Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love formed his 11+ Large Unit only three years ago, but, perhaps because precedent tells us it’s practically impossible to maintain a big band for very long, they’ve already recorded a brace of EPs, the multi-disc part live/part studio album Erta Ale, and a 2CD/photobook package that documents a year of extensive touring, 2015. In August of that year they also found time for the one day in a studio it took to record Ana (PNL Records).
Throughout all that activity, the Large Unit has maintained a remarkably consistent lineup. Danish reeds player Julie Kjær has replaced Kasper Værnes, so the Large Unit is no longer all male. And Swedish tuba player Per Åke Holmlander, who sounds to me the fulcrum of the group, has replaced Børre Mølstad. But the most obvious change on this set is the introduction of two Brazilian musicians, Celio de Carvalho and Paulinho Bicolor on percussion. They first joined Large Unit for their 2015 Oslo Jazzfestival set, played only hours before the Ana recording session.
Nilssen-Love’s longstanding interest in Brazilian music apparently has him visiting the country more than once a year in recent times. He finds inspiration in styles as diverse as North Brazilian dance music, Forró, and urban, post-Bossa Nova MPB, so it’s not surprising that those influences make themselves felt as subtle rhythmic undercurrents, not any over-literal aping of carnivalesque intensity.
The half hour at the heart of the set is “Riofun”, Large Unit’s customary set closer – a piece informed by the western African-influenced rhythms of Bahia Brazil. Carvalho’s opening berimbau solo makes for a lively start, but sets up passages of muted brass-based interplay sequenced to montage-like effect, as where percussion plays against slo-mo smears of trombone and turntablist wisps of electronic noise. When the rhythmic impetus builds it is polyrhythmic, laced with ripples of electric guitar and riffing trumpets. Rather than build to a climax, it drops off for a dialogue between bass and alto saxophone. Rhythm and big band bluster are reasserted, but the piece plays out as a composite of just such more or less frenetic intervals, part rhythmic workout, part vehicle for Thomas Johansson’s acerbic lead trumpet; all ending on a subdued pulse as brittle Brazilian percussion scratches up against ponderous brass.
The squeaky sound of the cuíca, a drumhead sounded by a rosined string, introduces both lead cut “Ana” and “Circle In The Round”, the two quarter hours that bookend “Riofun”. On the title cut the cuíca introduces a deluge of double kit drumming and horns that slip out of unison and into a roil of orchestrated counterpoint. The album peaks early in intensity, as electric guitar plays with needling aggression against fanfare ostinatos and driving backbeats. Later alto sax plays against shakers and rhythmic tuba; then it’s just shakers and cuíca set against the raw electricity of guitar and irruptive snare-rich kit drumming. This mettlesome opening piece is the closest the album comes to predictable, but it’s far from formulaic.
On “Circle In The Round”, the cuíca blends with trumpet while Holmlander’s tuba again holds a steady pulse, and flute and electric guitar play lightly around low-key brass exchanges. When electric bass takes up the pulse it acts as an anchor for a shuffle rhythm, which breaks into a gallop when baritone sax solos. Considering the Large Unit boasts two full kit drummers, their presence is pretty restrained for much of the set. Here they mesh loosely if explosively at times, corresponding to an exploded orchestral sound that exposes its intricacies. The piece ends with flute played against overtly Brazilian snare rhythm, followed by a contrasting coda for wind instruments only.
As with the earlier Erta Ale, and remarkably so for the product of a recently blooded big band channeling Brazilian vibes, Ana has it’s impassioned moments but it’s a much less stoked, subtler and more complex album than you might expect.
Thomas Johansson trumpet; Mats Äleklint trombone; Julie Kjær alto saxophone and flute; Klaus Holm alto and baritone saxophone; Per Åke Holmlander tuba; Børre Mølstad tuba; Ketil Gutvik electric guitar; Tommi Keränen electronics; Paulinho Bicolor cuica, triangle, tamborim; Celio de Carvalho congas, bongos, tamborim, pandeiro, berimbau, caxixi, alfaia; Jon Rune Strøm acoustic and electric bass; Christian Meaas Svendsen acoustic and electric bass; Andreas Wildhagen drums and percussion; Paal Nilssen-Love drums and percussion.
Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit – Erta Ale.
Akira Sakata, Johan Berthling, Paal Nilssen-Love – Arashi.
Otomo Yoshihide & Paal Nilsen-Love + James Plotkin & PNL – Death Rattle + Sten Sandell & PNL – Jacana.