By Troy Dostert
A highly fruitful intercontinental exchange between Chicago’s Keefe Jackson and Josh Berman and Norway’s Jon Rune Strøm and Tollef Østvang. From the opening notes of “Blues,” the first track of the record, one thinks instantly of Ornette’s fabled quartet work with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. The spirit of that band, with its emphasis on loosely-structured, highly communicative group improvisation combined with a fervent melodic sensibility is found throughout this fine recording, and it’s an enjoyable and engaging release in every respect.
Jackson (heard here on tenor sax and bass clarinet) and Berman (cornet) have played together a great deal during the past several years, and it shows: both are able to shadow each other’s lines skillfully and sympathetically, making a lot of their improvised passages sound surprisingly pre-planned. The same can be said for Strøm (bass) and Østvang (drums), as they’ve worked together a fair amount as well, most recently in John Dikeman’s Universal Indians with Joe McPhee. The two of them also possess a keen ability to anticipate each other’s moves, essential in this case as the group specializes in giving each member an equal role to play; the “rhythm section” is as crucial as the horn players to the musical dynamics of each track.
The music has its free-sounding moments, although each cut has a strong theme at its core, and the group never ventures out so far that they can’t return to it as a touchstone. There’s a tangible coherence to each track, despite the more adventurous moments on the disc, and the eight pieces are effective and compact, with no wasted space, as each is a relatively succinct 4-7 minutes long. Particular highlights include the title track, built around a unison bass/bass clarinet ostinato, with drums churning underneath, as first Berman, and then Jackson, launch into potent solos and the band elevates the intensity level accordingly; the somber “Melted Snow,” involving some impassioned mournful playing from Berman, Jackson and Strøm; and the impish “What Lies Ahead,” a spunky tune propelled by Strøm and featuring especially close rapport between the bassist and the horn players.
An excellent recording, and a heck of a lot of fun as well: one to be enjoyed and savored on multiple occasions.