When Louis Armstrong laid down his Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions, he defined jazz as a soloist's art. Since his compact ruminations, generations of players have allowed the solo to define their identity and their composing. Think of Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul," Bud Powell's titanic keyboard workouts, Miles Davis opening new modal spaces on "So What" and John Coltrane's cataclysmic reworking of "My Favorite Things"—these were pinnacles of how the solo has driven jazz composition to date.
With his latest release Joakim Milder, the Swedish saxophonist, has inverted the relationship of the jazz solo and jazz composition. On Monolithic he presents a series of what can only be called etudes (a label aided by the fact that he titles them with roman numerals, albeit non-sequential ones). His taut compositions for a quintet of trombone, saxophone, trumpet, bass and drums resemble the Dave Holland Quintet's airtight forms and Dave Douglas' knottier tunes. Rather than run the players through a network of chord changes, Milder makes them link varied ensemble passages, textural explorations and tricky rhythmic stops into a tight whole. Milder re-injects surprise into the jazz idiom by shelving the head-solo-head format, opting instead for compositional tension and longer narrative arcs.
Each of Monolithic 's thirteen compositions works with the same basic materials: succinct yet intense solos, fluctuating pulses, courtesy of bassist Christian Spering and drummer Peter Danemo, brittle glass-like harmonies and more textural passages where the musicians explore the extended techniques of their instruments. On "IX" a gentle, probing melody quickly dissipates into muted drones, percussive mouthpiece pops and other atmospheric gestures, until the opening melody concludes the piece—a twisted take on the head-solo-head form.
On "VII" trumpeter Staffan Svensson, Milder and Spering dialogue, with Svensson darting in and out of Milder’s snaking soprano sax and Spering punctuating the open spaces with tight clusters of rhythmic and melodic counterpoint. By juxtaposing these moments of pure stasis and forward motion, they create a constant tension throughout the piece.
Such juxtapositions and unexpected contrasts make every piece on Monolithic a small journey, worth hearing from beginning to end to see where the group will resolve itself. "III" starts as a bold modal workout in the spirit of Miles' '60s quintet, with Spering and Danemo riding a dynamic, restless walking pulse, building a surely unstoppable momentum. Milder litters fragments of melody in their wake, aided by agile figures from trombonist Peter Dahlgren. Suddenly, Spering and Danemo drop out completely, leaving the saxophone, trumpet and trombone in a bubbling dialogue. It feels like moving upwards in an elevator, only to have it suddenly free-fall, and then be gradually borne up once again when the rhythm returns.
Milder composes tunes that create an ensemble effect, rather than ones that just act as soloing vehicles. He packs sweet harmonies, grooves, free passages and compact solos into almost every tune. Such diversity means that at times the tunes feel schizophrenic and lose spontaneity; when successful, they are captivating studies in how to balance composition and ensemble improvisation.
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