by Ian Mann
January 12, 2012
The album as a whole is eminently accessible and capable of considerable across the board appeal.
(Hubro Records HUBROCD2507)
The Norwegian bassist and composer Mats Eilertsen is probably best known to UK audiences for his work as a member of the original Food quartet (with Iain Ballamy, Thomas Stronen and Arve Henriksen) and for his current membership of the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble. He has also worked with Solveig Sjlettahjell, Wolfert Brederode, Hakon Kornstad, Havard Wiik and the bands The Source and Parish. Eilertsen’s sideman credits may be impressive but he is also an experienced composer and bandleader and “SkyDive” represents the sixth album release under his own name and his third for Hubro.
“SkyDive” draws on the well established descriptive and lyrical strand of Scandinavian jazz pioneered by Jan Garbarek and can be regarded as a follow up to Eilertsen’s acclaimed 2009 quartet album “Radio Yonder”. The new album retains the core quartet of Eilertsen, saxophonist Tore Brunborg, guitarist Thomas T. Dahl and Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivouri but also brings Louhivouri’s compatriot Alexi Tuomarila into the band on piano. The two Finns toured the UK in 2009 as part of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s quintet. “SkyDive” was recorded at Oslo’s famous Rainbow Studios with Jan Erik Kongshaug acting as engineer and, as might be imagined, the album should hold considerable appeal for fans of both BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction programme and the ECM record label. Rainbow and Kongshaug have hosted many a classic ECM session over the years.
The ECM comparisons are further compounded by the presence of saxophonist Tore Brunborg who adopts a broadly Garbarek like sound for much of the album. That said he has emerged from Garbarek’s shadow in recent years and is now an acclaimed saxophonist in his own right with an increasingly individual identity. Brunborg and Tuomarila both shine on the melodic and highly lyrical opener “Splendor” and the following “Memento” which features the pianist at his luminous best. Guitarist Dahl exhibits something of Pat Metheny’s melodic sensibility but his subtle chording, allied to his soundscaping ability, also exhibits echoes of Bill Frisell. Eilertsen and Louhivuori largely retain a low profile, prompting here and embellishing there, their playing tasteful and full of delightful small details but never imposing unnecessarily.
“Birds Perspective” (a paean to nature rather than a Parker homage I suspect) features the group at their most atmospheric and the brief but intimate “Parachute Psalm” is notable for the delightful dialogue between Tuomarila and Eilertsen.
“The Pilot’s Choice” possesses a highly melodic, Metheny like theme that sounds as if it’s been around forever with Dahl’s warm guitar sound helping to bring it to life.
The title track marks a return to the atmospheric approach with Eilertsen featuring on grainy arco bass alongside Brunborg’s plaintive saxophone, Tuomarila’s mellifluous piano, Louhivuori’s nuanced percussion and Dahl’s pointillist guitar. At a little over three and a half minutes it has the air of an exquisite miniature. The insistent, angular “The Void” develops from this with Dahl edging closer to a rock sound and with Tuomarila introducing the sound of Fender Rhodes. Powered by Eilertsen’s muscular pizzicato it’s the most forceful track on the album thus far.
“Embrace” is a lush, atmospheric contemporary ballad with more fine interplay between Eilertsen and Tuomarila as Louhivuori provides quietly busy brushed accompaniment. “The Old Oak” then provides a celebratory, gospel flavoured finale with Brunborg’s declamatory but warm toned sax leading the way followed by a final flourish from the excellent Tuomarila. This is one of the most accessible pieces on the record, a jazz lighter waver if ever there was one.
Indeed the album as a whole is eminently accessible and capable of considerable across the board appeal. Eilertsen’s carefully crafted compositions are highly tuneful and the playing by the all star Scandinavian band excellent throughout. It’s a tightly focussed set with the emphasis on a distilled ensemble sound and with the leader adopting a particularly selfless approach as the anchor of the group. With the concentration very much on the writing there is little in the way of conventional jazz soloing although all the musicians contribute superb individual moments with new boy Tuomarila adding hugely to the overall group sound. Kongshaug’s engineering skills emphasise the textures and nuances of Eilertsen’s writing and with no one individual dominating this represents a fine team effort. Other commentators have suggested that this is Eilertsen’s best work to date and I wouldn’t disagree although there are moments when the music almost seems too pretty and overly restrained. I suspect that my co-writer Tim Owen would find it all a bit bland and lacking in improvisatory gristle and I can understand that point of view too. However many more listeners will unreservedly love the often beautiful music of “SkyDive” (my mate Paul enjoyed it so much that he rushed out and bought “Radio Yonder” as well) and it’s a record that can be recommended to the majority of contemporary jazz listeners.
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