London-based Danish alto saxophonist Julie Kjær performed in Chicago last summer as a member of Paal Nilssen-Love’s sprawling Large Unit, a raucous, high-octane free-jazz orchestra. I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t remember her playing from the concert, but that’s actually the case with most of the individuals in the band—they’re all strong musicians, fueling the combo with extensive improvisation, but what I remember is the way the woolly, gut-punching sound of the ensemble as a whole. I’ll further admit that when I got a review copy of the saxophonist’s recent Dobbeltgænger (Clean Feed), what first grabbed my interest was the protean British rhythm section: bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble.
Edwards and Noble recently played in Chicago with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and local vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. Their performance was remarkable: wildly energetic, tensile, and loose, yet consistently propulsive thanks to Noble, who managed to play free and swing at once. I haven’t heard Brötzmann in a small-group setting so good in many years.
Edwards and Noble also prove to be excellent partners for Kjær. “Pleasantly Troubled” is the only of the album’s six pieces that’s freely improvised—the saxophonist wrote the others—but even here there’s an undeniable forward motion, with Kjær blending airy buoyancy and biting acidity. She swings on bright-toned, lightning-fast runs, but she also raises a ruckus, dipping into a bag of extended techniques to produce strident upper-register cries and striated timbres. On the pieces she wrote, she uses similar extended techniques, delivering a series of puckered, sputtery utterances in high-level communion with Edwards’s arco tangles and Noble’s brusque cymbal scrapes and swooshes. Only in the final moment of the piece does a recognizable melodic shape emerge.
Elsewhere on the album, though, there are melodies all over the place, demonstrating Kjær’s engagement with jazz history—her “Alto Madness” borrows its title from a classic 1957 hard-bop album by Jackie McLean and John Jenkins, but there’s little else to connect it; the saxophonist presides over a stomping groove, tracing out a zigzagging melody with full-bodied blowing and tip-toeing, harmonically sour bleats. Below you can hear the album’s opening piece, “Out of Sight,” a wonderfully episodic number that toggles between skittering swing, meditative free time, and hurtling chaos, with the saxophonist’s poise in the face of turbulence guiding it from start to finish. The next time she rolls into Chicago, either with Nilssen-Love or on her own, I’ll definitely be paying close attention.
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