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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Hungry Ghost - Hungry Ghosts (Nakama Records, 2019) ****

By Taylor McDowell

Yong Yandsen - tenor saxophone
Christian Meaas Svendsen - bass
Paal Nilssen-Love - drums & percussion

Hungry Ghosts are ominous, oft terrifying beings that figure into Buddhist and traditional Chinese or Vietnamese mythology. As it is said, Hungry Ghosts are the deceased who conducted evil deeds during their lifetime. As a consequence of their misconduct, Hungry Ghosts are tormented by intense and unavoidable emotional cravings. They are banished to a miserable existence, compulsively trying to satiate their hunger - living in the shadows, searching and wanting, yet never able to fulfill their addiction.

Here in the free jazz community, Hungry Ghost is an ominous, oft terrifying trio that consists of Yong Yandsen (ts), Christian Meaas Svendsen (b) and Paal Nilssen-Love (d). While it can’t be said that any of these three would qualify as Hungry Ghosts by Buddhist standards, the music presented here is evocative of a marauding band of ghosts.

Fans of Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit will recognize the association between this prodigious bassist and the master percussionist himself. Malaysian saxophonist, Yong Yandsen, however, may be an unfamiliar name to many readers (as he was to the writer). According to Nilssen-Love’s website, the trio met and toured Southeast Asia in the fall of 2018, during which they recorded this live performance at Live Fact in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The recorded result is a single improvised piece - a raucous 39-minutes of mayhem, mischief, agony, and angst.

The first few minutes feel as if the musicians are getting acquainted with each other, which isn’t to say they are wasting any time getting started. Nilssen-Love begins with brushes, and his quick, jittery touch across his kit is matched by Svendsen’s restless pizzicato explorations. While these two engage a nervous rhythmic dance, Yandsen comes out of the gates with a flurry of runs, punctuated by Ayler-esque wails and howls. The piece begins to gain momentum just a few minutes in as Nilssen-Love and Svendsen lock into a tumultuous groove, Yandsen meanwhile summoning hell from his horn. They continue to dial up the intensity, pushing towards the point where the whole thing should collapse under its own gravity, yet they somehow maintain control over the chaos.

Then, after a brief, fidgety dialogue between the bass and drums, they suddenly disengage from their highspeed pursuit and exit down a slower, darker alley. Yandsen’s long fluttering notes give off a palpable sense of trembling fear. An exciting development takes place when Svendsen introduces a sinister walking bass line. Nilssen-Love dances around on brushes, juxtaposing a sense of restlessness to the stable pulse of the bass. This fleeting moment subsides back into quieter soundscapes, affording each musician the chance to explore more pensive territories. But it’s clear that they aren’t seeking serenity; the music, however subdued, still feels tense and brooding. Us listeners must stay on our toes, though. They once again bring on the fire, and just as we readjust to their new fervid onslaught, they unanimously change directions again.

If you watch videos of Svendsen perform live, you’ll notice his very physical approach to the bass (already a very physical instrument). In any given performance, he might be seen playing with two to three bows, using his cheek or even his foot to conjure unlikely sounds from his instrument. At about 24 minutes in, we hear his concept of playing come to the fore. Svendsen switches to arco here and creates a quick jittery pulse of the bow bouncing against the strings (multiple bows, perhaps?). Nilssen-Love provides quick and light accents from his kit and various percussion. Yandsen joins in, seemingly sans mouthpiece, emitting fuzzy squeals and pops from the instrument. Even in abstract moments such as this, the three play and sound as a single alien organism. There are times when you literally cannot discern Svendsen’s bowed bass from Yandsen’s tenor.

The trio, now having landed in extraterrestrial environments, continue to navigate abstract terrains while subtlely increasing tension. Nilssen-Love provides a subdued groove, accompanied by Svendsen’s bowed ruminations. Yandsen’s own sense of unrest rides atop in the form of estranged overtones, or gut-wrenching altissimo squeals. You get the feeling that they are trapped in a nightmare and can’t wake out of it. This final turmoil slowly fades into silence, like a candle flame burning out - finally yielding to the darkness as the performance ends.

Hungry Ghost is an outstanding trio and produced an outstanding debut record to boot. They fully explore the tonal and emotional possibilities, which yields some pretty exciting moments throughout. There is enough boisterous interplay to keep the adrenaline-junkies satisfied, yet some of the finest moments, in my opinion, occur when the trio veers into slower sections. It’s here that some of the more nuanced playing occurs, and where they deliver on the haunted, unnerving feeling that only Hungry Ghost can offer.

[Spoiler Alert] For those still hungry for a fierier conclusion, there is a hidden 10-minute track included in the digital download that offers just that (the writer is uncertain if this additional track is included on the vinyl or CD versions). If track one concludes as a flame burning out, the second track is the flame burning the house down. A highly-recommended record. We can only hope to hear more from this trio.

Hungry Ghosts is available on vinyl, CD or as a download.