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Friday, May 31, 2024

Bruno Råberg Tentet – Evolver (Orbis Music Records, 2024)

By Nick Ostrum

Swedish-born but, through decades on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music, naturalized Yankee Bruno Råberg has quite a pedigree. He studied with figures such as Bobo Stenson, Monica Zetterland, Miroslav Vitous, George Russell, and Ra Kalam Bob Moses, among others. He has collaborated with sax giants Sam Rivers and Tony Malaby and, on Evolver, Kris Davis and Walter Smith III. The former is likely familiar to many readers. The latter should be, if he is not already, through his work with Ambrose Akinmusire , Dave Holland, Jason Moran, and Christian Scott, among others. Accompanying Råberg (the bassist and leader of this effort) and guests Davis and Smith III on this album are an emphatically international band: with musicians from Brazil, Kazakhstan, Japan and the US.

It is difficult to approach a bassist-led large ensemble without figures like Dave Holland and Charles Mingus coming to mind. In this case, rightly so. Evolvercomprises music not just penned by Råberg for this outing (with the exception of one track, Elegy, he had previously released with a quartet), but also led by him, often from behind. This is contemporary big-band jazz, in the vein of some of Dave Holland’s more recent larger group work (Octet, Big Band). Or, maybe the sunnier side of Gil Evans, if he had composed and performed on bass.

Evolver is not free jazz, or extreme in any way. It lies on the contemporary progressive side of jazz and follows the mainstream, with elements of the third stream, most of the way. It is generally composed but it avoids the bland formalism that traps many projects treading similar aesthetic ground. The sounds are tender – my three-year-old instructed me skip one track because he does not like “sad songs” – and polished, but any tendency toward routine is quickly interrupted by various solos (nearly every member of the group gets one, some get several, Davis and Smith III are the standouts), the frequent time changes and the quick melodies that seem to roll over each other. To keep the water metaphor, these would be the cataracts.

The first half of this album consists of six pieces largely in the style described above, with enough deviations to add character and texture to the otherwise glossy veneer. The second half is The Echos Suite, which is what really makes this album. The first section, Echos I, slowly unfolds from flutters to fuller movements tied by a two-bar leitmotif. Playing with similar themes as Echos I, Echos II slows into a gradually descending dusk of comfort, solitude, and an underlying unease. Echos III takes a step further into freer territory as Davis, Smith, Allan Chase (baritone sax) and Nate Radley (guitar) each seize the opportunity to unleash some brief but biting solos. Between the tempo and key changes, as well as the ways in which the sections of the piece tumble over each other, this movement evokes some of the jauntiness and playfulness of the Willem Breuker Kollektief and Frank Zappa’s proggier side with smoother edges. Echos IV returns to contemporary blustery big band approach, grounding the suite and drawing the entire album to a sweet, wistful close.

To be released on Orbis Music Records June 1, 2024. For those of you in the greater Cambridge, MA region, there is a release party that night, as well.