Hard-bop saxophone trios are one of the most popular jazz configurations, particularly the legendary groups led by Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and Dexter Gordon. The question is, how can a modern group play this music without sounding imitative or nostalgic? One answer comes from the wonderful Scandinavian triad of Jonas Kullhammar on horns, Torbjörn Zetterberg on double bass, and Espen Aalberg on drums. In their release Basement Sessions Vol. 2, the hard-bop tradition infuses the proceedings, but the form is expressed through a Scandinavian free-jazz sensibility, which proves to be an incredibly compelling combination.
These three musicians are all under forty years old, but each has lengthy and impressive experience in both traditional and free forms. Perhaps the group's strongest inheritance from their hard-bop ancestors is their toe-tapping, finger-snapping swing. The trio has internalized the mighty hard-bop engine, that potent inner drive which is simultaneously strong and loose. But rather than covering classic songs from the hard-bop canon, the group has six fresh compositions from Aalberg, plus a cover from the great Swedish saxophonist Bernt Rosengren. Aalberg is a wonderfully inventive composer; his lively melodies invoke the masters, but are brightly original throughout.
Standouts include the CD's opener, "Moksha," which features Kullhammar on taragato, a Hungarian woodwind similar to a clarinet but with a rich, burnished tone. The melody is haunting and a touch mournful, and Kullhammar plays with a yearning that's quite moving. There's also some spacious solo bass work by Zetterberg, which offers a delicious contrast to the taragato's opulence. Aalberg shines as well, stoking the engine of the drums with fantastic technique and unfailing energy. "Triton" is a beautiful song with a mischievous spirit and a playful melody, featuring an enjoyably wild solo by Kullhammar, and a drum solo by Aalberg full of sumptuous swing. The trio also delivers a gorgeous rendition of Bernt Rosengren's "Gluck," with Kullhammar diving heart-first into the angular melody, and Zetterberg delivering another pleasingly intricate solo. It's nice to hear the group pay homage to Rosengren, who is one of the great Swedish hard-bop players, not to mention a major force in the Swedish post-bop movement.
Altogether Basement Sessions Vol. 2 is a swinging and exciting offering by three very fine musicians. It's a beautiful merging of American and European sensibilities, as well as a model for how jazz musicians can honor the past while simultaneously keeping the music fresh and powerful.
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