Trumpeter Norbert Gundersen once co-led Polite Conversation with vocalist/pianist Sally Upton. The band didn’t enjoy a great following in its own country, its only US release being the Flower Barrels
album, recorded in 1969 for the obscure Spayed Cat label. In the course of its four year existence, the band did, however, enjoy a significant following in Europe, through its music contributing greatly to the student riots in Paris in 1968. Upton quit music in 1972, having cut the Me, Myself And Others
album the previous year. In a moment of cynical opportunism she then became a go-go dancer, though by the end of the 1970s she had graduated as a French polisher and tree surgeon.
Despite public appeal Gundersen never deviated from his devotion to music, and by the late 1970s he had added the cornet, the flugelhorn, the contrabass valve trombone, and at least two members of the saxophone family to his instrumental armoury. A fair number of them were to be heard on his long deleted Gettin’ My Brass Outta Here On A Raft Of Reeds album from 1978, where he was joined by Nebraska piano legend Rufus ‘Grinner’ Smiley. Upton, who came out of her self-imposed exile from music, guested on vocals, kazoo, cowbell and ‘body percussion’. Such was the controversy Gundersen’s music was provoking at this time that no less a figure than Benny Carter was deeply critical of his work, going so far as to suggest that he played the soprano sax through an orifice other than his mouth.
In the intervening years Gundersen’s music has become less confrontational, and Wabashboard records supremo Hank De Mille has shown misguided faith en his iconoclastic take on hard bop by putting out this eleven track CD for anyone who will listen.
Judging by the picture in the accompanying booklet Gundersen has been keeping the surgeons of his hometown of Muskogee busy; indeed he now looks younger than he did on the cover of Polite Conversation’s Dialogue album, which was released only in Switzerland in August of 1968, and deleted in September of the same year.
Here Gundersen sticks to the alto and soprano saxophones, and in places plays the two horns simultaneously, hopefully through the same orifice after the manner of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Pianist Harlan Harlan is visually a devotee of Sonny Clark. Musically he is so stiff that Liberace swings by comparison. Drummer Brian Boyd, fresh from a ten-date tour of North Carolina with singer Ellen Sponge at the time of recording, has spent a great deal of time on the road, fleeing the hostility his playing provokes. An old cohort of Gundersen’s from the days of Polite Conversation, Boyd clearly knows the leader’s musical personality as well as he does his weakness for the compositions of Richard Carpenter –Chabootie and Boudoir are featured here and they both find Gundersen on soprano sax, taking liberties with pitch, phrasing, intonation and staying in tune. Indeed, his playing of the straight horn leaves as much to be desired as his dress sense.
Gundersen’s alto sax playing is informed, by his own admission, by the ‘soulful’ sound of a rutting moose, as apparently heard by him from the comfort of his trailer when he last sought refuge in Alaska. (He was only able to pull out his camera for the cover photo after an extended epiphany.) On Donald Byrd’s "Pentatonic" he fashions a solo that is as effective for the pauses he takes to draw breath as it is for any inherently musical qualities, and to be sure these pauses will be welcomed by many ears, especially as he spends a lot of time playing in the horn’s lowest register by way of tribute to the moose.
If the tone of his booklet note is anything to go by, Gundersen sees himself as a musical prophet without honour. He rails against what he sees as the forces ranged against him, and fulminates on the theme of throwing music in their faces. This CD is apparently the first in a series documenting his work, and if ever there was a strong case for euthanasia then the thought of such a series is just that.