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Maria Kannegaard: Maryland

John Kelman By

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While a new generation of Scandinavian musicians explores the integration of electronics and live sampling with conventional instrumentation, it's easy to forget that many of these intrepid young artists have an equally strong foundation in the jazz tradition. Danish-born but now Norwegian-resident pianist Maria Kannegaard, who graduated from Trondheim University in Jazz Performance, has been exploring the acoustic side of things, although at least one of her partners on Maryland—saxophonist Hakon Kornstad—has been equally deep into the arena of Nu Jazz and electro-centric improvisation.

In the all-acoustic context of Maryland, however, Kornstad proves no stranger to Kannegaard's stylistic melange of Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk, all filtered through a distinctly Norwegian lens that is counter the traditional reputation of "Nordic Cool" but, with hints of classicism and folkloric elements peaking through occasionally, is undeniably Scandinavian in complexion.

Kannagaard's other band mates—bassist Ole Morten Vagan—heard recently with saxophonist Tore Brunborg on the JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2008 junket, but who has been cropping up with increasing frequency on albums by pianist Havard Wiik and Motif, and drummer Hakon Mjaset Johansen, another member of Wiik's trio and Motif—make for a flexible rhythm team that are equal conversationalists on this set of original material (all but one tune by Kannegaard). There's a quirky confluence of spare beauty and oblique freedom on "Ballade 1," a tone poem where Kannegaard's romanticism juxtaposes with Kornstad's soft use of a style of multiphonics that he's carefully evolved on albums including his own Single Engine (Jazzland, 2007).

Kornstad is, in fact, rapidly becoming one of Norway's most important young saxophonists, as comfortable with the rock-edged electronica of Wibutee as he is the more diverse setting of Jazzland Community (Jazzland, 2007). His playing, effortlessly integrating a mastery of extended techniques that are all over Maryland, is at its strongest on "Av veien," where a knotty unison theme and visceral groove acts as rallying point for a freely improvised middle section, where Vagan's strummed chords synchronize perfectly with Johansen, while Kannegaard deftly combines idiosyncrasy and lyricism.

Vagan's sole compositional contribution, "Bethesda," meshes a gently turbulent opening and an elegant balladic groove, dark-hued and based around collective improvisation that favors simplicity, gradually shifting repetition and slowly intensifying dynamics over definitive motivic development. Though Monk-like in its playfulness, Kannegaard's less blocky playing on "En talmodig sjel," alongside Johansen's textural tendencies and an overall freer disposition, distances it, even as it refers to its source in the subtlest of terms with a cleverly implied swing from Vagan and Johansen that supports Kornstad's increasingly fervent interplay with the pianist.

What makes Maryland such a compelling album, where freedom is paramount, is its equal and unequivocal penchant for simple melody and unforced interplay. Group improvisation, couched in diverse contexts through Kannegaard's cerebral yet evocative writing, never sounded this pretty.

Track Listing: Sjufire; Ruslende; Ballade 1; Av veien; Bethesda; En talmodig sjel; Ballade 2; Hit og dit--Ingen hast; Forste vake; Yeah, yeah.

Personnel: Maria Kannegaard: piano; Hakon Kornstad: tenor saxophone; Ole Morten Vagan: double-bass; Hakon MjaJohansen: drums.

Title: Maryland | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Moserobie

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