It's been a while since we've heard from Sweden's intrepid Norrbotten Big Band from up near the Arctic Circle. On that last occasion (Future North
, Double-Time, 1998), the NBB was led by American trumpeter Tim Hagans; this time, it is in the company of Swedish tenor saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar's impressive quartet.
The quartet-within-a-band format is a provocative idea that works quite well, as it did a decade earlier for a similar group, The Real Thing, with Sweden's Bohuslän Big Band (A Perfect Match, Real Records, 1994). I can't say whether Kullhammar/Norrbotten borrowed the concept or came up with it independently, but whatever its source, the bottom line is that the quartet and big band are truly en rapport and make the most of every moment together. Kullhammar and his partners are loose and adaptable in the larger setting, while the NBB responds with sharp and passionate blowing at every turn.
Six of the eight luminous charts were written by pianist Torbjörn Gulz. He and Kullhammar collaborated on the playful "Ruskitoonies McAroonies, while the quartet and ensemble put their heads together to construct the rockin' finale, "Bebopalulia (which Elvis wouldn't have recognized). Even though the melodies are unfamiliar, they are strong enough to capture and sustain one's interest, and Kullhammar and the NBB make certain the enticement never wanes.
Although Kullhammar is the featured soloist, Gulz frames a number of incisive comments, as do bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg and drummer Jonas Holgersson, while from the NBB, flugel Dan Johansson shines on "Kärleksvals and "Ruskitoonies, trombonist Peter Dahlgren on "Frippes Blues, alto Håkan Broström on "I Sheriffens Klor. The ensemble is vacuum-sealed, and Kullhammar & Co. comprise an unwavering rhythm section.
If you'd like to know why the album is titled Snake City North and the opening selection "Snake City East, there's no answer in the liner notes (in fact, there are no notes, only a few brief acknowledgments). But the music itself is no mystery, nor is my enthusiastic endorsement.