technique with an equally impressive stylistic range. Nickelsen is no slouch, either. His solos combine intricate, complex, ultra-modern lines with rousing, gospel-infused, Jimmy Smith-like rave-ups—a perfect balance of the intellectual and the sensual.

The program on Hand Luggage Only consists primarily of original tunes, most of them penned by Nickelsen. A couple of these ("Fast Swing," "Corrupted Minor"), like the aforementioned "Annoying You," have terse, almost crepuscular, melodies that nevertheless provide plenty of rhythmic and harmonic jumping-off-points for brilliant solos by Storaas and Nickelsen. "Kunming" is a dark, minor-key piece in 7/4 that comes closer to fusion than anything else on the CD. Storaas' "Jimmy's Thai Kitchen," by contrast, is a friendly blues based on the old chestnut "It Had To Be You." The set's lone standard—"If I Should Lose You"—is taken at a brisk walk, providing tons of space for extended solos by all. Though fast tempos and acrobatic improvisations are the trio's bread-and-butter, they shift gears quite effectively throughout Hand Luggage Only. "After All," is an atmospheric ballad with a lovely solo piano introduction and fine brushwork. "Laat" starts soft and slow, and is slowly urged to a simmering medium tempo by Johansen's splashy drumming. Here, the interplay between piano and organ is particularly sublime, with Nickelsen's thick, ropy lines curling around Storaas' piano like ancient vines on an old building.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its odd instrumentation, Hand Luggage Only is one of those rare CDs that surprises and delights with unexpected pleasures. The playing is first rate, the compositions are strong, and the whole concept just works. There's something for every taste here, yet there's no sense of artistic compromise. This speaks volumes for the players involved, in particular, and for the Norwegian jazz scene in general.

Track Listing: Annoying You; Jimmy's Thai Kitchen; Corrupted Mirror; After All; Fast Swing; Kunming; If I Should Lose You; Laat.

Personnel: Vigleik Storaas: acoustic piano; Steinar Nickelsen: organ; Hakon Mjaset Johansen: drums.

Title: Hand Luggage Only | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Parallell

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