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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Cortex - Avant-Garde Party Music (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

Cue up “Chaos” to hear just how perfectly Cortex’s Thomas Johansson and Kristoffer Alberts channel the pianoless ‘60s free jazz sound. Along with their musical cousins and associates Atomic, Cortex successfully draws on the influence of acoustic free jazz, without slipping into preciousness or reverence. And Avant-Garde Party Music, their fifth album in 10 years, is easily their best, so far. On eight new tracks, composed by trumpeter Johansson, the group swings, skronks, and slays.

Johansson and saxophonist Alberts are again backed by bassist Ola Høyer and drummer Gard Nilssen. Nilssen kicks off album-opener “Grinder” with a couple of clicks, and Johansson and Alberts come swinging in on a unison melody, with Høyer grounding and driving the group languidly into Alberts’s first solo. Alberts has a series of excellent solos throughout the album, and on “Chaos,” he and Johansson both rip into some fierce, free solos. Johansson’s is presented as a duet with the incredible Nilssen, while Alberts is backed by Høyer and Nilssen, both swinging exceptionally well. After a quick restatement of the theme, Cortex moves into “Waltz.” With muted trumpet and Nilssen on brushes, it’s a chance to show a mellower side, but the melody hides some angular tones that subtly shade the extremely hummable tune. “(If you were) Mac Davis” features some excellent drumming from Nilssen, who cleverly mixes bop, free, and rock idioms to great effect.

“Disturbance” kicks off the second half of Avant-Garde Party Music, with the band stretching out ever so slightly. Høyer takes a lengthy solo near the beginning of “Obverse-Reverse” that sets the band up for some freely improvised interplay. As compact as most of Johansson’s compositions are, “Obverse-Reverse” breathes nicely, showing some of the ragged edges of the group, with a turn-on-a-dime tempo change that must be totally wild in concert. The album closes with a burner of a tune, “Off Course.” Nilssen opens the track, driving the group breathlessly to its finish. Johansson and Alberts double on a bright, bold melody that leads into Alberts’s extremely fiery solo. As a closing tune, “Off Course” does a great job of highlighting Cortex’s many strengths. Coming into the holiday season, the whole album is, of course, highly recommended for any and all parties.