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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Jonas Cambien's Trios and Duos

Jonas Cambien Trio  - We Must Mustn’t We (Clean Feed, 2018) ****½

By Derek Stone

In 2016, the Jonas Cambien Trio released their debut recording, A Zoology of the Future. In my review of that album, I commented on the “junkyard of sound” that pianist/composer Cambien, drummer Andreas Wildhagen, and reedist André Roligheten had cobbled together; the pieces there always seemed to be hanging together by the thinnest piece of thread, and therein lied much of the album’s charm. The trio’s newest release, We Must Mustn’t We, moves away from the rickety deconstructionism of the debut and towards a more coherent and “tidy” mode of expression. That’s not to say that they’ve gotten boring or milquetoast; on the contrary, many of these tracks are forceful and dynamic in ways that the tracks on Zoology often weren’t.

In “Swear Like a Bear,” things kick off in a rather subdued and languorous fashion. The drums plod along, Roligheten teases out a repetitious string of notes from his bass clarinet, and Cambien is a man of few musical words. Eventually, however, the pace picks up; the plodding percussion becomes an unstoppable flood, Roligheten spirals off into a frenzy, and Cambien fuses a transfixing motorik rhythm and wild, feverish streams of notes. After that dizzying ride, “Long Long” almost comes as a shock. It’s a lush and romantic slice of easy listening, with Roligheten’s piercing bird-calls replaced by sensual and resonant tenor playing, and Cambien himself opting for lovely melodic phrasings that stray pretty far from the intensely percussive approach of the previous track. “Renaissance” is not nearly as conventional, but still gets your attention right away with its curious blend of musical elements: there’s a leaden, machine-like rhythm in the “verse” that gives way to Cambien and guest Torstein Lavik Larsen’s tuneful lines in the head. “I Must Musn’t I” recalls A Zoology of the Future with its fragmentary rhythms and jigsaw-like melodic constructions: things come together in odd ways at odd intervals, slow down, speed up, scatter apart, and then come scuttling back towards each other again.

Peppered throughout the album are pieces titled with the suffix “-ism” - these pieces are more sparse and elliptical in the ways that they unfold. As far as opening tracks go, “Creationism” is a rather unostentatious entry-point. Cambien’s prepared piano plinks and plunks through a whimsical progression, Wildhagen offers up clacks and taps that are sketch-like in their sparseness, and Roligheten’s soprano saxophone recalls the high-pitched squawk of some exotic bird. It’s intriguing, but is perhaps best thought of as a prelude to the track that follows (the rousing “Swear Like a Bear,” mentioned above). Like “Creationism,” the other “-isms” on We Must Mustn’t We are brief, skeletal and loose, with the various musical elements haphazardly knocking into each other like teeth in a sack. “Survivalism” is once again centered around Cambien’s prepared piano and Wildhagen’s laconic drumming. “Animalism” finds Cambien embracing a more stereotypically “pretty” style, with his sustain-laden notes twinkling dreamily over Roligheten’s delicate soprano cries.

One thing that immediately stood out for me on this recording was the improved clarity of sound. While Zoology sounded a bit diaphanous at times, as if the slightest breeze could send the structures flying away, We Must Mustn’t We is immediate and bracing; rather than simply witnessing the compositions unfold, you feel that you are right there in their midst. It’s a change that suits the Jonas Cambien Trio well, what with their constant emphasis on the manifold textures and timbres that can elevate a piece from “interesting” to downright fascinating.

Jonas Cambien & Adrian Myhr - Simiskina (Clean Feed, 2018) ****

While Cambien’s trio work often indulges in sounds that are raucous, percussive, and loose, it is on Simiskina, his duo recording with bassist Adrian Myhr, that he draws from a more subdued palette. In many of the pieces here, there is the impression that Cambien views the piano (and, particularly, the prepared piano) less as a way to construct textured melodies and more as a way to inject rhythms into certain textures. Myhr generally seems to take a more expressive approach, sometimes producing bulbous notes that act as a low-end bolster for Cambien’s clattering pulses, and sometimes employing arco as a means to “stretch out” and color the pieces in more traditionally melodic ways.

Opener “Hi” begins with hushed rustlings from Myhr and tentative melodic phrasings from Cambien. As the piece transitions more fully into wakefulness, Myhr bows out a series of tactile moans and Cambien grows increasingly restless. If “Hi” is the sonic equivalent of early-morning stretches, “Up” is the sound of the daily to-do list starting to unfurl in your brain - nervy, propulsive, and crowded. It’s a fascinating demonstration of the mastery the two have of textures; Cambien’s prepared piano rattles and bubbles, Myhr rumbles steadily underneath, and there is a distinct sense that the two are being carried along by the same roiling current. In a similar fashion, “On” is characterized by the relentlessness of the duo’s approach. Here, Cambien all but abandons considerations of key and tone, opting instead to hammer out sparse, low-range repetitions. When heard next to Cambien, Myhr’s subtle sound manipulations almost seem complex.

“Do” approximates the percussive quality that many of Cambien’s trio pieces have. Cambien’s lines are only vaguely melodic; more than anything, they seem to be vehicles for a clattering and mechanistic rhythm that is alluring in its simplicity. Meanwhile, Myhr fills out the empty spaces with sonorous notes that lend the piece a warmer glow. “Go” is similar, but Cambien also introduces some of the broken toy-box melodicism of his trio work. It’s a relatively light detour, but one that is very much welcome after the seething low-end excursions of the previous tracks. On the final piece, “Or,” the duo seem to be at their most “traditional” - Cambien’s notes are scant, but they carry a sense of wistful longing that, while not necessarily absent, is much less evident on the other pieces. When taken together with Myhr’s plaintive cries, “Or” is like an icy beam of sunlight that breaks through the tree canopy to reach the ground below. For a duo that often seem to place more emphasis on the way things sound rather than the way they make you feel, it’s a rare moment of vulnerability that, in some ways, allows you to see the pieces that came before in a different light.