When a band is described as a "powerhouse indie-jazz ensemble" it's a surprise when the first tune on its debut release is a gentle and rather moving solo performance by the band's vocalist and double bassist. "Prelude," the tune in question, demonstrates the more reflective side of Pixel, a Norwegian quartet whose approach certainly includes powerhouse indie-jazz, but goes far wider than that. Pixel's driving force is the aforementioned vocalist, bassist and songwriter Ellen Andrea Wang, a graduate of the Norwegian Academy Of Music. Wang and her fellow band members were all in their mid-20s when they recorded Reminder in May, 2011, their youthful exuberance tempered by technical ability and a keen awareness of their musical antecedents.
Pixel takes Gerry Mulligan and Ornette Coleman's iconic quartets of as its points of reference from a jazz perspective, luxuriating in the freedom to be had from the absence of a chordal instrument. "Waltz 1" is the most obvious link to these ensembles, a slow, relaxed, duet between Harald Lassen's warm-toned tenor sax and Wang's sparse double bass. "Hvor Ble Den Av?" is equally spacious and considered, but with a coolness closer to fellow Scandinavians such as trumpeter Verneri Pohjola than to Mulligan's West Coast cool. Trumpeter Jonas Kilmork Vemøy is the standout player on this tune; like Pohjola, he is able to conjure up a sweeping, cinematic landscape from just a few notes. Half way through the tune Wang enters with a wordless vocal that matches her strong, tough, bass line for much of the time, then shifts to a softer more romantic tone which mirrors Vemøy's sound.
On "Home," the band retains a primarily jazz influence but with a more contemporary feelthere's something of the approach of label mates Led Bib in the tune, with Wang's loping riff sounding akin to the British quartet's bassist, Liran Donin. The band also takes inspiration from pop and rock, with catchy, immediate, melodies, strong lyrical narrative, and economy (only "Hvor Ble Den Av?" lasts longer than 5 minutes). If the beauty in Pixel's work comes from its jazz influences, then the energy and fun comes from its rock and pop sensibilities.
The high point of Reminder, in terms of energy and groove, is "Call Me." While it shares the same overt request as Blondie's pop classic, this song finds the singer in a much more belligerent moodnot so much a "please call me" as a "call me or else." Wang and drummer Jon Audun Baar also show themselves to be a fearsome rhythm section.
Contrasting her tough and fierce delivery on "Call Me," Wang exhibits a much gentler vocal sound on "Wake Up"her innocent yet romantic voice in the style of Sweden's Stina Nordenstamwhile the combination of Wang's multi-tracked vocal and Lassen's soprano saxophone is edgier on the slinky, discomforting "I Hang."
Reminder is an impressive first outing. Pixel bring a unique creative mix to the scene: difficult music to categorize, easy music to enjoy.
Prelude; Home; Esset; Call Me; She Knows; Wake Up; Waltz 1; Hvor Ble Den Av?; I Hang; An Apple In The Country Hill.
Ellen Andrea Wang: vocals, double bass; Harald Lassen: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, background vocal; Jonas Kilmork Vemøy: trumpet, background vocal; Jon Audun Baar: drums, percussion, background vocal.