Swedish bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg covers radically different territories on two recent albums
Over much of the past decade, Swedish bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg has pulled me into his world time and time again. He ostensibly works within jazz, but that category feels inadequate to his creative curiosity and artistic empathy. He’s a strong player, but to my ears his writing, arranging, and concepts are even more formidable than his instrumental skills. He recently released two albums whose radically different approaches suggest his range.
Om Liv & Död (Moserobie), the second record from his working band Den Stora Frågan, alternates between brawny solo bass vignettes and moody, often turbulent sextet arrangements, both of which evoke the visceral, emotive work of Charles Mingus without sounding like it. Zetterberg’s killer band—reedists Jonas Kullhammar and Alberto Pinton, drummer Jon Fält, trombonist Mats Äleklint, and Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva—brings an appealing looseness to the arrangements, giving the pieces an impressive lived-in feel with strong rapport and interplay. “Vad Är Inte En Metafor” is a slab of hovering tension, with Zetterberg providing hydroplaning arco lines over which the front-line soloists make unhurried, probing excursions; meanwhile the rest of the group drops airy jabs and feints, both composed and improvised. The short, stop-start pulsing riff in the hard-driving “Säker Tvivel” halts for terse solo statements, then finally opens up with a longer improvised section that features scampering, clattering interactions between Zetterberg and Fält, soon joined by a wonderful gutbucket statement by Äleklint, one of Europe’s best and most overlooked trombonists.
The brief “Kontorsmusik” sounds like it was recorded an echoing church, with Pinton and Kullhammar’s flutes distant from the mikes for a wonderfully spooky vibe. The album concludes with the brooding “Springa Runt I Hjul,” whose dark, fluttering horn utterances alternately cascade down and circle the bassist’s throbbing bowed dirge. Below you can check out the ruddy, propulsive full-band track “Innan och Efter,” which has a melodic sensibility that borrows a bit from Albert Ayler—though Pinton’s baritone saxophone sounds more Big Jay McNeely or a bulldozer.
Zetterberg investigates much different terrain on If Nothing Else (Clean Feed), an all-improvised trio effort with Silva and French organist Hampus Lindwall, who’s more an experimental musician than a jazz player; he’s also the longtime organist at Parisian church Saint-Esprit, where the album was recorded. The music brings to mind wide-open spaces, with Lindwall producing haunting long tones and Silva blowing parched lines and sour blurts; it’s all blunted by the acoustics of the space, which give everything a wonderfully washed-out feel, as though the music is arriving from outdoors, or wending its way through a ravine. From track to track the trio appears to takes advantage of varying microphone placement, which not only alters where each instrument is placed in the mix but also the timbral quality of each. On “Atonality,” for example, Silva blows her Harmon-muted lines directly into the mike, while Zetterberg’s arco surges sneakily around beneath the brass and the tension-loaded organ drones. “Cinematic” is an overused word in music criticism, but these pieces definitely convey a delicious suspense and romantic languor. Below you can hear one of the album’s most turbulent pieces, “Stop Chords.”