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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Lisa Ullén Quartet - Borderlands (Disorder, 2016) ****½

By Derek Stone 

Many of this blog’s readers are probably familiar with the album Carve, performed by Lisa Ullén and Nina de Heney. It has been perched in the “Popular Posts” section for quite some time (and the review can be read here).

On that recording, the possibilities of the piano-bass duo are thoroughly explored - each piece is a sculpture of sorts, some marblesque, with rounded edges and smoky contours; others, jagged and barbed, with unexpected turns and bristling textures. Despite the success of that record (and its equally incredible follow-up), it needn’t be assumed that Ullén is only concerned with minimal sound-experiments. She has also invested a great deal of time into her Quartet, with Mats Äleklint on trombone, Nils Ölmedal on double bass, and Andreas Axelsson on drums. Their last album (the wonderfully-titled Revolution Rock) was released seven years ago, which means that the individual members have had plenty of time to hone their skills and explore fresh terrain and, indeed, that’s what they’ve done. Revolution Rock was not a conservative record, by any means - it had complex and intricate playing, labyrinthine shifts-in-direction, and dazzling exchanges between the musicians. Borderlands has all of that in droves, but it also integrates some of the elements of sound-sculpting that Ullén has been engaged in for the last few years. Thus, it updates all of the best parts of the Quartet, while also allowing them to progress in new and interesting ways.

The first track, “Sisters, Brothers, Here’s Another,” starts with rumbling clusters of notes from Ullén, an elastic rhythm section, and trombonist Mats Äleklint’s idiosyncratic honks. From this first piece, it’s evident that Äleklint will be integral to the Quartet’s revised sound; he has an irresistibly original style, moving ably from buzzing groans to terse clucks to mellifluous streams. Ullén’s playing has also become more elliptical, and there’s been a definite refinement of the sound-sculpting techniques she explored during her time with Nina de Heney. Take “Waiting Room,” for example: accompanied by Äleklint’s laconic squeaks and squawks, she offers only tense clusters from the low registers and fragments and splinters from the high, all while the rhythm section billows airily below. Meanwhile, lilting electronic tones oscillate throughout, approximating the soft hums of medical equipment that one might expect to hear in a real waiting room: anxiety interlaced with the tranquilizing repetition of machines. “Now What” is equally oblique, but it’s driven by Andreas Axelsson’s more assertive percussion-work. Next, “Midnight Conversation” finds bassist Nils Ölmedal pairing up with Äleklint for a brief and enigmatic duet. Here, Äleklint mostly sticks to a straight-ahead style of playing, but it makes for a nice respite.

That track transitions nicely into “Room Full of Tunes,” which is piano-bar jazz that has been reimagined, reconstructed, and injected with a kind of lyrical ambiguity. It starts in a fairly conventional manner, but quickly becomes a swirling dreamscape; Ullén’s Quartet stuns me with its ability to leap from near-orthodox melodicism to weird, textural experimentation, often in the space of a minute or two.

The final piece, “Won’t Be Late Again,” sees Ullén going “all-in,” so to speak, with convoluted runs and percussive rolls. Midway through, time is given for Nils Ölmedal to offer a sumptuous solo, and the piece then shifts back to Ullén’s dazzling pyrotechnics.

The approach of the Lisa Ullén Quartet is not a direct one; it doesn’t divulge much in the way of easy melodies, but it’s incredibly intriguing and rewarding for the patient listener. Also, I urge listeners to take some time with this thing; at first, I was perplexed and a little disinterested. After spending the better part of a week with it, however, I was genuinely enthralled and found myself actively craving it! Highly recommended to fans of Lisa Ullén’s previous work, as well as to those who enjoy the various projects of Kris Davis: Paradoxical Frog, Infrasound, etc.