Thursday, April 22, 2010
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
A disc full of rich textures and colours and with a unique blend of electronic and acoustic sounds.
I’ve followed the English saxophonist Iain Ballamy’s career since his days as one of the principal soloists in the fabulous Loose Tubes. I dug him with Bill Bruford’s Earthworks and have enjoyed his many solo releases including “Balloon Man”, “All Men, Amen” and more recently “More Jazz” recorded with his Anorak group.
In 1998 when Ballamy first linked up with a trio of Norwegian musicians, graduates of the Trondheim Conservatoire I was surprised. The group Food initially consisted of Ballamy plus Arve Henriksen (trumpet), Thomas Stronen (drums) and Mats Eilertsen ( bass). The focus was on the creation of entirely improvised music with Henriksen and Stronen increasingly treating the group’s sound by the use of live electronics. The collaboration proved remarkably successful both artistically and (in jazz terms) commercially and has been one of Ballamy’s longest running projects. The group’s music, ranging from the the ethereal and atmospheric to the confrontational has evolved over a series of albums including “Food” (1999), “Organic and GM” (2000), both released on Ballamy’s own Feral label, before a move to the Norwegian Rune Grammofon label yielded “Veggie” (2002) and “The Last Supper” (2004).
By the time of 2007’s “Molecular Gastronomy” the group was down to a duo of Ballamy and Stronen with Henriksen having left to pursue a successful solo career with ECM and with Eilertson also increasingly busy elsewhere, including recent work with pianist Tord Gustavsen’s Ensemble.
The Food duo continued to collaborate with guest artists including trumpeters Nils Petter Molvaer and Tom Arthurs and ex Loose Tubes trombonist Ashley Slater who added some post production work to “Molecular Gastronomy.”
The duo’s ECM début “Quiet Inlet” was born of such collaborations. The album is sourced from live appearances at the Bla Club in Oslo and at the Molde International Jazz Festival during the period 2007/8. Four tracks feature guest trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer with the remaining three involving the guitar and electronics of the Austrian musician Christian Fennesz. Mixed by legendary recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug the music came to the attention of Manfred Eicher who was keen to release it on ECM. Signing for the prestigious German label was a dream come true for Ballamy, a long term admirer of ECM’s output.
“Quiet Inlet” is a conscious attempt to highlight the more reflective and lyrical side of the band and on the whole the group maintain this mood throughout the album. In this way it’s perfect for ECM’s production values and from the off it’s obviously an ECM record. Long term Food fans may find the concentration on one particular area of the group’s music off putting but for listeners like myself who may have found Food’s music more challenging than Ballamy’s rather more orthodox jazz output this is an excellent introduction to the band and it’s methods. Even the title is an allusion to the fact that this is, in Stronen’s words, “a quiet introduction to Food”.
The seven tracks commence with the trio of Ballamy, Stronen and Fennesz performing “Tobiko”.It opens with Stronen’s delicate, atmospheric percussion weaving delightful patterns above low key layers of electronica presumably generated by himself and Fennesz. There is little orthodox guitar playing on the record and the Austrian’s role seems to be essentially that of an electronics artist, subtly adding to the colours and textures of this richly imaginative music. Ballamy blows long soprano lines above the sonic backdrop. In the hands of Kongshaug and Eicher he often sounds uncannily like Jan Garbarek, a comparison that still applies whether Ballamy is using tenor or soprano. As the track develops Ballamy sits out for long periods as Stronen’s drums and percussion take centre stage heavily embellished by the attendant electronica. There’s a quiet beauty to this music that these words of description can’t quite capture, a uniquely “Nordic” quality that seems to pervade so much Norwegian music and one which even outsiders like Ballamy and Fennesz find impossible to resist.
“Chimaera” sees Ballamy switching to tenor and features the first appearance from Molvaer. Both horns brood moodily above the delightfully detailed backdrop of Stronen’s percussion. He uses small instruments bells, shakers and woodblocks in addition to his drum kit and these delicate acoustic sounds and details make a delightful and very human contrast to the electronic elements of Food’s music.
“Mictyris” marks the return of Fennesz and, initially at least, is the most urgent item thus far. Stronen’s busy percussive backdrop is the springboard for stabs of dark electronica and Ballamy’s squiggling soprano. As the percussive storm slowly fades away Ballamy is left centre stage his atmospheric musings subtly manipulated by his colleagues as the piece ends in a wholly different mood and place to which it started.
“Becalmed” features sampled choral voices, more delightful acoustic percussive details and the ghostly trumpet of Molvaer floating freely. Like much of Food’s music on this album the piece is about mood building and the use of space. It’s chillingly beautiful, qualities that could also be applied to the following “Cirrina” which features Molvaer combining superbly with Ballamy’s soprano above Stronen’s vigorously brushed drum undertow. Almost devoid of electronic embellishment it emphasises the trio’s qualities as acoustic musicians.
“Dweller” completes a trilogy of pieces featuring the talents of Molvaer and continues the mood established by the previous two items. Above a lushly textured backdrop Molvaer’s horn whispers and cajoles, Ballamy’s sax needles and Stronen’s percussion offers fragile colour through his use of acoustic elements including gongs and chimes.
Fennesz returns for the closing “Fathom” which deploys haunting, folk influenced, tenor sax over spectral percussion and electronica with extra colour coming from the ringing of Fennesz’s FX layered guitar. It’s as fascinating as anything else on this extraordinary record, a disc full of rich textures and colours and with a unique blend of electronic and acoustic sounds. There are no conventional jazz rhythms on the album but Stronen still supplies a certain pulse and impetus in a music that is rooted in jazz but sounds entirely different. Food’s beautifully nuanced music has gained them a loyal following and their switch to ECM is likely to gather more converts to the fold.
If there’s a fault to this record it’s the fact that it retains much the same mood largely throughout and for all the beauty there’s a lack of variety in mood and pace. As I’ve previously mentioned though this may also be it’s strength in terms of attracting new listeners to music that deserves to be widely heard.
The group are due to appear in trio format (Ballamy, Stronen, Fennesz) at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, a show that I will be reviewing on this site. It will be interesting to see the group perform live and to see how far they vary the mood from that of the CD. The only other time I saw the group was back in 2002 when the original quartet supported E.S.T. in Bristol where their performance was a lot more assertive than the ones presented here. Watch this space.
Stronen also forms half of the Norwegian duo Humcrush. See also Tim Owen’s review of their recent appearance at London’s Vortex Jazz Club.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.