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Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Large Unit - New Map & Clusterfuck (PNL, 2022)

By Eyal Hareuveni

Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-love reunited his flagship band, the Large Unit, in the autumn of 2021 to three days of recordings at studio Paradiso in Oslo that produced two albums. The 15-musician version of Large Unit featured old Scandinavian comrades plus three new members - Norwegian tenor sax player Marthe Lea (who leads her own band and plays in Andreas Røysum Ensemble), and German, Oslo-based trumpeter Richard Köster (who plays in OJKOS, Orchestra for Jazz Composers in Oslo) and harpist Lotte Krüger.

The twin albums, New Map and Clusterfuck (both recorded at the same time and were released on the same day) mark a return to the more experimental form of composing of Nilssen-Love, employing the Large Unit as a sound lab that investigates overlapping forms, textures and sonorities, balanced with blocks of improvisation. These albums were inspired by the compositional ideas of innovative contemporary composers like John Cage, Morton Feldman and Cornelius Cardew. They correspond with the compositional strategies of Nilssen-Love for the first albums of Large Unit, Erta Ale and Ana (PNL, 2014 and 2016), and a change from the festive spirit of the last albums of Large Unit, More Fun Please and Ethiobraz (PNL, 2018, 2019).

New Map is based on open-form “cells” of concrete ideas, notes and directions that the musicians had to respond to. The 22-minute title piece swings - sometimes, literally - back and forth between subtle percussive games, mysterious and sensual orchestral-chamber dynamics, anchored by harpist Krüger, accordionist Kalle Moberg and trumpeter Köster, and raw, noisy and abstract improvisations led by sax players Lea, Klaus Ellerhusen Holm, Kristoffer Berre Alberts and Finnish electronics player Tommi Keränen and Nilssen-Love on gongs. Nillsen-Love, as always, gives his musicians the freedom and responsibility to shape the music and encourages individual improvisation. The second piece “Circles” adopts a similar strategy but now guitarist Ketil Gutvik and Swedish trombonist Mats Äleklint and tubaist Per Åke Holmlander set a playful, free jazz vibe that welcomes all to contribute to the high-octane dynamics and suggests other powerful courses. Eventually, Nilssen-Love’s gongs declare on a short introspective, ceremonial segment before the Large Unit resumes its energetic free jazz course. The last and short “Gong Piece” stresses Nilssen-Love growing focus on gongs, as on recent albums by him with the new Band Circus (Pairs of Three, PNL, 2022) or with reeds master Frode Gjerstad and Moberg (Time Sound Shape, PNL, 2022). The Large Unit contrasts and softens the gongs' dramatic, deeply resonating effect.

On Clusterfuck, Nilssen-Love used graphic notations. The 24-minute title piece pushes the Large Unit to urgent and ecstatic blowouts but this powerful sonic adventure is often punctuated by playful, or subtle and reflexive, improvised solos. Eventually, the Large Unit exhausts its whole energy in the explosive coda before letting Moberg and Keränen end this piece. Nilsson-Love, second drummer Andreas Wildhagen and percussionist Celio de Carvalho navigate “Bubbles” to even more intense and energetic courses, but, again, when Nilssen-Love begins to play on his gongs the mode shifts into more introspective and reserved. The last piece “Moodplay” plays with these powerful veins but varies the dynamics with a series of individual solos, from the most intense to the most delicate and abstract ones.

Both albums suggest that the Large Unit, which celebrates this year its tenth anniversary, is still focused on exploring more exciting and challenging territories.


Nick Ostrum said...

Great review, Eyal, and I agree. These mark a welcome return to older territory after a couple of bouncier releases. (That is no knock at those. Ethiojazz might be one of the group's best.) That return, however, does not sound quite as it did before, in Erta Ale, for instance. That goes especially for the the quieter moments on these releases. Great stuff.