Cortex, with Thomas Johansson on the left Credit: Peter Margasak

Few trumpeters in the past few years have knocked me out like Norway’s Thomas Johansson. Fiery and technically muscular, with a refreshingly holistic approach to improvised music, he can swing like mad or take it way out. A few months ago he finally dropped his first recording as a leader, which is also the inaugural title on his own label, Tammtz. Revolution Before Lunch is a lean trio session that consists of three extended improvisations with bassist Øyvind Storesund and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (Johansson is a key member of Nilssen-Love’s powerful big band Large Unit).

On the album Johansson moves effortlessly among cutting melodic development, coloristic abstraction, and visceral, dissonant effects and smears. It certainly helps that the trio is powered by such an inventive, tireless, and driving drummer, but the trumpeter provides loads of propulsion on his own, with a refined rhythmic sensibility that allows his slashing lines to move with striking agility and grace. Below you can hear “Pouch of Skin,” which ebbs and flows impressively, lurching, receding, and exploding.
Johansson keeps busy with a number of terrific working bands besides Large Unit. He plays in Friends & Neighbors—which takes its name from an Ornette Coleman album, signaling its adoration for 60s free jazz—as well as the quintet All Included. For my money, though, his best ensemble is Cortex, which returns to Chicago this weekend for a gig Sunday evening at the Hungry Brain. In that quartet (with drummer Gard Nilssen, saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, and bassist Øla Hoyer), he plays pithy, memorable themes he’s composed in the postbop tradition.

I’ve often heard Cortex called “the new Atomic,” a reference to the excellent Scandinavian quintet that likewise explores the free side of 60s postbop (though the writing of Atomic’s Fredrik Ljungkvist and Håvard Wiik has increasingly embraced a more structural, episodic mind-set). Cortex uses its tunes primarily as loose frameworks for high-level improvisation. Later this summer the group will release a fantastic new recording, Live in New York (Clean Feed), which captures it at a new peak. They’re absolutely one of my favorite working groups in jazz, and they deliver unfettered power onstage. Below you can get a preview of that live album: the burning opener, “Higgs.”

Today’s playlist:

Ken McIntyre, Stone Blues (OJC/Prestige)
Jonathan Harvey, Bhakti (NMC)
Michael Blake, In the Grand Scheme of Things (Songlines)
General Strike, Danger in Paradise (Piano)
Ensemble Phoenix Basel, Giacinto Scelsi: Rito (Telos Music)