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Orjan Hulten Orion

Shifting Ground

by Ian Mann

November 28, 2022


The writing, now distributed around the members of the quartet, remains intelligent and varied and the playing, as ever, is excellent throughout.

Orjan Hulten Orion

“Shifting Ground”

(Prophone Records PCD308)

Orjan Hulten – saxophones, Torbjorn Gulz – piano, Filip Augustson – bass, Peter Danemo- drums

The Swedish saxophonist and composer Orjan 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. Review here;

The success of that tour, and the good impression that Hulten made on it, led to the Swede returning to tour 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. I also saw Orion perform in Monmouth but did not review the event on that occasion. Nevertheless I was again highly impressed by the performance.

Orion’s fourth album release “Minusgrader”  (2019, also Artogrush) was the group’s most accomplished and successful to date, winning the group further international recognition. The recording introduced a new version of the group with Hulten, Augustson and Danemo joined by pianist Torbjorn Gulz, who also proved to be a significant composing presence. Indeed this latest edition of Orion proved to be a more democratic group all round. The band’s first three recordings had concentrated on Hulten’s writing almost exclusively, but “Minusgrader” found all four members of the group bringing compositions to the table, making for a more balanced and varied recording. Review (from which most of the above paragraphs have been sourced) here;

Released in 2020 Orion’s fifth album, “Liberia Ballad” offered a radical change of direction as the group introduced vocals and lyrics into their music for the first time as part of a collaboration with the Liberian vocalist and lyricist Ernie Bruce. Historically there have been strong trading and political links between Sweden and Liberia and in 2018 Orion visited the Liberian capital Monrovia to play at a reception at the Swedish Embassy.  By chance they met Ernie Bruce, a Liberian singer with a deep love and knowledge of jazz. Hulten describes this meeting as a ‘fluke’, but the Swedish quartet began to work with the Liberian singer and performed several concerts with Bruce at various venues in Monrovia during the course of a week’s stay in the Liberian capital.

As Hulten puts it;
“Musical ideas were formed as a collage of meetings, expectations, impressions and memories. These turned into material for a record that embodied a relationship, of music and culture, between individuals and nations, across cultural boundaries and time”.

The “Liberia Ballad” album featured Bruce’s rich baritone voice and his socially conscious lyrics on four of the album’s nine tracks. My review of that recording is here;—ernie-bruce-liberia-ballad

Hulten has also appeared with Augustson and Rundqvist in the ‘saxophone trio’  format, releasing the live recording “Live at Bas” for Artogrush. Review here;

“Shifting Ground” sees Orion returning to making purely instrumental music once more. It features the quartet of Hulten, Gulz, Augustson and Danemo with all contributing to the album as composers – indeed only one of the eight pieces is composed by Hulten, and it’s not even the title track! The album also sees a change of labels and is released by Swedish jazz specialists Prophone Records.

The music commences with Augustson’s title track, which sees Hulten adopting a relatively mainstream tenor sax sound on the opening solo. He’s followed by Gulz at the piano, who combines expansiveness with a flowing lyricism. Augustson and Danemo keep things ticking along at a medium to fast tempo and there is plenty of detail to admire about the drummer’s contribution. Hulten then returns for a second solo, playing with his customary fluency and inventiveness.

Danemo takes over the compositional reins for “Mystique No. 12”, an atmospheric ballad that features the melancholic sound of Hulten’s tenor alongside gently lyrical piano, sympathetic and supportive bass and delicately brushed drums. At a little under three minutes in duration it’s a relatively short piece, and although Hulten probes subtly and intelligently there are no ‘solos’ as such. Instead this is an ensemble performance that quickly establishes a mood and adheres to it. As such it represents an exquisite, beautifully played miniature.

At eight minutes duration Augustson’s “Bellatrix” is a far more substantial offering in terms of time alone. This time Hulten features on soprano, weaving a melodic spell as the piece gradually unfolds, gradually probing more deeply before eventually handing over to Gulz at the piano. It’s a piece that embodies Orion’s virtues of creating original compositions that are rich in terms of melody, colour and texture and which possess a strong narrative arc. Although much of the material is through composed ample space is still left for individual and collective improvisation, with Hulten having previously commented;
“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 to compose too much, to leave a lot of space for the band to explore and contribute to with our personalities.”

The leader takes over the compositional duties on the charming “Les Tres Maria”, a pleasingly quirky piece with something of a tango feel to it. Hulten features on tenor alongside Gulz at the piano. The latter is a fluent, imaginative and inventive soloist, capable of playing in a variety of jazz piano styles.

It’s Gulz himself who takes on the writing for the atmospheric “Philomelos”, a kind of abstract ballad featuring the sounds of tenor sax, piano, double bass and brushed drums. Hulten and Gulz have developed a particularly close musical relationship and at times I’m reminded of the partnership between the UK’s Julian Arguelles and the late, great John Taylor. “Philomelos” is also notable for a delightful bowed solo from Augustson, the bassist eventually followed by Hulten’s tenor sax ruminations.

“Even in the odds” is Danemo’s second contribution with the pen, his subtle promptings from the kit steering another excellent quartet performance that incorporates solos from Hulten and Gulz, plus with something of a feature for the composer in between.

Bassist Augustson ushers in his own “Rigel”, a blues tinged original featuring the rounded sounds of Hulten’s tenor, the percussive stylings of Gulz at the piano and the busy ticks and grooves of the rhythm section. Hulten’s sax really takes off in the second half of the tune, the rhythm section quickly falling in behind him, with drummer Danemo particularly active. When the piece eventually fades out it sounds as if the album cut has been edited from a lengthier performance.

The second contribution from “Gulz” is the closing “Nosebleed”, which is less frenetic than the title might suggest, although it does eventually erupt into life following a loosely structured introduction. With its rolling grooves and impassioned soprano sax playing there’s something of a John Coltrane quality about another excellent quartet performance that crams a lot of information into its three and a half minutes.

“Shifting Ground” is another worthy addition to the Orion canon and represents something of a return to base after the “Liberia Ballad” recording. The writing, now distributed around the members of the quartet, remains intelligent and varied and the playing, as ever, is excellent throughout. Like “Minusgrader” it’s a little more mainstream in sound than some of the group’s earlier recordings, and is none for the worse for that, although it still retains a contemporary edge. Hulten and Orion may not be Sweden’s most famous musical exports but the saxophonist and his group are undoubtedly one of the best.

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