In March I reviewed Natural Connections,
the second album by composer/arranger Peter Brem’s superb Denmark-based big band. Herewith the first of its albums, recorded in March ’98, and the most recent, I Knew Orla Leans,
from December ‘01, featuring the well-known Danish pianist Carsten Dahl.
Brem wrote and scored everything on both albums except for Dahl’s brief prologue, “For Peter,” preceding “Theme for a Young Mother” on Orla Leans, wherein Brem also solos twice on baritone sax (“New Blues,” “Still a Starlet”). The earlier album is notable among other things for Brem’s clever revisions of the standards “All The Things You Are” (“All You Think Is Joshua”) and “Autumn Leaves” (“Arthur Leaves”). There may be others but they are too well-hidden for me to unearth. The standards are among the highlights, as are a rhythmic Latin spellbinder, “I Have Nothing to Say,” which sounds as though it could have come straight from the Bob Mintzer/Sonny Rollins Songbook, and the easygoing swinger “Close But No Cigar.” As for the rest, there’s a shade too much rock/funk/fusion for my taste (“Cool Cash,” “The Top of Nothing,” “Let It Slide,” “Greasy Rats,” “Who Robbed the Gene Bank?”) but one can’t fault the band, which plays marvelously throughout. Brem has a number of capable soloists, most notably saxophonists Torben Jensen and Florian Navarro, flugel Verner Worck and guitarist Bent Warny, and a muscular rhythm section anchored by drummer Anders Holm Jensen. A solid and at times spectacular debut.
Even though the ensemble rises to the occasion, I was less charmed by Orla Leans, whose heart and soul lie far closer to Copenhagen than Basin Street. Dahl, who solos on every track, is a forceful and talented pianist but has a tendency to hum / groan along with his improvisations, which can be annoying (even Oscar Peterson gets under my skin when he does it). The music—most of it, at least—is essentially Scandinavian in nature, although drummer Anders Holm Jensen does establish a snappy New Orleans-style beat on the title selection, which ventures as far from Brem’s Danish roots as anything on the album. Dahl has two other chances to unlimber his impressive chops (“Nowhere to Go,” “Still a Starlet”) and excels in both cases.
Elsewhere, however, he is constrained by the material, which is generally recondite and not conducive to straight-ahead blowing. Brem’s baritone solos, on “Starlet” and “New Blues,” are quite respectable and in step with the framework of his urbane compositions. While the band is as proficient as it is large, and the music is certainly well-written, much of it simply failed to excite me, and in the end that’s what counts most. It must be noted, however, that this is one man’s often fallible opinion, and one should listen for himself or herself rather than assume it must be true. To those for whom playing time is important, it should be pointed out that the earlier album is the longer of the two by more than twenty-seven minutes. That, plus the resourceful designs on “All the Things You Are” and “Autumn Leaves,” would seem to give it a clear edge.