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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Atomic - Pet Variations (Odin, 2018) *****

By Eyal Hareuveni

The Swedish-Norwegian quintet Atomic was founded in 2000 with a clear mission, to present a different perspective of Nordic Jazz, far away as possible from the ‘mountain music’, the chilly and melancholic sound of the ECM school. Atomic - Swedish reeds player Fredrik Ljungkvist and trumpeter Magnus Broo and Norwegian pianist Håvard Wiik, double bass player Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, who was replaced in 2014 by fellow-Norwegian Hans Hulbækmo, suggested an energetic and soulful alternative, relying on the ecstatic African-American modern jazz but informed by cerebral European contemporary music.

Now, after 14 albums (two albums were collaborations with Ken Vandermark's now-defunct School Days which shared the rhythm section of Håker Flaten and Nilssen-Love), and after establishing its identity as one of the most influential groups in the Nordic scene, Atomic is offering for the first time a program of non-original compositions by composers as diverse as the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen and Norwegian sax player Jan Garbarek. Atomic interprets and arranges these compositions in its very own way, but more important, they suggest an arresting perspective of how these distinct and very personal compositions correspond with each other and form a rich, multilayered whole, far more complex and varied than any specific genre can contain.

Pet Variations begins with Wiik’s title-piece introduction, soon blended into Wilson’s iconic “Pet Sounds”, taken from the Beach Boys album by the same name (Capitol, 1966). Atomic resurfaces the complex harmonics and modernist elements that Wilson injected to this concise masterpiece and transform it to a passionate, fiery jazz piece, completely different from meticulously polished sound of Beach Boys.

Steve Lacy’s “Art” (from Momentum, Novus, 1987, and inspired by a poem of Herman Melville), is one of Lacy's compositions that does not reference Thelonious Monk's legacy. Atomic interpretation is quite reverent and reserved, arranging the sublime, lyrical piece as a chamber, choral one, with beautiful solos of Ljungkvist - on the clarinet - Broo, and Wiik, who sings gently the majestic theme.

Paul Bley’s “Walking Woman”, penned by Carla Bley for his iconoclastic Barrage album (ESP Disk, 1965 with a quintet with a similar instrumentation to Atomic - Sun Ra Arkestra’s alto sax player Marshall Allen, trumpeter Dewey Johnson, double bass player Eddie Gomez, drummer Milford Graves, and Bley on the piano), receives a radical interpretation by Atomic, refining Carla Bley’s orchestral, compositional ideas and her eccentric sense of humor and irony from the eruptive, muscular power of the original version.

Edgard Varèse’s early composition “Un Grand Sommeil Noir” was originally written for soprano and piano, after a poem by Paul Verlaine. Atomic adds a ritualist, rhythmic dimension to this ethereal, enigmatic composition and transforms it to a chamber jazz piece, highlighted by masterful bass work of Håker Flaten, both with the bow and pizzicato.

Jimmy Guiffre’s “Cry Want”, was recorded with his trio of Paul Bley and double bass player Steve Swallow on Fusion (reissued by ECM as 1961, together with Thesis, 1992, also featuring compositions by Carla Bley). Atomic's version expands and enriches the chamber, ascetic sound of Jimmy Guiffre 3, with the singular voices of Ljungkvist - on clarinet - and Wiik.

Olivier Messiaen’s “Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus”, taken from his famous chamber Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), was written during the Second World War while Messian was a prisoner of war captivated by the German, inspired by verse from the Book of John and was scored for a cello and piano. Broo and Ljunkvist - again on clarinet - recite Messiaen’s somber liturgical theme, and together with minimalist support of Wiik, suggest it as a sober, secular hymn.

From Alexander von Schlippenbach is one of his earliest compositions, “Inri”, which was recorded in 1967 by the early quintet of trumpeter Manfred Schoof - von Schlippenbach on piano, Gerd Dudek on tenor sax, Buschi Niebergall on double bass, and Jaki Liebezeit on drums (reissued as The Early Quintet, FMP, 1978). Atomic's arrangement takes von Schlippenbach’s experiment in a collective improvisation of a basic compositional idea to new, higher and powerful grounds, with a brilliant, totally free piano solo of Wiik.

This remarkable set concludes with another early composition, this time from Garbarek, one of the Nordic musicians most closely associated with the sound of ECM. But Garbarek’s piece, “Karin’s Mode,” predates his time with the ECM label, and was recorded for his classic Esoteric Circle (the title of the album borrows a concept from George Russell, with whom he recorded before, with the young guitarist Terje Rypdal, double bass player Arild Andersen, and drummer Jon Christensen, all  of whom who later joined the ECM ranks). It was released on ex-John Coltrane producer Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label in 1969 and reflected the seminal influence of Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra Arkestra’s tenor sax player John Gilmore on Garbarek. Atomic's version was recorded in one take with no rehearsal, and keeps the infectious rhythmic attack and the emotional spirit of the original version, but colors it with the strong voices of Atomic.

Pet Variations is, no doubt, the most ambitious and adventurous album from Atomic. A true masterpiece.