Click here to [close]

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Big in Japan: Paal Nilssen-Love and Ken Vandermark

By Eyal Hareuveni

Soulmates - Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and American tenor sax and clarinet player Ken Vandermark, are one of the most productive outfits of free music. They have been working as a duo now for twenty years (their first duo album, Dual Pleasure, was released by Smalltown Supersound in 2002), but also in the quartet Lean Left (with The Ex’ guitarists) and worked together before in the now defunct Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, the Atomic/School Days, FME trio (with Nate McBride), Fire Room trio (with Lasse Marhaug), 4 Corners (with Magnus Broo and Adam Lane), on Vandermark’s projects like Map Territory and Artifact iTi and in occasional collaborations of The Thing with Vandermark or Vandermark, Nilssen-Love with Dutch reeds master Ab Baars.

Paal Nilssen-Love / Ken Vandermark - Japan 2019 (PNL / Audiographic, 2024)

Nilssen-Love and Vandermark’s extensive experiences of working together and in many independent projects just make their music better, as the box set, a limited-edition of 7-disc Japan 2019 (with a download option) proves. It was collected from their 16-date concert tour of Japan in December 2019, and released just before another duo tour in Japan. Japan 2019 documents two duo performances, as well as new collaborations with legendary Japanese musicians - reeds player-vocalist Akira Sakata (who plays with Nilssen-Love in the Arashi trio), and pianists Masahiko Satoh (now 83 years old, who recorded before with Brötzmann and with Nilssen-Love), and Yuji Takahashi (now 86 years old, known for his seminal recordings of the works of John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and Toru Takemitsu).

The box set offers 20 untitled, free improvised pieces that highlight the boundless, primal energy, utmost freedom and spontaneity of Nilssen-Love and Vandermark as well as the richness of their dynamics as well as their creative intensity. The first disc documents the first duo set performance in this tour at Tokyo’s Koen-Dori Classics, and already this set shows how the music of Nilssen-Love and Vandermark is always evolving, shifting, and changing, constructing and deconstructing ideas and themes organically, and moving seamlessly between the infectious rhythmic and playful to the lyrical and the contemplative. No matter how many times you have listened to or experienced Nilssen-Love and Vandermark live, they never repeat themselves, always pushing forward but wise enough to balance and contrast each other and add more nuances and sonic dimension to their languages. The second disc documents the second set at the same club of Nilssen-Love and Vandermark with Takahashi, who sounds like he embodies the whole history of jazz, injecting ideas that correspond with Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor’s aesthetics. Nilssen-Love and Vandermark cleverly alternate between pushing Takahashi to totally free and explosive trio dynamics and supporting his brilliant solos, including a mid-piece, most beautiful solo that precedes a delicate duo with Vandermark who plays the clarinet.

The third disc was recorded a day later at the same club and features the trio of Nilssen-Love with Satoh and Takahashi. It was originally planned as a duo between the pianists, but at the soundcheck, Nilssen-Love’s interaction with them sounded so good there was no question about a trio performance. Vandermark describes this set in his insightful tour diary as centered on a dialog of the pianists, that was so in sync it sounded like one person who could play with four hands, while Nilssen-Love supported them with nuanced and layered percussive patterns that varied the pianists’ discourse and highlighted their rare dynamics. The second set of this performance is a quartet with Vandermark joining Satoh, Takahashi and Nilssen-Love. It suggests an even deeper and more exciting dynamics of this ad-hoc quartet, and the interplay sounded natural, effortless and kinetic at the same time, even a chamber one at the encore, with enough space for introspection and individual solos.

The fifth disc documents the third, consecutive night at Koen-Dori Classics with Satoh joining Nilssen-Love and Vandermark for a super intense free jazz set, in volume and energy. The three improvisers chase each other on the first two pieces in a manic and ecstatic race but with a strong sense of where they are going. Satoh alters these dynamics at the beginning of the third piece and introduces a delicate, openly emotional spirit before the trio returns to its cathartic mode. Satoh is an inspiring, idiosyncratic master of free improvisation but you can find in his piano echoes of the work of Alexander von Schlippenbach, with its Monk-ish cyclical syntax. The sixth disc was recorded eleven days later at the traditional Jyosenji Temple (Vandermark thought of the locations as belonging to Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusaha film) in Onomichi with Sakata, with whom Nilssen-Love and Vandermark performed together in their previous tour at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Pit-Inn club. This performance became a miraculous climax of this tour, with a profound, spiritual level of natural and effortless communication, beauty and elegance as if Sakata, Nilssen-Love and Sakata were serving a higher force with their music, or if the music was creating itself and the three musicians were fortunate to witness this creative process. A special moment in this performance happened when Sakata began reciting passages from the epic, 14th century Heike Monogatari ( The Tale of the Heike, Sakata’s album released by Trost in 2016) with the reserved playing of Nilssen-Love and Vandernark but with an unbelievable, electrifying intensity, that fitted perfectly with the unique location.

The last, seventh disc documents the last performance of this tour at Environment Øg in Osaka and Vandermark mentions that often the “last gig of a tour always has a different, specific tension surrounding it. There is an inherent desire to somehow make it the strongest performance of the trip:”. Luckily, despite the fatigue of such a demanding tour, Vandermark and Nilssen-Love still had a lot of things to talk and laugh about, off stage and on stage, and were in top form, sharp and powerful but also emotional and contemplative, exhausting all they had. Vandermark remembers this performance as reaching a ”new and different area of communication”, parallel to the spontaneous, melodic and rhythmic flow of Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell. “When music and comradeship come first, extraordinary things take place”, Vandermark concludes.

The tour ended but Nilssen-Love and Vandermark extended their stay in Japan to see the legendary Yosuke Yamashita Trio perform at the Shinjuku Bunka Center in Tokyo, exploring its rich history with many guests, including Sakata, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Takeo Moriyama. There are many more enchanting stories about this tour, the unique clubs and the food in the booklet of this great, indispensable box set.

Paal Nilssen-Love / Ken Vandermark - Japan Tour 2024: Live in Osaka (Catalytic Artist Album, 2024)

Apparently, the box set alone can not satisfy that addicted ones. So if you are wise enough and already subscribed to Catalytic Sound, you can enjoy the first document, hopefully, from many more, of the three-week tour in January 2024 in Japan. This album features two sets of the duo at Environment Øg in Osaka, the seventh performance of this 15-date tour, and where the last disc of the box set was recorded. Nilssen-Love and Vandermark still search and evolve, still offer unpredictable dynamics and still have the high-velocity power that can electrify any major Japanese city. But this incendiary duo has also the wisdom and experience to vary its ideas and turn from the chaotic and cacophonic to the austere, lyrical and understated. It does not get better than this performance.