I try to keep tabs on all the activity in Norway’s jazz and improvised-music scene, but its strength and depth is such that I still get surprised regularly. I’ve been listening to saxophonist André Roligheten for years, but as much as I’ve enjoyed his contemplative, lyrical playing in long-running duo Albatrosh (with pianist Eyolf Dale), I feel like he’s only come into his own in the past few years. He’s done great things in the Ornette Coleman-inspired Friends & Neighbors and delivered some of his most inspired and expansive work in the trio Acoustic Unity, with bassist Petter Eldh and drummer and bandleader Gard Nilssen (a ubiquitous player with the likes of Cortex and Bushman’s Revenge). I was honored to write liner notes for Acoustic Unity’s 2017 album Live in Europe (Clean Feed), a bruising triple-disc set featuring guest saxophonists Fredrik Ljungkvist, Jørgen Mathisen, and Kristoffer Berre Alberts (who plays with Nilssen in Cortex). This year Roligheten has appeared on several other strong recordings, including the debut of a quartet also called Roligheten.
Roligheten appears in free-improv mode on Pøkk (Va Fongool), a flinty live recording cut in Trondheim, Norway, in September 2015 by a collective called Pet Zoo (whose other three musicians—guitarist Stian Larsen, bassist Adrian Fiskum Myhr, and drummer Tomas Järmyr—I know nothing about). Roligheten’s biting tenor prods, squeals, writhes, and slithers amid the high-energy rumble, his focused attack threading together the disparate elements of the group’s freewheeling performance. I don’t think it’s the best context for his playing, but you can listen to part of the album below. He sounds better on the relatively tune-driven self-titled debut of Rune Your Day, a quartet led by bassist Rune Nergaard (Bushman’s Revenge) with reedists Roligheten and Mathisen and drummer Axel Skalstad. Nergaard’s tunes on Rune Your Day (Clean Feed) alternative between brisk and bruising freebop exercises, usually with a Coleman-esque tartness, and smoldering ballads with indie-rock overtones—including one of my favorite pieces, “A Glimpse of Hope (in the Eyes of a Squirrel),” which is embedded below. The horns work together beautifully, and Roligheten often wields a baritone sax to double Nergaard’s patterns. Rune Your Day is an exciting band, with hints of the rock-driven fury of the Thing—though on the upbeat material it’s more melodic, and on the ballads it cranks up the pop splendor without getting cloying.
Roligheten’s best work of 2017 is on Homegrown (Clean Feed), by his quartet Roligheten; he’s joined on the front line by violinist Adrian Løseth Waade and backed by the limber rhythm section of bassist Jon Rune Strøm and drummer Erik Nylander. The tunes are uniformly strong, some with Roligheten’s ubiquitous Coleman influence—the group even tackles Ornette’s late masterpiece “Kathleen Gray” to close the album—and what I really love about the album is the interplay between saxophone and violin. Waade’s sound has some nice grain and drag to it, providing a sense of friction on the thrumming “Nidkjær.” On the translucent ballad “Syvsover,” sax and violin dance together through several distinct episodes, including languid long tones (which almost make the violin sound like a pedal steel) and fluttery tremolo effects, then break apart for tender solos that occasionally reference those episodes. Throughout the album, the rhythm section applies a wonderfully light touch, but its restraint doesn’t prevent it from underlining the tension and knottiness that recurs on the front line. Below you can hear one of the more swinging tunes, “Saft Suse,” where the Ornette flavor is clear.