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Acuna/Hoff/Mathisen: Jungle City

John Kelman By

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While some accuse the musical innovations taking place in Scandinavia as diluting "America's art form," there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. Many of the artists regularly stretching jazz's boundaries by introducing outside references can play in the tradition; they just choose not to. With Finding Nymo (ACT, 2009), Norwegian trombonist Helge Sunde and his Ensemble Denada incorporated elements of modern technology, traditional music and cinematic Frank Zappa-esque classicism, but swung hard—and with conviction—in the best tradition of American big band jazz. The group's bassist, Per Mathisen, is one of the reasons the group grooves with such authority. With Jungle City, he turns to a smaller ensemble, and explores a different facet of his roots in the American tradition.

Jungle City sounds, in fact, as if it were recorded in Los Angeles rather than Austria. Featuring busy Norwegian keyboardist Jan Gunnar Hoff, the album documents his and Mathisen's nascent relationship with percussionist Alex Acuña. Breaking out with Weather Report on the fusion super group's seminal Black Market (Columbia/Legacy, 1976) and best-selling Heavy Weather (Columbia/Legacy, 1977), Acuña has forged an intensely active career, with countless recording and live dates with artists ranging from Pat Metheny Group keyboardist Lyle Mays, Yellowjackets, Shirley Horn, and Lee Ritenour to Richard Thompson, Shawn Colvin, Joni Mitchell, and Rickie Lee Jones. Acuña first met Mathisen and Hoff at a Latin music festival in Tromso, Norway, and was so thrilled with the first rehearsal that, as the story goes, he jumped out of his chair after the first few bars, screaming "We have to play much more together!"

It's easy to hear why. In addition to being a monstrously strong acoustic bassist, Mathisen's a frighteningly talented electric player...and a fine writer to boot. Much of Jungle City pays homage to the kind of groove-driven, synth-heavy fusion innovated by Weather Report. On his "One for Jaco," Mathisen's fretless playing references Jaco Pastorius' ability to keep an electrified samba grooving with unshakable aplomb, at the same time executing complex arrangements and tight unison lines. His solo is equally reverential, but avoids direct imitation as he builds to a fever pitch; one passage so blistering that it might even have challenged the late bass icon. Hoff's synth solo is no less blinding, pushed to greater heights by Mathisen and Acuña's frenzied support, while Acuña's powerful closing solo is so well constructed that it's only in retrospect that it becomes clear that he overdubbed some percussion parts to further turn up the heat.

And that's only one track on the thoroughly exciting Jungle City. From the higher velocity of Mathisen's title track and frenetically swinging "Jangala," to Hoff's abstract, synth-laden "Visions" and more upbeat, equally Joe Zawinul-esque "Tribute," Jungle City clearly reveals an unmistakable reference point for these two fine Norwegian players, on one of Acuña's best co-led sessions to date.

Track Listing: Jungle City; Jangala; Blessing; One for Jaco; Voices; Maya Pejo; Det Bästa; Africa; Visions; Tribute; NightZone.

Personnel: Alex Acuña: drums, percussion; Jan Gunnar Hoff: grand piano, Fender Rhodes, keyboards; Per Mathisen: electric bass, fretless bass, acoustic upright bass, Yamaha Silent electric upright bass.

Title: Jungle City | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Alessa Records Jazz & Art

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