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Friday, April 10, 2020

Fire! Orchestra - Actions (Rune Grammofon, 2020) ****

By Martin Schray

Fire! Orchestra manages to surprise their fans. On their last recording, Arrival, they changed a good deal of their line up, added strings and focused on more abstract textures in their pieces (compared to the manic soul jazz approach they displayed on their first albums). Now, on their sixth release, they do without their vocalists Sofia Jernberg and Mariam Wallentin (possibly the distinguishing element in comparison to similar larger formations) and play a piece by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki*. “Actions for Free Jazz Orchestra” was performed only once at the Donaueschingen festival in 1971, where it was also recorded. The ensemble, New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra, was put together by Don Cherry for the occasion and was conducted by himself and Penderecki. The orchestra itself consisted of 14 musicians such as Kenny Wheeler, Peter Brötzmann, Tomasz Stanko, Terje Rypdal, Albert Mangelsdorff, Han Bennink and others (Penderecki - Don Cherry & The New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra: Actions).

Penderecki’s work is mostly classified as post-serial music, and he attracted attention for his sound compositions. He is regarded as one of the leading Polish composers and reached a wider audience after embracing more tonally-centered music, which has been labelled “neo-Romantic“. Yet, in the first part of his career Penderecki belonged to the post-war modernists and until the late 1970s his music contained avant-garde musical techniques, in which rhythmic and harmonic sound structures and gestures took greater precedence than the traditional values of form or melody (a larger audience came in contact with his music in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “The Shining“ and William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist“). As many adventurous composers these days Penderecki was interested in exploring new areas. He had heard the Globe Unity Orchestra at the end of the 1960s and thought of integrating musicians from a different background and with other perspectives than he was used to from the classical world. He recognized similarities in the compositional techniques of the classical avant-garde and in the approach of the large free jazz orchestras as to interests and working methods (structured improvisation, graphic scores, conduction and gesture as composition). “Actions for Free Jazz Orchestra“, the piece Penderecki was commissioned for Donaueschingen, is a bit more than 16 minutes long and explores the balance between composition and improvisation.

Drones and extended techniques such as overblowing sit alongside brass chords, which hang in the air as well as a rather ordinary walking bass. The musical progressions of the piece divide it into four sections of different character. As Penderecki explained in his commentary to the recording, the notated melodic lines, which he called “actions” or “stimulators”, were to inspire the improvisers’ imaginations. Their task was to repeat them in a canon, not reading the music, but on the basis of what they had heard before. As in his classical compositions of the time, Penderecki used the advanced playing techniques of the free jazzers to systematically fathom the boundaries between sound and noise, thereby releasing undreamt-of energy (at least in the view of the classical composer). He also used aleatoric rhythmic elements and an extremely differentiated application of tone clusters, which he layered and subsequently set in motion through pitch fluctuations, especially in the expressive culmination in the last section of the composition. The whole thing is a permanent up and down, a back and forth between staccato-like outbursts (mainly by Terje Rypdal) and abrupt changes between smaller formations, solos and tutti elements.

This is the foundation Fire! Orchestra works with. Like the original their piece was commissioned, in this case by the Sacrum Profanum festival in Kraków, Poland in 2018. The idea was to reimagine this piece in a contemporary setting, with a new approach and a new body of sound, though the instrumentation is more or less identical to that of 1971 (the only difference being a tuba replacing one of the two trombones). However, a major difference is the fact that their version is considerably longer than the one from 1971 (40 minutes, to be precise). Fire! Orchestra’s version is also divided in four parts. Like the original Actions begins with a drone that’s slowly built, but the organ parts, with which the original is interspersed, are replaced by extended techniques of the reeds. Already at the beginning the piece breathes more freely. Finally, a saxophone melody emerges, thwarted by a flute and another nervous saxophone. The construct then collapses, leaving a Deep-Purple-like organ behind. After 6:34 minutes this first part is over. The second one begins with a solo trumpet, into which the electric bass falls almost casually, drums and guitar accompany it, the saxophone and a trombone communicate with the trumpet, while the rhythm section holds the theme stoically. Then another huge drone is built up, peeling out of the blue. As in the original, there is an abrupt change to a chamber-musical trio of electric bass, double bass and bass clarinet, which is then again pushed by several brass instruments, which interfere more and more until everything shifts to some kind of discussion of several instruments, which is counteracted by the tight brass section. So, Fire! Orchestra have adopted the drones and strong contrasts as the constituent elements in Penderecki’s composition. Particularly the contrasts however, merge into each other more fluently, possibly due to the composition's larger expansion. In the third part the guitar slides in, but it disappears as quickly as it had come, only to be replaced by a final drone, whose compactness then frays into single strands. After that Gustafsson plays an energetic solo like Brötzmann did in 1971, before the whole orchestra starts a locomotive-like move using excruciating tone clusters. The sombre outro is reserved for the organ, the cacophonic sound field seems to get lost in space, as the music fades away with a diminuendo.

As a conclusion, Actions is more organic and organized, it’s not as rough as the original, which is meant in a positive way. Compositional and improvised parts merge more easily than in the 1971 version. Never before has Fire! Orchestra sounded so different. They really seem like a revitalised version of the early Globe Unity Orchestra. I already look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Fire! Orchestra is:
Goran Kajfes – trumpet
Niklas Barnö – trumpet
Susana Santos Silva – trumpet
Reine Fiske – guitar
Per åke Holmlander – tuba
Maria Bertel – trombone
Anna Högberg – alto sax
Mats Gustafsson – baritone sax and conduction
Per “Texas” Johansson – tenor sax, clarinet and flute
Christer Bothén – bass clarinet
Alex Zethson – hammond organ
Elsa Bergman – double bass
Torbjörn Zetterberg – electric bass
Andreas Werliin – drums

*Annotation: Krzysztof Penderecki died the day I finished this review (March, 29th, 2020) at the age of 86 in Krakow.

Actions is available on vinyl and as a CD.

You can buy it from or from the label:

Listen to an excerpt here:


Captain Hate said...

I enjoyed this so much I'll check out the Cherry version to compare and contrast. Thanks for the excellent review which piqued my interest.

Paul said...

I did exactly that.

Nick Metzger said...

Same here, fantastic review Martin.

Colin Green said...

Yes, first-rate review, Martin.

Martin Schray said...

Thank you very much for the nice words. Much appreciated.