by Ian Mann
February 06, 2019
With its blend of European and American influences “Minusgrader” is arguably Orion’s most mainstream album to date and as such is more than capable of reaching out to a broad constituency.
Orjan Hulten Orion
(Artogrush Records OCD-012)
“Minusgrader” is the fourth album release by the group Orion, a quartet led by the Swedish saxophonist and composer Orjan Hulten.
Hulten first came to my attention as part of a quartet led by the Greek born guitarist and composer Tassos Spiliotopoulos. Spiliotopoulos spent several years living in London, becoming a popular and significant presence on the UK jazz circuit, before moving to Stockholm in 2013. The guitarist wasted little time in immersing himself in the Swedish jazz scene and in 2016 released the superb album “In the North” with his “Swedish Band”, a quartet featuring Hulten, bassist Palle Sollinger and drummer Fredrik Rundqvist. This was Spiliotopoulos’ third album as a leader and his most accomplished recording to date.
Hulten played a big part in that record’s success and was part of the band that Spiliotopoulos brought to the UK for a short tour later in 2016. Having already been impressed by the album I was further delighted by the quartet’s performance at the Queens Head in Monmouth, one of the best gigs that I have ever seen at that venue. The band featured Spiliotopoulos, Hulten, new bassist Filip Augustson and the guitarist’s old friend and sometime boss Asaf Sirkis at the drums.
The success of that tour, and the good impression that Hulten made on it, led to the Swede returning to the UK in 2017 leading his own quartet Orion, featuring Augustson, drummer Peter Danemo and keyboard player Adam Forkelid. This unit have released a series of excellent albums including “Radio In My Head” (2010), “Mr Nobody” (2013) and “Faltrapport” (2016), all on the Swedish Artogrush imprint.
Orion places the emphasis on Hulten’s abilities as a composer. The group’s pieces tend to have a strong narrative arc and although much of the material is through composed ample space is still left for individual and collective improvisation with Hulten commenting;
“The mission with Orion is to be able to write music without limits and perform together with musicians that have the same goal. The challenge is to compose, but not compose too much, to leave a lot of space for the band to explore and contribute to with our personalities.”
“Minusgrader” introduces a new version of Orion with Hulten, Augustson and Danemo joined by pianist Torbjorn Gulz who replaces Adam Forkelid, who had appeared on the band’s first three albums. Gulz’s arrival also heralds a more democratic version of the band with compositional duties now being distributed more evenly around the members of the group. With one or two exceptions the focus previously had very much been on Hulten’s own writing.
“Minusgrader”, meaning “minus degrees” or “freezing weather”, takes its title from a poem by the great Swedish poet Thomas Transtromer (1931 – 2015). A piano player himself Transtromer’s work has inspired many Scandinavian musicians, notably the Norwegian saxophonist and composer Jan Garbarek on his 1985 album release “It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice” (ECM Records).
Despite the input of four individual composers Orion has a distinctive group sound that features strong melodic themes, sometimes influenced by Scandinavian folk music, combined with classically inspired harmonies and a jazz centred command of improvisation drawn from the American jazz tradition. Orion’s music is sometimes complex but is always evocative, with each piece giving a sense of telling a story.
A case in point is the Transtromer inspired title track which opens the album. Written by Hulten himself the piece begins with the delicate sound of Gulz’s unaccompanied piano, the music unfolding slowly and deliberately, with a strong sense of drama, atmosphere and narrative. Hulten’s tenor playing combines beguiling melody with an austere lyricism, superficially Garbarek like in feel but ultimately very different in execution. Danemo impresses as a colourist with some neatly detailed drum and cymbal work but plays more forcefully in the second phase of the piece with its doomy arco bass and heavy grooves.
Gulz’s “October in May” is generally lighter in mood with Hulten’s soprano dancing lithely, and probing subtly, around the samba inspired rhythms. The composer solos expansively on piano, demonstrating an admirable lightness of touch allied to an improviser’s inventiveness. Augustson’s melodic pizzicato bass is also heard to good effect on a charming, highly dexterous solo.
Drummer Danemo takes the composer credit for the beautiful ballad “Unless it’s You”, which commences with a delightful dialogue between Hulten’s tenor and Gulz’s piano. The saxophonist’s playing on this piece has been compared to that of Stan Getz and his solo combines a warm tone with great fluency and a certain improvisational rigour. Gulz also impresses with a flowingly lyrical piano solo while Danemo deploys both brushes and sticks to turn in a finely nuanced performance behind the kit.
Presumably Augustson’s “One for Britten” id dedicated to Benjamin of that ilk but the music is more akin to that of bebop, but filtered through a very modern prism. With its scuffling phrases and stop start rhythms its an intriguing item that forms the vehicle for an expansive tenor sax solo from Hulten over rapid bass and busy drums. Augustson and Danemo also underpin Gulz’s wryly inventive pianistics.
Hulten’s own “Adore You” initially finds the group in ballad mode once more with the composer’s tenor at its most tender. The leader then stretches out with a gently probing solo, as does Gulz with a richly inventive piano solo. We also hear from Augustson at the bass, a virtuoso pizzicato solo accompanied by Gulz’s inventive piano chording and the chatter of Danemo’s brushes. On the album’s lengthiest track Hulten returns for a closing theme statement that is both vibrant and celebratory.
The saxophonist is also the composer of “Blues I manegan”, a steadily swinging piece that gives both the tenor toting leader and the resourceful pianist Gulz the opportunity to stretch out at length.
Danemo’s “1961, Echoes” is also inspired by the American jazz tradition with its allusions to the music of pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. Once again Hulten and Gulz get to solo expansively on tenor sax and piano respectively.
Augustson’s unaccompanied bass introduces Gulz’s “Heading East”, a charming showcase for Hulten’s breezily fluent tenor. That bass also underpins the composer’s gently inventive piano solo.
Finally we hear Augustson’s buoyant “Do it anyway”, another vehicle for Hulten’s effortlessly fluid tenor sax improvising and Gulz’s similar inventiveness at the piano.
With its blend of European and American influences “Minusgrader” is arguably Orion’s most mainstream album to date and as such is more than capable of reaching out to a broad constituency. Reviews for “Faltrapport” suggested that the group is “world class” and there’s nothing here to contradict that. Hulten is a wonderfully fluent and inventive improviser on both tenor and soprano saxophones and he’s supported here by a well balanced band of superb musicians who all make telling contributions to the success of the music with pianist Gulz sounding as if he’s always been there.
Let’s hope that Hulten will be able to bring the current edition of Orion back to the UK sometime in 2019.
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