Avant-garde jazz has almost always had its sacramental side. Theres a reason for the devotion that some listeners bring to the mid-1960s music of John Coltrane.
Or to the output of his fellow saxophonist Albert Ayler. The spirituality in these performances wasn't subtext or suggestion; it radiated out from a fervent core.
Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, an astute Norwegian bassist, has experience with the fiery side of free improvisation: hes among the most prolific figures on the European experimental scene. His own music hasnt often reflected clear spiritual concerns. But it did, to resounding effect, during the strikingly different duo sets he played on Friday night, at Monkey Town in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the 5C Cafe in the East Village.
The catalyst for this expression was Elise (Compunctio), a gemlike album released in Europe last year. Named after Mr. Flatens grandmother, it consists mainly of hymns from Norways populist Christian revival in the 19th century. These were the songs that Elise Flaten learned and sang, and Mr. Flaten, together with the imposingly proficient saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, treats them like valuable but usable heirlooms. (Now available through iTunes, the album can also be streamed free at kornstad.com.)
Mr. Flaten and Mr. Kornstad were just as respectful with this material at Monkey Town, performing with virtually no amplification. A song called For Himmerigs Land Maa Man Kjempe moved from a bowed-bass invocation to a mournful, slow-moving melody, played with depth and presence by both players; it wasnt a far cry from certain Ayler recordings. Paa Hinside Orken, which came next, was more introspective, heeding a strong tonal center; it called Coltranes Alabama to mind.
Like the album the set also included the Keith Jarrett ballad Death and the Flower and one song on which Mr. Kornstad traded his tenor saxophone for a flute with a clarinet mouthpiece. (The mongrel instrument, which he calls a flutonette, imported a suggestion of Middle Eastern microtonality.) But mostly the focus was on deceptively simple abstraction, and on the intuitive bond between the two players.
Mr. Flaten later explored a different sort of interplay with the cellist Daniel Levin at the 5C Cafe: freeform and busy, with the power of unhinged commotion. Both musicians reveled in garbled textures, plucking and scraping, detuning their soundboard pegs, slapping their strings. It was easier in this context to appreciate the sheer breadth of Mr. Flatens technique and the ferocity of his attack.
There was nothing inherently spiritual about this outpouring: it was unadulterated free jazz, known to some adherents as energy music. But perhaps because of the imploring conviction of Mr. Flatens previous set, this one felt similarly driven. His strenuous exertions, equaled at every turn by Mr. Levin, suggested some kind of penance.
Ingebrigt Haker Flaten performs with the trumpeter Jawwaad Taylor on Monday at Local 269, 269 East Houston Street, Lower East Side; (212) 228-9874