Gentlemen too can play wild music
Gentlemen too can play wild music

Free radicals

Controlled radioactivity has been the hallmark of Atomic, the Scandinavian quintet that has broken free of the hyper-clean stereotype of Nordic jazz

If jazz is a religion then the avant-garde brethren are its brash evangelists, peeling paint with their raucous outpourings that may surprise the uninitiated into thinking it as being more noise than music. Nothing can be further from the truth. Like in much other madness, there is indeed a method to the startling squeaks and energetic honks of collective improvisation that so characterize free jazz. It was not for nothing that Ornette Coleman, innovator extraordinaire, modestly called his landmark 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

The future proved him right. What started as breaking conventions of fixed chord changes and tempos by the likes of Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Pharaoh Sanders and in the later works of John Coltrane has now insinuated itself in the very idiom of the genre and has since flowered in the most unlikely of places.

Lucidity (2015) by Atomic, released a few weeks ago, makes for an excellent example of the unusual road that free jazz has travelled after its beginnings in fifties and sixties. A Scandinavian super group of reedman Fredrik Ljungkvist and trumpeter Magnus Broo from Sweden and pianist Håvard Wiik, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Hans Hulbœkmo (who replaces the remarkable Paal Nilssen-Love in Lucidity) from Norway, the Atomic quintet has been exemplary purveyors of the fire music of Ayler, Coleman and Archie Shepp since the turn of the century.

An antithesis to the meditative lyricism of the likes of Jan Garbarek, which in many listeners’ minds typifies Nordic jazz, the unbridled spirit of contemporary European avant-garde is much in evidence in all Atomic albums and Lucidity is no exception. The album gets off to a rollicking start with Laterna Interfuit, a composition by Wiik (he and Ljungkvist are the main composers of the band, with Broo contributing frequently), where the chemistry between the pianist and Ljungkvist is immediately evident. The solo by the reedman in Major also stands out. Lucidity has the players alternating between free improvisation and good old swing that makes it less boisterous than Atomic’s earlier releases. Although Hulbœkmo has newly replaced the brilliant Nilssen-Love in the team, he fits right in.

The chemistry between frontsmen Ljungkvist and Broo has always been the strong point of Atomic, and was particularly on display in the preceding album, There’s a Hole in the Mountain (2013). In this, Atomic ventured into their recognizable yet strangely unfamiliar blend of jazz and contemporary classical influences. The album starts explosively with Accidentals, an excellent composition by Wiik. In a nice contrast, the Wolf-Cage, also written by the pianist, begins with a more sedate note without letting go of the intensity that one looks for in Atomic. The title track and Civilon, both composed by Ljungkvist, also reward repeated listening. Splattered throughout the album are amazing solo acts by all the players and Broo and Nilssen-Love show why they are the hottest jazz men to watch out for in the cool northern climes. To present technical excellence gracefully comes easily to only a few players.

A group like Atomic is of course heard best in live settings, without taking anything away from its studio efforts. For that, The Bikini Tapes (2005) is the album that first springs to mind. For any other group, a triple CD release, which many consider its finest offering, would have seemed an indulgent fancy but is actually a smashing maze to explore the versatility of the finest working European free-jazz band.

Featuring several numbers from the group’s first two albums -- Feet Music (2001) and Boom Boom (2003) – Atomic shows what it’s capable of when blasting sheets of sound to a live audience. Boom Boom, a popular composition by Ljungkvist, appears twice in the triple album and each time sounds radically different from the other, which is what free improvisation is all about. Another personal favorite is Kerosene, also by Ljungkvist, where Nilssen-Love pushes the envelope and propels the front line of Broo and Ljungkvist to truly great heights. Recorded during the band’s 2004 transatlantic tour, The Bikini Tapes stand testimony to prophecy Coleman made almost half a century ago. This indeed is the shape of jazz that has come to be.

It’s only fair to warn listeners that the raison d’etre of the avant-garde is also to shake us out of our everyday complacencies. The cool and edgy music of Atomic is perhaps not for the faint-hearted, who could very well run for their ear plugs. For the more adventurous, the roller-coaster ride could be musically exhilarating.

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Jazz Oil is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visit here.

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