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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Gard Nilssen's Supersonic Orchestra - If You Listen Carefully The Music Is Yours (Odin, 2020) *****

 By Stephen Griffith

It's very natural to think of this group conceptually arising from the success of Paal Nilssen-Love's Large Unit: formed by a Norwegian drummer of many A-list Northern European musicians (only trumpeter Thomas Johansson overlaps both groups) playing bold big band charts. Plus the current performance was recorded at the Molde Festival a year to the day after the first disc here. But the musical antecedents go back a lot further to Gard growing up listening to Count Basie recordings and playing with Thomas Johansson in high school and local big bands. Other influences on the sixteen piece orchestra, featuring three drummers, three bassists and seven(!) reeds, were Sun Ra, Coltrane's Africa/Brass band and Fela Kuti.

Another way to look at the group is an expansion of the Gard Nilssen's Acoustic Unity nucleus as all the songs were cowritten and arranged by Nilssen and saxophonist André Roligheten, with three of them, "Bøtteknott", "Elastic Circle" and "Jack", previously recorded by the trio. And despite all the amassed firepower this is far from an unrelenting bash and blare fest bludgeoning the audience with raw sonic force. For one thing the large hall provided plenty of space to dissipate the ensemble sound to more of a joyful roar; but the arrangements are also designed to feature the musicians in smaller subgroups. Also the three drummers are used not so much to amplify the percussive force as to enable them to play around the beat in ways that give them a unique propulsive power.

The concert begins with a brassy Arkestra like take off on "Premium Processing Fee" with big chords preceding free blowing before Maciej Obara emerges on alto, augmented by staccato twin baritone sax lines before they drop off leaving just bass and drums rhythmic underpinning. Then various horn interjections gradually prod things further until the alto is the eye of a cumulative squall before handing the reins to Thomas Johansson's trumpet at a higher momentum level for more of the same culminating in a massive unison motif after which things wind down quickly with isolated horn burblings with no rhythm instruments. Things slide seamlessly into "Bötteknott" which fans of Acoustic Unity might remember from To Whom Who Buys a Record, only now the chorus gets augmented by fuller instrumentation, particularly soprano sax and clarinets producing a lightness over the previous tenor sax setting, counterpoint and the addition of oddly placed grace notes all of which work well. Add a scorching Kjetil Møster tenor solo and you have a successful reworking of the previous song. It's not easy to identify soloists since none of the musicians have as long of a recorded history as, say, Evan Parker, (YouTube aided in pinpointing the previously mentioned) but André Roligheten's distinctive simultaneous soprano and tenor saxes are featured on "Jack". And not every song begins with a large brassy fanfare with at least half starting with a gradual bass and/or drum building of tension and momentum.

The concert closer, “Bytta Bort Kua Fikk Fela Igjen", is heavily Afrobeat influenced and features a spirited Erik Johannesen trombone solo along with much percussion work by all the orchestra. The Molde audience loved it and hopefully post Pandemic aficionados will have opportunities to do likewise. There's really nothing like a performance by a large group like this.

Hanna Paulsberg: tenor saxophone, percussion
Kjetil Møster: saxophones, percussion
André Roligheten: saxophones, bassclarinet, percussion
Per “Texas” Johanson: tenorsaxophone, contrabass clarinet, clarinet, percussion
Maciej Obara: altosaxophone, percussion
Mette Rasmussen: altosaxophone, percussion
Eirik Hegdal: saxophones, clarinet, percussion
Thomas Johansson: trumpet, percussion
Goran Kajfes: trumpet, percussion
Erik Johannesen: trombone, percussion
Petter Eldh: doublebass, percussion
Ingebrigt Flaten: doublebass, percussion
Ole Morten Vågan: doublebass, percussion
Hans Hulbækmo: drums, percussion
Håkon Mjåset Johansen: drums, percussion
Gard Nilssen: drums, percussion


Colin Green said...

I agree, Steve – a really enjoyable album that delivers the sort of colour and rhythmic punch you can only get with a big band. And to wander slightly off-genre, as the recent incarnation of King Crimson has shown, used properly three drummers can enhance rather than overdo things.

Steve Griffith said...

Thanks, Colin. Also each of the band members plays percussion instruments but in no case did they seem excessive.