The Norwegian capital of Oslo's founding predates that of Chicago by several hundred years and anyway, the Illinois city was established by a Haitian trader. So on the surface, it seems the two metropolises would have little to do with each other. But saxophonist Ken Vandermark, acting as a sort of reverse Leif Ericsson, has done much to bring modern Norwegian (as well as English, Swedish, German...heck, all of Europe) improvisation to an American audience. On Oslo/Chicago: Breaks, Vandermark convenes two editions of a new group, Powerhouse Sound, one a quartet of Chicagoans (including a first recorded meeting with guitarist Jeff Parker), the other a quintet which includes three Norwegians, most notably drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, with whom Vandermark has recorded some stunning duets. Generally, the instrumentation is the same with bassists Nate McBride and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten both playing electric (together on the Oslo, McBride only on the Chicago) and Vandermark interestingly sticking to tenor. If the American versus European debaters were not salivating already, Vandermark has both groups playing the same set of new compositions. The Oslo set, due obviously to the enhanced bottom end and the addition of Lasse Marhaug's electronics, comes off as the more aggressive. Nilssen-Love seems to be enjoying himself thoroughly, especially on some of the funkier moments. And so if the Oslo set is Vandermark's funk record, the Chicago set becomes his groove disc. The looseness of Parker's guitar playing suits Vandermark well as a counterpoint. On both discs, especially Chicago, his tenor is more reserved than one would expect. Dare we call it silky? A slow summer barbecue in either city would be well-served using the song "Coxsonne as its soundtrack.
The loose bass Flåten exhibits on the Powerhouse disc makes his own Quintet - a group consisting of guitar, violin or mandolin, sax and drums - all the more dramatic. The knee-jerk reaction when seeing violin and guitar paired together is to think of the Hot Club of Mahavishnu and there are certainly some elements of that here, namely in the precise, almost fusion-y, lines of tunes like the opening "Maxwell's Silver Demon , "Olja og Gass by guitarist Anders Hana or the closing "It's A Desperate Situation . But there is delicate beauty (Charlie Haden's "Playing ) and also some interesting experimentations (the originals "Ceta and "Zardoz ). Flåten is often most appreciated for his truly heroic, almost Peter Kowald-ian, bass technique. But Quintet shows him to be a talented composer, adept at bringing together some rather disparate elements into one interesting package. Kind of like that brown Norwegian cheese.
Powerful as the above album is, for unadulterated aggression, the band de resistance is the Nordic trio The Thing. Originally formed to play the music of Don Cherry, Flåten, Nilssen-Love and Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson have progressed far past that expansive notion. On Action Jazz, what is sort of their eighth album (the group has done several co-billed sessions), they are a soundtrack to a rugby match played inside a liberated zoo. Gustafsson squeals, squawks, guffaws, hyperventilates - he may be the only horn player out there who has learned to swear through his instrument. Remember the Kowald-ian Flåten? Here he is in glorious reverberating form. And Nilssen-Love's bombast, always just below the surface even in some of his more cerebral appearances, is unshackled. But what has made new albums by The Thing so exciting is how they continue to create a new aesthetic. Originals, songs by bands like Lightning Bolt or the Cato Salsa Experience or musings from Ornette or Gustafsson's fave Yosuke Yamashita are enveloped in The Thing's bearhug. If it were just about being loud or toying with unexpected material or ricocheting from leveled sparseness to gooey density within a matter of seconds, maybe it wouldn't be as good. Since it is about all those things all at once, sometimes in songs only a few minutes long, it is even better.
Tracks and Personnel
Oslo / Chicago: Breaks
Tracks: Disc One - Oslo Version: Shocklee (for Hank Shocklee); King To Crown (for King Tubby); Coxsonne (for Coxsonne Dodd); 2-1-75 (for Miles Davis); Acid Scratch (for Lee Perry); Exit-Salida (for Burning Spear); New Dirt (for The Stooges). Disc Two - Chicago Version: Old Dictionary (for Bernie Worrell); King To Crown pt.1 / Acid Scratch pt. 2; Coxsonne; Acid Scratch pt. 2 / Shocklee / Exit-Salida; 2-1-75; New Dirt / King To Crown pt. 2.
Personnel: Disc One: Oslo Version: Ken Vandermark: tenor saxophone; Ingebrigt Haker Flaten: electric bass; Nate McBride: electric bass; Lasse Marhaug: electronics; Paal Nilssen-Love: drums. Disc Two: Chicago Version: Ken Vandermark: tenor saxophone; Jeff Parker: guitar; Nate McBride: electric bass; John Herndon: drums.
Tracks: Maxwell's Silver Demon; Playing; Seemingly; Ceta; Olja og Gass; Zardoz; It's a Desperate Situation.
Personnel: Ingebrigt Håker Flaten: bass; Anders Hana: guitar; Ola Kenberg: violin, mandolin; Klaus Ellerhusen Holm: baritone and alto saxophone, clarinet; Fredrik Rundqist: drums.
Tracks: Sounds Like A Sandwich; Chisma; Broken Shadows; Ride The Sky; Better Living; Danny's Dream; The Nut/The Light; ...Through BBQ; Strayhorn.
Personnel: Mats Gustafsson: baritone, alto and slide saxophones; Ingebrigt Håker Flaten: double bass; Pall Nilssen-Love: drums.