One of these albums is by a sax/drums duo, the other by an unusual nine-piece ensemble with three reeds and three trumpets, a piano and two drumers – no bass.
Norwegian reeds player Frode Gjerstad and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love have been in dialogue for 25 years – since Nilssen-Love joined Gjerstad’s Circulasione Totale Orchestra in 1992. The Pan-Scan Ensemble formed for just one night. The duo was recorded in a Stavanger studio, the ensemble live in concert.
I guess it’s easier to have a meaningful dialogue with only one other person: the duo exchange is pithier, and needs less exposition. Obviously the palette with the ensemble is larger, but with so much less to negotiate the duo is more fleet of thought and action, and less prone to get bogged down in way-finding and negotiation. Both can catch a fire when it sparks though.
Nearby Faraway occasionally approaches the interstellar intensity of John Coltrane and Rashied Ali’s milestone duets. But Gjerstad and Nilssen-Love go much deeper on a set dedicated to Eivin One Pedersen who, until his death in 2012, played keyboards alongside them in the Calling Signals quartet.
Gjerstad introduces “Dreams”, and it sounds like a saxophone duet, one player elaborating a knotty but leisurely lyrical rumination while the other makes raspy breath sounds and key pops. It could be multi-tracked; Gjerstad could be playing two saxes; I really can’t tell. The same thing happens again on “Slap And Curse”. Nilssen-Love accentuates those key pops with irregular cymbal and bass drum hits, and some of the percussion sounds are hard to identify, too. It’s a puzzler, and an engaging one.
Nilssen-Love plays with brushes and a self-deprecatory lightness behind Gjerstad’s sour alto on “Close By”, again allowing the saxophonist his head in ruminative soliloquy. So the bold malleting of toms and doubled kick drumming on “Flying Circus” is a shot of adrenaline, and Gjerstad rises to the occasion. This 9 minute-long cut is both comfortably the album’s longest, also its most turbulent dramatic high.
From there the album shifts between the febrile “Blue Flame” and the pugnacious “Mosquito Nest” with Gjerstad playing bass saxophone, to the aforementioned “Slap And Curse”, and the duo are flouting a syntax that’s uniquely their own.
Nilssen-Love is respectful of Gjerstad without deference, laying down rhythms with malleted toms on “Houdini’s Float” and “Funny Talks” and letting the reedsman skim shapes off the slipstream.
“The Ghost” contains elements of all of the above: nine different distillations of mood in nine succinct 3-9 minute cuts; 42 minutes in all in. Superb.
Air and Light and Time and Space presents two cuts, “Air and Light” (12:28) and (yes, you guessed) “Time and Space” (33:27), both recorded verité, no overdubs, at one of the regular Blow Out sessions organised by Nilssen-Love and fellow tub thumper Ståle Liavik Solberg.
The two drummers are a great complement, with similarly taut and kinetic energies but contrasting touches. Where Nilssen-Love is emphatic, Solberg is true to the name of his Hispid label: ‘bristly, with stiff hairs or spines’.
They set into “Air and Light” with a light, probing but rather tentative combination of peripheral percussives, and there’s a nicely rackety feel when one of the trumpeters and Sten Sandell playing an upright piano joint in, kicking things into a cantankerous free-jazz mode.
Themes stated on trumpet are bolstered by the other horns, and things soon settle into the “Light” of a more sensitive, unaccompanied interplay of saxophones (Lotte Anker, Anna Högberg and Julie Kjær) and trumpets (Thomas Johansson, Goran Kajfes, and Emil Strandberg). Some play out while others focus on breath sounds, but all are whisper-quiet at times.
That sets up “Time and Space”, which is more open, marked by mutual restraint. As the ad-hoc ensemble carefully sounds itself out, most initially contribute their silence to a tapestry of small sounds, but an unsubtle pounding of kit drumming triggers an irruption.
The drummers, although situated up front, facing forward, drive from behind, setting up a staccato pattern of horn stabs and then whipping up a fresh frenzy with a barrage of snare rolls. Sandell’s piano trickles through the cracks and fissures into solo space accompanied only by scrape and stick percussion, and the reed players chime in with whistles, bridging to a lovely Julie Kjær flute duet with one of the trumpeters.
It’s a changeable set of shifting moods: a rare jauntiness in the build up toa tempestuous midway crescendo, and the subsequent, sinuous ebb and surge. Sandell’s darkly dramatic piano provides the music’s spine and focus as that surge abates. Lotte Anker then solos on tenor, and leads the horn section as a firm if spartan and slightly ragged theme develops, shaping a climactic resolution with just a hint of the Blue Notes’ South African influence on European free music.
Both of these releases are singular and worthwhile. The Ensemble’s makes a fine case for such summits as Blow Out as a priceless source of routinely extraordinarily communal music; but the duo set is perhaps the more essential. Nilssen-Love’s longstanding duo with Ken Vandermark is my favourite of all such combos, but this very different date with Gjerstad more than matches it.
Nearby Faraway: Frode Gjerstad – alto and bass saxophone, Bb and contrabass clarinet; Paal Nilssen-Love – drums.
Air and Light: Lotte Anker – soprano, alto and tenor saxophone; Anna Högberg – alto saxophone; Julie Kjær – alto saxophone, flute; Thomas Johansson – trumpet; Goran Kajfes – trumpet; Emil Strandberg – trumpet; Sten Sandell – piano; Paal Nilssen-Love – drums and percussion; Ståle Liavik Solberg – drums and percussion.
Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit – Ana.
John Butcher & Ståle Liavik Solberg + John Butcher & Paal Nilssen-Love – So Beautiful, It Starts To Rain / Concentric.
Otomo Yoshihide & PNL + James Plotkin & PNL + Sten Sandell & PNL – Otomo Yoshihide & Paal Nilsen-Love / Death Rattle / Jacana.