Although all the members of jazz group Nordic Connect claim Viking ancestry, there are no galloping rhythms, twin guitar solos or for that matter much of anything on their new album Spirals that’s ordinarily associated with a raised forefinger and pinky. If they’ve come to conquer, this is a stealth attack. Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, her sister Christine on saxophones, Maggi Olin on acoustic and electric piano, Mattias Welin on bass and Jon Wikan on drums combine for a thoughtful, tuneful, counterintuitive collection of songs without words. Instead of going for an easy crescendo, they tend to pull back, let the mood build and then gracefully expand on it. This one makes a good segue with Noah Preminger’s new After the Rain, recently reviewed here, although its ancestors are twenty years younger. Most of the tracks here are by Olin, although each of her bandmates also contributes.
66 Mike, by Wikan follows in the melodic vein of the other tracks, but more brightly, serving as the launching pad for the high point of the album, Ingrid’s grittily joyous solo, the most uninhibitedly intense moment here. Castle Mountain, by Christine, pairs warmly sostenuto horns against an understatedly funky rhythm section; she contributes an airily evocative soprano sax solo followed shortly by a wryly shapeshifting one by Wikan. Another Christine composition, Yew, works an allusive beauty: it’s a love song without cliches, her sister thoughtfully expansive against an equally allusive rhythm section, in sync as much with regard to the silences between their accents as the beats themselves. Ingrid’s composition Earth Sighs is a tectonically shifting tone poem with the freest feel of any of the songs here, building with a casual, tersely conversational ambience (Nordic people are not given to exaggerated displays of emotion) to the point where all of a sudden a gently resolute ballad emerges out of the discussion. It’s as if they were raising a barn: lots of seemingly unrelated activity, then the corners come up and the architecture is in place.
Olin’s songs are a clinic in implied melody and understatement and that carries over to how she plays: she lets the melodies in rather than hammering them out. On the opening track, Travel Fever, she develops a spacious contrast with her ringing, terse Rhodes accents against Wikan’s neat sidestep shuffle, Ingrid soaring in the distance, Christine in buoyantly and then handing off the melody as happens so frequently on this album. Song for Inga begins moody and brightens quickly with a deft series of spirals from Ingrid. M-Oving, the first of Olin’s two ballads here, pairs warmly spare piano with soulful muted trumpet, and a tersely rippling piano solo from which Ingrid emerges with some amusingly oscillating electronic effects. Ballad North works a somewhat majestic, emphatic hook methodically to the point where a swaying 6/8 blues underpinning slowly emerges while Christine swirls triumphantly and Ingrid buttresses her. The album closes with the high-spirited, tongue-in-cheek shuffle Brejk a Leg, whose most amusing moment out of several is a laugh-out-loud surfy drum solo (hmmm…is anybody in this band a Misha Mengelberg fan?). There’s a lot going on here: as much as the album makes for great atmosphere, it’s considerably more rewarding on headphones.
Maybe because today is a grade A grey day (to steal a line out of the Wade Schuman songbook), albums like jazz guitarist Tomas Janzon’s new one, Experiences, sound expecially good. Case in point: Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here’s That Rainy Day, which opens it. His raindrop approach is just understated enough to avoid being obvious. Janzon is well-known in Sweden; this seems to be an attempt to broaden his horizons outside his native land, and it ought to work. He takes a smart, laid-back, purist approach: Wes Montgomery is the obvious influence, but only one of many. His band is choice. Legendary Coltrane drummer Tootie Heath, in uncannily subtle mode, absolutely owns this album, coloring the songs with a quiet deviousness that sometimes spills over into unrestrained glee, alongside fellow veteran Art Hillery on piano and organ and Herbie Hancock sideman Jeff Littleton on bass.
Dave Brubeck’s Mr. Broadway gets a devious, somewhat furtive organ-and-guitar treatment, playing up its tongue-in-cheek humor even more than the original. Heath carries The Float, an original, alternating between an artful jazz waltz shuffle and cymbal-driven atmospherics, later enjoying a sly conversation with Littleton when the bass solos. A pretty Swedish folk song gets a treatment that’s part Wes and part McCartney, with a brief, solo live reprise at the end of the album. Moanin’ gives a quick nod to Jerry Garcia, Janzon’s warmly soul-tinged lines over Hillery’s staccato chords and Heath’s winking, on-and-off shuffle.
Yet another jazz waltz, Montgomery’s Full House, as Janzon wryly alludes in the liner notes, “adds nothing” to the original, but it’s inspired and true to form nonetheless. There’s also the pensively shuffling original Blue Bee; spiky, impressively spacious versions of Billie’s Bounce and Polka Dots and Moonbeams, and a terse, purist, bluesy cover of Jimmy Smith’s Messin’ Around. American guitar jazz fans should check out this guy stateside when he’s not in his dear old Stockholm.