A 21st Century jazz aficionado really shouldn't be surprised about where his/her jazz is coming from. That said, the whole concept of an Icelandic jazz scene may well bring a wry smile. Known primarily for innovative rockers Björk and Sigur Rós, and smooth jazzers Mezzoforte, the volcanic island nation has also borne innovative jazz artists such as guitarist Hilmar Jensson and bassist Skúli Sverrisson, both former musical associates of Berklee-educated saxophonist/composer Jóel Pálsson who, unlike Jensson and Sverisson, returned to Reykjavik, where he's tapped into the fertile local scene to create some highly distinctive and very appealing modern jazz.
Horn, Pálsson's fifth recording as a leader, mixes hard-edged jazz-rock fusion, ECM-ish modal jazz, and complicated-but-humorous Frank Zappa-esque progressive rock. Despite their polished surfaces and crafty melodies, Pálsson's compositions are deceptivethey never quite go where anticipated. These multi-sectioned tunes are buoyed by infectious keyboard riffs which serve to center and ground the activity without ever stamping out the flames. "Tusk" is a perfect examplean anthemic melody over a funky 4/4 keyboard line flips over into a 6/8 space for probing Rhodes, tenor sax, and flugelhorn solos. The structure is open enough to permit each soloist to take on a radically different character, but it all ties together in the end. "Frahvorf" keeps climbing just when it seems as if it's going to come back down; Eyþór Gunnarsson's Moog solo ends unexpectedly to make way for Pálsson's smoking tenor, though it's trumpeter Ari Bragi Kárason who takes the star turn, egged on by turbulent keyboards and punchy drums. "Tjorn" is similar, but gets a more straightforwardly rock-ish treatmentsounding a bit like something Jaga Jazzist might cook up. Davíð Þór Jónsson's B- 3 rave-up here is priceless. Oddly, the band's pure jazz chops are most evident on two moody ballads"Keilir" and "Þel"and the bizarre, Moog-infused "Pigs In Space."
The playing throughout Horn is world-class. Pálsson's big, Michael Brecker-esque tenor finds a perfect foil in Kárason's nimble, articulate trumpet. Einar Scheving is a powerhouse drummer capable of pretty much anything at any time. Gunnarsson is a dynamic keyboardist as comfortable with Rhodes and Moog as he is on an acoustic instrument, with his classical training showing up in spades during his solo on "Stigmal." Multi-instrumentalist Jónsson is also an accomplished keyboard soloist who definitely knows his way around the Hammond B-3. The absence of electric guitar gives Horn an outwardly mellow and jazzyalmost hard-boppishcomplexion. Pálsson is clearly fond of vintage keyboard sounds, and while Horn is rife with surging, Leslie-fied Hammond B-3, effects-laden Rhodes, and squealing Moog, there is no attempt to recreate the sound or feel of '70s fusion.
Despiteor maybe because ofits unusual provenance Horn is an exceptionally impressive recording, full of fascinating compositions, first-rate musicianship, and inspired interactions.
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