By Tim Owen
Danish saxophonist Julie Kjær is carving out an interesting space for herself in the hinterland between Jazz and free music. She’s proven her versatility in three very different big bands: Django Bates’ StoRMChaser, Paal Nilssen-Love’s rambunctious Large Unit, and the London Improvisers Orchestra, which is devoted to free and conducted improvisation. Her phrasing is notably concise and incisive, her lines observant and attuned to context. She leaves confrontational bluster to others.
John Edwards and Steve Noble are Kjær’s ideal partners. They frequently play together in trios that are dynamically intense, such as those with saxophonists Alan Wilkinson and Peter Brötzmann, and the excoriating N.E.W., with Alex Ward on electric guitar. But they’ve also backed the playfully capricious Lol Coxhill, sensitively dynamic French pianist Sophie Agnel, and Alexander Hawkins’ multivalent approach to Hammond organ in the Decoy trio.
No doubt Edwards and Noble were free to articulate and animate their own inputs to Dobbeltgænger (Clean Feed), but Kjær composed all but one of its pieces, and the trio all have her scores for reference when they play live. The music has the moment-to-moment gestural dynamism of free music, but its spontaneity is circumscribed.
At the beginning of “Out Of Sight”, the album’s lead and, at 12:02 its longest track, Kjær pecks out a melody while Edwards plays tight variations on a nonetheless emphatic pulse while Noble’s percussion surges and rolls. After a muted interlude for sax and bowed contrabass there’s a reprise of the opening mood, an ebb and flow of energy exposing brittle abstractions at low tide, and the ineluctable draw of bowed bass pulling everything into congruence. It has the dynamics of improvised music, but the end point seems predestined.
“Face” works a similar trick in a tighter framework. It’s grounded on a simple pulse picked out by sax and bass, with intermittent flurries of saxophonics and brushed percussion. They keep it simple, short and sweet. “Dear Mr. Bee” is based on a similar formal tension, but there’s more slack for Kjær to elaborate her lines, and more ply in the rhythm for Noble and Edwards to test.
Kjær favours jaunty themes over fluent harmonics. “Alto Madness” has the compacted edginess of a Tim Berne piece, but Kjær restricts herself to popping semi-articulations and pithy phrases that rarely unspool beyond the bounds of the tune. Noble and Edwards play with all of their customary inventiveness, but they direct their energies inwards, so there’s no spillage. “Alto Madness” seems a wry title for music that’s so self-aware.
“Pleasantly Troubled” is less of a misnomer. This is the only credited improvisation, but it’s almost as focused. Noble can’t resist a break uptempo, playing a` brisk cymbal rain against a muscular bass rhythm, and Kjær seems willing to stretch out too, but the piece takes an inward turn, and all of the tensions that subsequently play out are held in check. Noble and Edwards are creative within the formal boundaries though, and invest their playing with fluid expressivity.
“Dobbeltgænger”, the last piece, begins with Kjær mouthing the reed and Noble and Edwards scraping up miscellaneous frictions, and it takes them a while to work up to the plateau of a lovely but rather sombre theme. It’s a lugubrious note on which to conclude, but that seems fitting for a set that’s careful to avoid formal or emotional extremes, but still has expressive intensity.