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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Aalberg, Kullhammar, Zetterberg, Santos Silva – Basement Sessions Vol. 4 (The Bali Tapes), (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½

By Gustav Lindqvist

All compositions on this album is by Espen Aalberg, except the third song, which is based on a Javanese traditional song. The album was recorded at Dewa Berata´s garden, in Ubud/Bali/Indonesia.

In preparation for this review I reached out to saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar to ask him a couple of questions about Basement Sessions in general and this fourth volume in particular. The “interview” was done over email and is shown below, translated straight from the email answer. Jonas Kullhammar who, part from running his own record label ‘Moserobie’ in which he’s doing everything from producing, recording and mastering to packing and shipping records to customers, is involved in a number of interesting projects as a musician. After his own quartet (Jonas Kullhammar Quartet) disbanded, Jonas has resurfaced in solo projects, with a new group (New Kids on The Rock…) and of course kept working with ‘Basement Sessions’. Kullhammar has an interest for all kinds of instrument and is one of relatively few owners of a sopralto braithophone – George Braith’s invention where a soprano and an alto saxophone is joined together – very simplified of course. Read more here. We are not hearing it on this album but it seems Kullhammar’s determined to play more braithophone in 2018 at least.

Fellow Swede and bass player Torbjörn Zetterberg and Kullhammar goes way back from the days of the Jonas Kullhammar Quartet, and has his own very nice catalog of albums that we’ve seen getting some well-deserved praise here on FJB. Life and other transient storms, one of my favorite albums from 2016 has Zetterberg playing and he’s recorded a great duo album with trumpeter Susana Santos Silva (Almost Tomorrow, Clean Feed, 2013). Zetterberg has also played with vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl, drummer Jon Fält and many more. I think I’ll have to do a ‘special’ on Zetterberg in 2018…

Norwegian Drummer Espen Aalberg is perhaps most known for his work with ‘The Core’ who released 8 albums between 2004 and 2010, and who’s work with ‘Basement Sessions’ I really enjoy listening to. And then we have volume four’s special guest; Portuguese trumpet player Susana Santos Silva. She’s well known here on FJB and is involved in multiple projects and groups; Mats Gustafssons Nu Ensemble, and Fire! Orchestra. She’s part of the quintet ‘Life and Other Transient Storms’ who was on of several FJB reviewers top10 lists of 2016, but there’s lots more – Santos Silva has been increasingly busy in the past years and has very impressive output. I highly recommend checking out Stef’s series ‘The various faces of Susana Santos Silva’ Part 1, Part 2 and also this exclusive interview from 2015… and of course her music.

I was so excited to hear the trio together with Santos Silva, but even more so interested in what the subtitle “The Bali Tapes” meant in relation to the quite balanced albums released so far. Balanced in a way that there’s always an elegant nod to hard bop heroes of the past but also always surprising free and improvised elements that has put a smile on my face many times.

Before going more into the details of the music on this album, let’s see what Kullhammar has to say:

