Polish-born saxophonist Angelika Niescier’s 2011 album Quite Simply (Enja) – a trio date with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Tyshawn Sorey – was one of the best that year, and it’s one I still come back to. I noted then the understated, unforced confidence of the playing. The inclusion of compositions by Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton reliably flag the terrain.
This new trio’s configuration of Niescier’s alto sax plus guitar and drums achieves a lighter but more lucid and incisive sound.
Niescier gets great press in Germany, where Jazz Thing hailed her 2004 album Sublim II as the best German jazz recording in a decade; but Icelandic guitarist Hilmar Jensson, who played in Jim Black’s AlasNoAxis, and lately as a member of Bly de Blyant, is probably the best-known member of the Broken Cycle trio.
On the aptly-titled “Fearless Lieder”, Niescier plays a muscular solo while Jensson’s phrasing traces boundaries and imposes parameters in the form of melodic heads, á la Tim Berne. The guitarist then opens “Barbara-Lied”, picking out a luminous melody with only gentle brush-strokes for accompaniment. When Niescier joins in she bolsters his work and develops the tune with lissome muscularity, tender yet robust.
Niescier, Jensson and drummer Scott McLemore apparently met for just two concerts in Iceland before retiring to a Reykjavík studio to record this album in a day. Their short order attunement is remarkable.
“Dnour Og Yrrem” is a tightly focused, three-minute distillation of melodic/aggressive variations, which reminds me of Bill Frisell’s work with Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron in the late ’80s, when John Zorn’s influence still had some bearing. Another piece, the gorgeous “Strand”, comes closer to Frisell’s mellifluous later style, minus its edgeless easefulness.
Most pieces are equally succinct. At eight minutes long, “3 for 1” is the album’s epic. Niescier starts it, incising and redrawing a snaking line in recycled breaths before her partners pitch in, for what shapes up as an open-form exercise in provocative vitality.
On more aggressive pieces, such as “Dnour Og Yrrem” and “Pffft!”, Scott McLemore exhibits mastery of dynamic tension and release, expertly handling the flux of impetus and energies between sax and guitar.
McLemore, an American living in Iceland, is new to me, but two other new albums, also on Sunny Sky, demonstrate well his versatility. The fist is a lyrical trio date led by his wife, pianist and composer Sunna Gunnlaugs (Cielito Lindo); the second a crisp, brisk set of saxophone trioism, with brothers Ólafur and Þorgrímur Jónsson (Jónsson & More). Broken Cycle is more free-form, but it strikes a balance between euphony and edgy vitality that makes it just as immediately appealing.
“Broken Cycle” and, especially, “Death of a Penguin”, both pieces with implicit rhythmic drive, take the album out on a flinty note, with some post-rock grit in the mix. On “Death of a Penguin” Jensson combines in melodic harmony with Niescier, while simultaneously riffing on progressions.
Any fans of AlasNoAxis, particularly that group’s earlier work, will love this, and there are precious few other groups operating so effectively at the jazzier end of the post-jazz spectrum.
Angelika Niescier alto saxophone; Hilmar Jensson guitar; Scott McLemore drums.
Bly de Blyant – Hindsight Bias + Cakewalk – Transfixed + sPacemoNkey – The Karman Line.
Bly de Blyant – ABC.
Angelika Niescier – Quite Simply (written for The Jazz Mann).
Buy Broken Cycle from Bandcamp.