If you are going to title your record 4 Wheel Drive you had better make it gripping and this quartet certainly have done that. This is a band of top European jazz musicians and to stretch their metaphor to breaking point both the front and rear axles are German-Swedish. Michael Wollny on piano and Wolfgang Haffner on drums are German and Lars Danielsson on bass and Nils Landgren on trombone are Swedish.
But enough of the Quattro jokes as your groans are almost Audi(ble). All 4 of the musicians have graced the European and International jazz stage for many years – often on classic ACT CDs. I first heard Landgren on those wonderful recordings he did with the late lamented Esbjörn Svennson – Swedish Folk Modern and Layers of Light – folk-inflected northern jazz somewhat in the style of Jan Johansson, another pianist who died too young.
But Landgren’s own band is the Funk Unit a flashy, brassy step away from the cool sound of those duo CDs. And Daniellson is someone else whose music I love – whether it is those lyrical bands with Leszek Możdżer and other greats or the softer work with his partner, the singer Cæcilie Norby.
Haffner and Wollny have an equally diverse range so it’s no surprise that on this, their first recording as a quartet, the set is not straightforward. It’s at first glance an odd mix of eight pop/rock tunes with four (that number again) originals. And it’s four again with the pop tunes being by McCartney, Joel, Sting and Phil Collins.
It’s been a thing for a while for jazz artists like The Bad Plus and Brad Mehldau to appropriate and re-imagine pop tunes – for many, it’s kind of replaced the classic standards. It can be a great success and this band carry it off well – we even get Nils’ singing.
Although Landgren’s voice is not actually like Chet Baker’s, there is a similarity in that it’s not a classic jazz voice but very individual and somewhat wistful. On the right tune, it works well. Anyone who has heard him singing Believe, Beleft, Below (Love is Real) with Esbjörn Svensson and Pat Metheny will understand what I mean.
We hear it first on ‘Another Day in Paradise’ and then on five more tracks, ‘Shadows in the Rain’, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘She’s Always a Woman’, ‘Just the Way You Are’, and ‘If You Love Somebody Set Them Free’. In each case the arrangements are classy, and the playing exemplary, while remaining recognizably related to the originals. The other instrumental only versions are ‘Lady Madonna’ and ‘That’s All’ and without the vocals, there’s a chance for the band to stretch out more. But across all the pieces it’s Landgren’s voice whether vocal or on the trombone that floats above the sound.
The originals, one contributed by each of the players, are a further opportunity for them to stretch out and demonstrate the variety of their jazz chops. Wollny’s ‘Polygon’ is quite funky and up-tempo starting with lovely sonorous bass from Danielsson and Haffner’s ‘Lobito’ has perhaps the most echoes of the Northern European mix of jazz and folk themes with a light and well-judged solo from Wollny. Landgren’s contribution is ‘Le Chat Sur Toit’, which starts slow in a ballad style with the theme stated in a restrained way by the writer and then moves into funkier territory. Finally, it’s Danielsson’s ‘4WD’ which is a bit of a banger with a driving beat – on which note it seems I’m back with the car metaphors.
A recording with plenty to like and very listenable. No surprises perhaps, but if you like any of these players individually or playing together in different formats, then you won’t be disappointed.