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Various Artists

ACT: Visions of Jazz


by Ian Mann

January 10, 2007


This is an excellent collection showcasing jazz from a distinctly European perspective.

The city of Munich could claim with good reason to be the capital of European jazz. It is the home of both ECM and ACT, two pioneering labels who have done much to establish a distinctive European jazz identity.

ACT was established in 1992 by the producer Siegfried Loch. Unlike the longer running ECM which also records American musicians the ACT roster is almost exclusively European. The label’s best known artists are the Esbjorn Svensson Trio or E.S.T., as they are generally known. The Swedish trio are superstars in jazz terms and have even taken America by storm. They are present on this 15-track sampler which gives a good indication of the breadth of talent currently recording for the label. Listening to the album as a whole is reminiscent of hearing an edition of Radio 3’s Late Junction without the announcements. A number of the artists appearing on this album have featured on the programme. The wide-ranging music takes in both instrumental and vocal performances and besides jazz also incorporates rock, folk, world and ambient influences.

Tenor saxophonist Heinz Sauer and pianist Michael Wollny start the album with an intense improvisation on Bjork’s composition “Where Is The Line”. It is dark, atmospheric and strangely moving if not a particularly obvious opener.

Norwegian singer Solveig Slettahjell and her Slow Motion Quintet have attracted a good deal of critical acclaim. Slettahjell’s approach on “Another Day” is reminiscent of Bjork ; her hypnotic voice is underpinned by brooding horns and electronic beats on this atmospheric song written by the quintet’s pianist Morten Qvenild.

World music elements come into play when French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le collaborates with oud master Dhafer Youssef on “Byzance”, the whole thing garnished with a little computer generated exotica. Youssef also contributes a wordless vocal derived from his Middle Eastern roots.

“Timeless” by soprano saxophonist Harry Sokal operates in more conventional jazz territory but there’s a hint of the Middle East in his playing too. Bassist Heiri Kanzig and drummer Jojo Meyer set up an irresistible groove and Kanzig contributes a memorable solo.

E.S.T. appear with “Brewery Of Beggars” from their new album “Tuesday Wonderland”. This is the three minute Radio Edit of the album track which clocks in at a full eight minutes. Nevertheless all the classic E.S.T. elements are here a great tune, a propulsive groove and the sonic explorations of Dan Berglund’s bass. A tasty little soundbite.

Drummer Wolfgang Haffner sets up a hypnotic electronic groove as the backdrop for the remarkably agile trombone solo of Nils Landgren and the atmospheric trumpet of Sebastian Studnitzky. It’s pleasant enough but not as distinctive as what has gone before.

It’s a fact of life that you’re not going to like everything on a sampler and for me Michael Schiefel’s “Do The Rumba” is the only outright miss. All the sounds on Schiefel’s album “Don’t Touch My Animals” are made by his voice alone. It may be very clever but I can’t really see the point and if this is the best track I don’t want to hear anymore. The song itself is not strong enough to support the vocal and technical pyrotechnics. On this evidence Schiefel is too much of a novelty act, more style than substance.

Bassist Lars Danielsson is a mainstay of the label and the title track of his “Melange Blue” album finds him in semi ambient mode with Bugge Wesseltoft’s glacial piano, Jon Christensen’s typically light and subtle drumming plus Eyvind Aarset’s eerie guitar. Archetypal Nordic cool.

“Lesson Three” features the Norske Store Orkester conducted by Helge Sunde who also composed the piece. Subtle orchestral/big band voicings frame an attractive composition featuring solos from pianist Olga Konkova and an uncredited guitarist.

A more successful vocal performance comes from Roger Cicero on “I Cannot See”. The real highlight though is the piano of Julia Hulsmann tastefully supported by Marc Muellbauer on bass and the drums of Heinrich Kobberling.

Christof Lauer leads an unusual trio featuring his soprano saxophone dancing above the bass lines laid down by Michel Godard’s tuba. UK drummer Gary Husband, a fine all round musician, provides suitable punctuation. The track featured here “De Cuir Et De Cuivre” was written by Godard.

“Bambus” is taken from the album “Berlin Calling” and features the cream of Germany’s young jazz musicians. The probing tenor of Daniel Erdmann shows up well as do the slurred trumpet of Ritsche Kop and the stabbing piano of Carsten Daerr. Guitarist Ronny Graupe, bassist Oliver Potratz and drummer Sebastian Merk offer flexible support, navigating the complex rhythms of Potratz’s composition with ease.

The young trio (em) have attracted a compelling amount of critical praise. The modish name suggests that they have aspirations to emulate the success of E.S.T. This particular piano trio consists of pianist Michael Wollny (already heard duetting with Heinz Sauer) bassist Eva Krause and drummer Eric Schaefer. Wollny’s composition “Takashi” features dense piano figures and empathic support from the rhythm section. The use of dynamics owes something to E.S.T. but there are none of the latter’s electronic adornments. This is an intriguing taster and I’d like to here more of this.

Mining a similar seam is the Alboran Trio from Italy. “Balkan Air” features the piano of composer Paolo Paliaga and the fluid bass of Dino Contenti who reveals a remarkable dexterity. Drummer Gigi Biolcati holds things together and provides subtle colourings. As a soloist Contenti is as prominent as Paliaga and if anything their approach is closer to E.S.T. than that of (em). Nonetheless its still impressive stuff and once again I’d like to hear more from them.

Another piano trio closes the album. Pianist Eric Watson’s previously unreleased “New York Moxie” is an eleven minute outpouring of pianistic ideas with tremendous energy and a great groove. Bassist Peter Herbert and drummer Christophe Marguet offer tremendous support the latter punctuating proceedings with an energetic solo. Hypnotic and invigorating this would work well in a live context.

This is an excellent collection showcasing jazz from a distinctly European perspective. Although I come from a generation that tends to think of this type of sampler album as merely a trailer for the works of the individual artists I have to say this hangs together very well and there is some great music featured here. Jazz needs fiercely independent labels like ACT who maintain high musical and technical standards and who have a strong sense of identity. And in the I-Pod age the sampler album is probably more appropriate than ever before.

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