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Atomic: Pet Variations

John Eyles By

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Formed in the spring of 2000, Scandinavian "supergroup" Atomic recorded and released their first album Feet Music (Jazzland) in 2001. The years since have been remarkably stable for the quintet; they have produced albums at an impressive rate of about a disc a year, including two collaborations with Ken Vandermark's School Days group. The only change of Atomic personnel occurred in 2014 when drummer Paal Nilssen-Love left to be replaced by Hans Hulbækmo, with no cataclysmic effect on the music, which has consistently avoided being too "Scandinavian," instead leaning more towards the traditions of American jazz.

Compared to the relative stability of their past career, Pet Variations represents something of a blip for Atomic, not a revolution as such but a notable deviation from previous practice. Where their past albums largely featured material composed by members of the band—predominantly by reed player Fredrik Ljungkvist or pianist Håvard Wiik—here, apart from the pianist's title piece, all the tracks are compositions by outsiders. And what outsiders! Check out this (alphabetical) list: Carla Bley, Jan Garbarek, Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Lacy, Olivier Messiaen, Edgar Varese, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Brian Wilson... a very eclectic bunch, but quality from start to finish.

The album opens with Wiik's "Pet Variations," so named because it explores variations of Wilson's "Pet Sounds"—one of the two instrumentals on the Beach Boys' album of that name—before seamlessly segueing into a version of it, altogether making this the album's longest track at nearly nine minutes. It features all five players in full flight, playing a series of high-energy ensemble passages interspersed with individuals or pairs of players soloing. By comparison, Lacy's "Art" has a more laid-back feel while still undeniably holding onto the jazz tag, mainly sticking to its simple but haunting melody without over embellishing it, with Wiik's piano being particularly noteworthy. A short and snappy version of Bley's "Walking Woman" is dominated by a procession of fine solos, led off by Ljungkvist's sax and Magnus Broo's trumpet.

The presence of Varese and Messiaen in the above list of composers may have prompted a double-take from some jazz fans, but they need not worry as both pieces—on either side of Jimmy Giuffre's poignant "Cry Want"—fit beautifully into the album, sounding perfectly natural and at home. Atomic are to be congratulated on their selection and execution of the pair. After the Messiaen piece, the album draws to a close with two more European compositions,"Inri" by von Schlippenbach, and Garbarek's "Karin's Mode." Both are full-blooded American jazz from start to finish and bring the album to a rip-roaring conclusion.

When composing artists cover other songwriters' music, it can be anything from a holding operation—witness Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Other Folk's Songs (Atlantic, 1976) or David Bowie's Pin Ups (RCA, 1973)—to a mistake (Dylan's Self Portrait (Columbia, 1970), anyone?) but rarely a masterwork. Now, Pet Variations breaks that pattern, and deserves to be hailed as a triumph. One of Atomic's best to date.

Track Listing: Pet Variations/Pet Sounds; Art; Walking Woman; Un Grand Sommeil Noir; Cry Want; Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus; Inri; Karin’s Mode.

Personnel: Fredrik Ljungkvist: saxophone, clarinet; Magnus Broo: trumpet; Håvard Wiik: piano; Ingebrigt Håker Flaten: bass; Hans Hulbækmo: drums.

Title: Pet Variations | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Odin Records

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