Few musicians in this young century have provided me with as much consistent enjoyment and shown as much artistic depth as the Swedish reedist Jonas Kullhammar, a historically minded player who bucks the tendency of younger European jazz musicians to downplay if not denigrate the importance of American jazz. Sonny Rollins and, especially, John Coltrane loom heavily in Kullhammar’s playing, and he does little to distance himself from his heroes. At the same time, he’s hardly stuck in the past, picking up and mastering all sorts of contemporary approaches and excelling in free-jazz contexts. He’s also an important force in propagating the new Scandinavian jazz through his terrific Moserobie imprint, which has steadily released quality work by some of the strongest players in Sweden and Norway.
Kullhammar indulges his ardor for 60s jazz on a strong new project: the music he composed for the 2014 film Gentlemen, directed by his compatriot Mikael Marcimain. Kullhammar himself plays a saxophonist in the movie, which includes some performance footage of him shot in an atmospheric jazz club. But rather than the standard terse little cues and atmospheric backgrounds, his soundtrack album contains a dozen sharp performances of snazzy postbop originals he composed for a killer band with bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg, drummer Johan Holmegard, and pianist Carl Bagge, who plays on most of the tracks. Adding to the historical richness of the effort, Kullhammar employed veteran Swedish saxophonist Bernt Rosengren to twine lines with him on four pieces; the presence of cornetist Goran Kajfes and vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl enhances another four tunes. The music has no problem standing on its own precisely because Kullhammar didn’t let the requirements of the film upstage the essentials of a great jazz performance.
Within the context of the 60s postbop sound, Kullhammar delivers impressive range both in terms of style and mood. The album opener, “The Bear Quartet,” sounds like early-60s Trane, with Bagge’s insistent vamps summoning the playing of McCoy Tyner (though the intense, contemporary-sounding thrumming in Zetterberg’s killer bass solo does provide a bit of temporal displacement), while the lovely ballad “So Long, Henry,” which features Kullhammar’s lyric playing on baritone, summons the spirit of Sweden’s own Lars Gullin. The buoyant, swinging theme of the brisk “Danish Blow,” one of the tunes with Rosengren—who spent years working and playing in Copenhagen during the early 60s—reminds me a bit of the music Sun Ra created during his Chicago days, while “Hommage to George Braith,” which features Kullhammar playing unison lines on sax variants the stritch and saxello, plays direct tribute to the titular saxophonist, known for creating the hybrid double-necked Braithophone. The tracks with Kajfes and Ståhl provide a slightly more modern feel, although not enough to spoil the old-school flavor. Below you can hear one of those later tunes, “Le Boulevardier.”
Jimmy Knepper, A Swinging Introduction to Jimmy Knepper (Bethlehem, Japan)
Passo Torto, Passo Elétrico (YB Music)
Wooden Shjips, Back to Land (Thrill Jockey)
Louis Hjulmand, Fontana Presenting: Louis Hjulmand (Universal, Denmark)
Emanuel Ax, Variations (Sony Classical)