BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Swedish/Norwegian quintet Atomic formed out of a desire to show the world that there was more to Scandinavian jazz that the ethereal, introspective ECM sound. In many ways that means going back to the sixties, when Jan Garbarek and Bobo Stenson pushed the limits of avant-garde European jazz on classic albums like SART and Afric Pepperbird, long before settling into calmer, less wild-eyed states. Saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist, trumpeter Magnus Broo, pianist Håvaard Wiik, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and (since 2015) drummer Hans Hulbækmo have been resurrecting that sound for nearly twenty years, putting a playful spin on free jazz that never sacrifices melody for fire.
Pet Variations, the group’s eleventh LP, walks a different path than Atomic’s usual. Instead of improvising on originals from the pens of Ljungkvist and Wiik, the band instead imprints its vision on a collection of other people’s music, from pop to classical to, of course, jazz. The group opens by poking and prodding at the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” starting with a Wiik-composed variation on its themes before exploring every nook and cranny of Wilson’s music. Carla Bley’s “Walking Woman” finds its feet getting shot at, dancing in the dust thanks to Ljungkvist and Broo’s caffeinated rapid fire. Wiik takes command of Steve Lacy’s “Art,” adding a distinctively Nordic take on the blues, while his keys duet with Ljungkvist’s clarinet through a winding take on Jimmy Giuffre’s “Cry Want.” A whimsical, freewheeling energy piece composed by German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, “Inri” fits right in with the group’s self-composed repertoire and lets every member shine.
The band takes a different approach to the album’s classical pieces. Light on improvisation in favor of a tight adherence to the moody melodies, Edgar Varese’s “Un grand Sommeil Noir” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” apply the band’s skill to less frenetic, more meditative texts – not even Hulbækmo’s brief freakout underneath “Louange” can obscure its dignified beauty. Ironically, these tracks drift steadily toward the ECM aesthetic Atomic normally eschews; add a coat of reverb and they’d drop onto Manfred Eicher’s label without a bump.
Speaking of ECM, the record ends with a tune by that label’s bestseller Jan Garbarek. “Karin’s Mode,” taken from Garbarek’s 1969 pre-ECM LP The Esoteric Circle, features one of the album’s most melodic tracks and some of the band’s tightest ensemble work, the musicians working as one to bring one of the Norwegian saxist’s best compositions to new life. It’s appropriate that the record ends with a Scandinavian composer, and it, like the album it concludes, shows Atomic at its best.
Rules, the latest album from Broo, also goes the covers route. Unlike his work with Atomic, however, the trumpeter avoids free jazz outbursts and instead throws the spotlight solely on melody. Joined by Flaten and drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen, Broo offers up seven standards, mostly in the ballad vein, from the catalogs of the great pre-rock songwriters and musicians. “If I Should Lose You,” first recorded by singer Herb Jeffries and essayed by Charlie Parker on his controversial album With Strings, starts the record off with an open evocation to the smoky, late night wistfulness of Chet Baker. Indeed, Baker’s spirit threads itself through many of these performances, informing Broo’s tune-first approach without overshadowing it – cf. the lovely “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the jocund “Summertime” and the swinging “Like Someone in Love.” “Easy Living,” written by the same team as “If I Should Lose You” and recorded by Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond and more, ups the tempo and energy levels, with Broo soaring over tempo changes like he’s having the time of his life.
For a change of pace (and a nod to Broo’s usual vision), “You’ve Changed,” another song from the Billie Holiday book, ventures into atmospheric strangeness, with Flaten bowing eerily behind furtive bursts of trumpet. But elsewhere the musicians stick closely to the original melodies, ending with a gorgeous version of Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” that lets Broo off the leash by its closing phrase. Rules reiterates not only the power of these timeless tunes, but also that musicians associated with the avant-garde can keep the faith as closely as any traditionalist.
DOWNLOAD: Atomic: “Karin’s Mode,” “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus,” “Pet Variations/Pet Sounds” / Broo: “Easy Living,” “Don’t Explain,” “You’ve Changed”