Jonas, this is the fourth volume in the ‘Basement Sessions’ series, can you tell us a bit more about the background of this series?
  • “The background was that Espen Aalberg from Norway was visiting in Stockholm for a couple of days some years ago. As both Tobbe (Torbjörn Zetterberg) and I had played with him on different occasions and setups, and I had just gotten my own studio set up in my basement, with took the opportunity to play and record together, but without any plans for a specific project. Same thing happened a year or so later. The recordings were just left for a while and I had no plans on releasing it on Moserobie (Kullhammars own label, Gustavs comment), nor had I played it for anyone. Later on I had been collaborating with Pedro Costa, who’s running Clean Feed in Portugal, and I played the recordings to him without specific thoughts on releasing it, but he went mad and since we already had 2 albums recorded those became the first volumes called Basement Sessions, since they were recorded in my basement. The following 2 volumes, 3 and 4, are of course not.
How does this fourth volume relate to the earlier ones?
  • “Both volume 3 and 4 are different from the first two since we’ve had a guest musician on both. Basically, we’re a trio, but we’ve planned gigs with the Bali-concept in mind so Susana’s set to attend those.
The presentation of this album is quite different from the other 3, soundwise that is, tell us more about the somewhat special set of instruments used. (Gamelan! 😊 )
  • “Espen Aalberg has lived on Bali with his entire family in periods, and has studied for some of the gamelan masters there, so he’s the mastermind behind volume 4 entirely, even if the rest of us have contributed with our own ideas as well. As we recorded this album on site at one of the gamelan masters we had access to fantastic instruments. Lots of big gongs and other very cool percussion instruments”
Jonas, you’re involved in a whole lot of projects as a musician, but also running your own label, I know you’ve got more hours in a day than the rest of us – what’s behind this enormous output of yours? As an example I can see the differences in producing, mixing and running the label - with its own up- and downsides and learnings, but I can also see that many of the projects that you’re playing on has quite the different character, how does Basement Sessions relate to your other projects in that aspect?
  • “Hard to say, but I’m that kind of person that feels best when I’ve got multiple things running in different directions. The biggest challenges have been to make sure the financials hold up, but I’ve never took on more than I could handle in that aspect. I’m still running my ‘warehouse’ at home, my office at home and my studio at home, to minimize costs. Sometimes the artists will pay for everything on their own if the projects don’t fly. I guess the best answer I can give is that I love music, meaning the music that I like. That’s the common denominator for the entire Moserobie catalog, as some have felt that it’s a bit straggly. But it’s music that I like, with people I like.
Will there be a volume five, and will we in that case hear more from the braithophone?
  • “Nothing’s planned for right now as volume four is just out, but I sure hope so. As for the braithopone, that’s on my list of new year resolutions.”
Now, what about the music?

We have Kullhammar on sax and flute, Zetterberg on bass, Aalberg on drums and percussion and Santos Silva on the trumpet. Furthermore all musicians are playing gamelan.

Basically, and in brevity, the traditional south east Asian set of instruments gathered under the name “gamelan” can be presented as a group of percussive instruments (gongs, drums, metallophones) but I’ve learned that there’s bowed and plucked strings as well. There’s also different styles often depending on where, geographically, the gamelan is played.

The music on this album consists of 5 tracks, spanning from 6½ minutes up and almost to the 11 minute mark. We start off with Slow Ostinato. There’s a theme repeating itself while the quartet paints quite a melancholic picture over vibrating bells and murmuring gongs. The increasing screeches of Kullhammar and Santos Silva blends very nicely with the almost scary, and at times very dark gongs tolling in the background. There’s lots of smaller percussive sounds all around. Listening with headphones was a surprising experience with sudden bells heard almost behind me. I looked over my shoulders more than once. Bursts of notes, chirping sounds over the beat of Aalberg and the gamelan heard all around, and then we’re back to the theme. A very nice, yet surprising start to this album.

Next up is the relatively short sub 7 seven minute songs ‘Dewas Dance’. It has a rhythmic beat which makes me think of the recent work of Goran Kajfez Subtropic Arkestra. It fits perfectly with the gamelan percussion. Santos Silva travels away from the beat for free excursions outside and inside of the melodic line, and so does Kullhammar in his distinct way of playing. He’s got a meaty, rich and fat sound which wraps itself around the beat, finally finding its way to close the song.

The third track ‘Ilir Ilir’, a Javanese traditional, has Zetterberg starting off beautifully before Santos Silva and Kullhammar plays the melody line. Then Zetterberg plays together with the gamelan and it’s of a meditative and searching character. I think there’s also very large gongs at work in the background. Santos Silva comes back bending the melody outwards as the percussive sounds increase in intensity. Kullhammar joins in and we’re moving towards the improvised style with, again, a lot of micro details and nuances. ‘Irama Berat’ the fourth song on this album, startar with Aalberg giving a nice solo and then we’re off. Again, it’s a song that, similar to the others, evolves over the beat of Zetterberg, Aalberg and the gamelan. The album finishes with ‘Suling’ that has rattling and other gamelan sounds; gongs and hand drums used to build the story. Santos Silva and Kullhammar work together, and like to the opener of this album, it’s a dark piece of music.

I really like this album. It blends styles and instruments in such a nice way. Curiosity is the word that comes to mind. And it makes me wonder what they will do for volume 5. I’m hoping for more braithophone and to hear more work done with Santos Silva. But first we get to enjoy this one.