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Saturday, July 22, 2023

Sven-Åke Johansson: Two on Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu

By Nick Metzger

Sven-Åke joins the ranks of the octogenarians this year and the reservoir of this visionary’s creativity has proven to be an exceptionally deep one. He’s released a number of excellent albums over the past year, composed of both new and archival material, and as can always be expected from Johansson there is plenty of variety. Last year I reviewed his trio with Thomas Ankersmit and Werner Dafeldecker “Ny Musik'' which is about as different from these albums as you can get, and that diversity is one of the things I like the most about Johannson’s music - that you can listen to all sorts of unique musical concepts within a single artist’s discography. This write up addresses two releases on the Luxembourg-based Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu, one from very late last year and one from this year. For posterity, Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu are an independent film and music production company started in 2012 by Antoine Prum shortly after he released his acclaimed Sunny Murray documentary “Sunny’s time now”. The label has been extremely supportive of Johansson (to our eternal thanks) with Prum featuring him in his 2017 documentary “Blue for a moment” as well as releasing numerous albums from Sven-Åke and his like minded colleagues over the past several years.

Sven-Åke Johansson, Pierre Borel, Axel Dörner, Joel Grip, & Simon Sieger - Stumps (Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu, 2022) *****


On this fantastic album Johansson is joined by saxophonist Pierre Borel, trumpeter Axel Dörner, bassist Joel Grip, and pianist Simon Sieger on what he proclaims to be his “magnum opus for small ensembles.” With such a declaration from a man who has been involved in some truly legendary small ensembles it definitely caught my attention. The album is available in digital format or, for those that desire a physical object, it is available as a limited edition rubber disc complete with a play hole so that you can load it onto your turntable. There is no music on the rubber disk but it includes a QR code for the digital files. Johansson notes that this is because of the queues and expenses of releasing vinyl editions now that it’s fashionable again. It also slyly addresses the perceived lack of substance associated with digital files and the desire for some, to purchase a tangible object (even if they don’t listen to it). Since people do most of their listening digitally these days - and I’m as guilty as the next - why go through all the trouble of producing a playable product when a rubber disc can serve the same purpose and avoid redundancy?

For each track the ‘Stumps’ theme is repeated four times, forward then backward. The pieces expand from there and maintain a knotty, tight, and choppy aesthetic that couples nicely with Johannson’s swinging ice flows. The theme is effortlessly catchy without seeming to be on first listen, even with it being modified slightly every time it’s played. It will return to you at a later time. The improvisations are measured and skillful as you can surmise from the players involved here. By measured I mean there isn’t any over-the-top free blowing, but the horns still make some pretty nasty sounds. The overall strategy is masked to some degree by the more adventurous sections but it retains a semi-structured feel without being rigid. Any strategy would appear to concern the use of simple patterns and repetition as a jump off for the tight and sparse improvisation, family to his trio with Bertrand Denzler and Joel Grip perhaps, but this quintet is really a separate entity all together - obviously - with a different cast and a more expansive sound. Brilliant solos and improvisations from a group of master musicians, it’s an excellent album that I’ve been returning to again and again since its late 2022 release. Buy the rubber disc or don’t but the music is essential listening, very highly recommended.


Rüdiger Carl & Sven-Åke Johansson - Fläche und Figur, 14 Duos für Akkordeon und Drumsets (Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu, 2023) 

Here we get a heavy whiff of a well established duo - Sven-Åke with his like-minded mischief monger, the truly enlightened composer and multiinstrumentalist Rüdiger Carl. These two have been at it since 1968 in groups as diverse as Bergisch-Brandenburgisches Quartett, Night and Day, NMUI, and Hudson Riv as well as their own established duo work on terrific albums such as “Fünfunddreissigvierzig” and “Djungelmusik med sång”. Prum documented a 2010 farewell concert put on by Künstlerhaus Bethanien, in which the duo performs in the main chapel of a former deaconess hospital in his film “Tschüss Bethanien”. Other releases by the pair are 2011’s “d’accord” and 2020’s “Råka I-VI” - both excellent albums, both recorded in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. So it’s been a while since they’ve released some brand-spanking-new material like this, just to put it into perspective. “Fläche und Figur” (Surface and Figure) was recorded in 2021 at Johansson’s studio in Berlin, with Carl on accordion and Sven-Åke on percussion.

Like a lot of the music Carl and Johansson create together this is a playful mix of folk and free improvisation. None of the tracks are named, just assigned alpha-numerics to mark their sequence on the records. Despite the lack of titles these tracks are pretty distinct and diverse in their makeup considering only two instruments are in play here. Some of the tracks search and probe through brambles of jagged sound and staccato phrasing until a spark catches and bedlam ensues. Some use folk melodies as a jump-off for free play and some exhibit sounds that you wouldn’t expect from these instruments at all. Under-riding all of the music is the duo’s impressive command of their sound. It’s especially rewarding when Johansson gets his swing going beneath the tumult and Carl latches into a lock step. On other pieces Carl plays percussively on the accordion while Johansson rubs out spectacular sounds from his set of traps. It’s a wonderful collection of music from two long-term colleagues whose legendary work continues to march forward.