Where American jazz culture left off, Europe appears to have picked up some of the slack in a longstanding tradition of big bands. Though they're not always more economically viable on the other side of the pond, their mark on post-bebop jazz has nevertheless been undeniable. In addition to the freer organizations like Globe Unity, the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, ICP, and the Willem Breuker Kollektif are the kaleidoscopic if slightly more "traditional" outfits of John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, and Kenny Wheeler, not to mention the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland band. European national radio was also a major contributor to this environment, with NDR and Swedish Radio Jazzgruppen as some of the most impressive soloist-backing ensembles in European jazz history.
Swedish reedman Jonas Kullhammar's new offering is one of those important instances in which a tight core small group is fleshed out by the contributions of a large jazz orchestra. Snake City North features Kullhammar's working quartet backed by the Norrbotten Big Band for seven of the tenorist's compositions and one by pianist Torbjörn Gulz. Kullhammar is an extraordinarily active contributor to the Swedish jazz community, his powerful gutbucket tenor engaging co-conspirators as diverse as pianist Per-Henrik Wallin, drummer Paal Nilsson-Love, and folk-rock star Nicolai Dunger over the past seven years.
Kullhammer's tenor draws inescapable comparisons to Alan Skidmore and Mexican Green-era Tubby Hayes, translating to a powerful and technically formidable midrange saxophonist with a penchant for screaming buzz saw climaxescertainly gleaned from a strong free jazz pedigree. Joined by the plastic swing of drummer Jonas Holgersson (a propulsive big band drummer if there ever was one) and bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg, as well as pianist/arranger Torbjörn Gulz and the twelve horns of NBB, the group hurtles through the set, starting with the frantic "Snake City East, brassy like a belt buckle and with a turbulent tenor solo to back it upsomewhat like El Skid sitting in with the Clarke-Boland Big Band.
As with a few recent Swedish jazz releases, there is the obligatory homage to tenor man Bengt Frippe Nordstrom (whose Bird Notes label released Albert Ayler's first recording), here titled "Frippe's Blues, with a jagged, almost auto-contrapuntal theme that segues into an earthy funk girding strong, multiphonic-laced statements from the leader and trombonist Peter Dahlgren and bookended by colorful unaccompanied tenor parts. Though knotty brass arrangements are certainly a major part of the equation here, there are a few windows into rather different arranging possibilities"Slow Drop features a low walk from bass clarinet, baritone, and bass against bubbly piano lines, setting up a nicely dissonant palette from which soloists emerge, while "For X offers a massive ballad with touches of classical brass arranging in its midst.
Snake City North is a powerful and engaging statement from both the Kullhammar-Gulz quartet and its big band mate, proof of the adaptability of both an expansive small group and a tasteful, colorful orchestral horn section. The European tradition of mating a big band and a free bop unit has, thankfully, not gone out of style.