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Food: Mercurial Balm

John Kelman By

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While Anglo/Norwegian musical encounters have recently been on the rise—Norway's In The Country and Jaga Jazzist, for example, recently discovering respective nexus points with British pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole and the Britten Sinfonia—it's of no small significance that Food has been exploring trans-national connective threads for a considerably longer time, with its eponymous 1999 recorded debut on British saxophonists Iain Ballamy's Feral imprint recorded nearly 15 years ago, at the 1998 Molde International Jazz Festival.

But much has changed since that first recorded encounter. It's been nine years since Food released its final quartet album, 2004's Last Supper (Rune Grammofon), before paring down to the remaining team of Ballamy and percussionist Thomas Stronen. Since then, Food has not only succeeded as a duo; the group has also become a revolving-door collective of sorts, with invited guests like pianist Maria Kannegaard and keyboardist Ashley Slater on Molecular Gastronomy (Rune Grammofon, 2008), and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and Austrian guitarist/soundscapist Christian Fennesz on Quiet Inlet, Food's 2010 ECM debut.

If moving to ECM has given Food greater international presence, Mercurial Balm deserves to garner the group even greater acclaim. With not just two guests, including the returning Fennesz and Molvær, but four collaborators also featuring guitarist Eivind Aarset and Indian slide guitarist/vocalist Prakash Sontakke, Mercurial Balm's biggest change—one reflected by the group's 2012 Trondheim Jazz Festival performance—is that Ballamy and Strønen are no longer inviting single guests to flesh Food out to a trio; instead, they're recruiting two guests to make it a quartet, at least on four of Mercurial Balm's ten spontaneous compositions, recorded both live, at both Britain's Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene in Oslo, but also at the latter city's renowned Rainbow Studio.

As ever, virtually every member of the group's various lineups has the word "electronics" tagged on to the end of their instrument listing—everyone but Molvær, whose sole appearance, barring a touch of reverb, is both curiously un-effected and, given his normal predilection for processing, a most compelling argument against those who assert that those who employ electronics do so because they need to. Instead, electronics have become integral, organic and seamless extensions when desired, and—supported by Fennesz' lush soundscapes and Strønen's textural percussion (electric, acoustic and electro-acoustic)—the interaction between the trumpeter and equally unprocessed Ballamy on "Moonpie" is irrefutable assurance that their instrumental acumen remains as strong as ever.

But the three tracks that represent Food's biggest move forward are those with Aarset and Sontakke. Beyond Aarset's own—and, contrasted with Fennesz, completely different—approach to sonics, Sontakke's Indo-centric steel guitar and plaintive singing move the group into new territory. Mercurial Balm is not without precedence in Food's previous work, but Sontakke further augments its broodingly beautiful tendencies to the tranquil and the propulsive, and the oblique and the lyrical by enriching the group's cultural touchstones. It's the group's most impressive recording yet, and with Strønen and Ballamy's intrinsic electro-acoustic sophistication now enhanced with a greater cast of characters, all ears should be focused on where this eminently accessible yet unfettered improvising unit will go next.

Track Listing: Nebular; Celestial Food; Ascendant; Phase; Astral; Moonpie; Chanterelle; Mercurial Balm; Magnetosphere; Galactic Roll.

Personnel: Thomas Strønen: drums, electronics; Iain Ballamy: saxophones, electronics; Christian Fennesz: guitar and electronics (1-6, 12); Eivind Aarset: guitar and electronics (7-9); Prakash Sontakke: slide guitar and vocal (7-9); Nils Petter Molvær: trumpet (6).

Title: Mercurial Balm | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ECM Records

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