In these postmodern days, band image is often a pointer to artistic intention. The flyer for Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra might have come from the early 1970s – maybe for the Brotherhood of Breath, or the AACM, or perhaps the 1966/67 Essence of George Russell group that incorporated those pioneers of modern Norwegian jazz: Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen. From that early interest in creating something uniquely Norwegian to today’s crop of creative and talented young players, Norwegian jazz has stood out for its ability to mine the tradition while sounding fresh and contemporary.
So to drummer, composer and super-busy Gard Nilssen’s latest project, his “ultimate dream band came true”, a huge troll of a band featuring no less than three drummers, three double bassists and ten horn players, commissioned for his residency at the Moldejazz festival, premiered on July 19th 2019, recorded and released by the Norwegian label Odin. There is much here that looks backwards to the great free orchestras of the past. The way that the themes are developed from passages of completely free playing is reminiscent of Chris McGregor’s ensembles. The very bigness of the band and the massive sound brings to mind Charles Mingus’ 1972 Philharmonic Hall concert. The comparison is not meant to suggest that this is in any way a retro concept – Gard appears to be paying heartfelt and very noisy tribute to these great groups while staying very much in the here and now.
To do this he has brought together some of the finest young Norwegian players including members of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra as well as representatives of indie band Broen, new generation outfit Friends & Neighbors and such established players on the scene as Petter Eldh and Per ”Texas” Johansson. Many of these players have worked closely together and there’s clearly an intimate understanding, both within the band and also between the musicians and the composer, that compensates for the potentially unwieldy size and the unusual configuration of the orchestra.
The themes are strong and surprisingly lyrical, and the balance between composition and improvisation is carefully maintained. There is some great soloing – the trumpet on the percussion-heavy drum-fest ‘Bytta Bort Kua Fikk Fela Igjen’ (is that Thomas Johansson or the Swede Goran Kajfeš?), and the powerful tenor sax centrepiece to ‘Bøtteknott / Elastic Circle’ are as good as you’ll hear anywhere in the world at the moment.
What’s exciting is that this powerhouse free-blowing sounds fresh and revitalised at present. What’s not to like when a big band is blasting away for all its worth? The excitement is tangible in the band’s playing and the crowd’s response. The sound recording is beautifully balanced for such a live, large group. It’s a blast! And man do we have some need of a good, head-cleansing racket these days! Pin your ears back and turn up the volume…