Niels Munk ‘Fantasilaboratoriet’ LP/CD (Jaeger Community Music) 5/5

Danish trumpeter/composer Niels Munk’s debut album is a thrilling ride through the broad soundscapes of modern jazz. Adventurous, thoughtful, atmospheric and intimately rewarding, Munk successfully channels the inspiration from the Scandinavian countries he has studied in to return home to Northern Denmark to record for the excellent indie label Jaeger Community Music.

With an obvious passion for improvisation, the project’s musicians use the fundamental qualities of jazz as a starting point for cultivating their imagination. Alongside Munk, the session features prominent young upcoming Danish artists. Maybe it’s the freshness of youth, but I have to say there’s such a vibrant energy to this music that it’s wonderfully refreshing. As a listener one certainly wouldn’t know the age of the musicians as the music they make together is skillful, sublime and decidedly mature. Drummer Jonathan Jull Ludvigsen, bassist Jeans Mikkel Madsen and pianist Dan Hjort Jensen all combine so well with Munk that it would be easy to believe these guys had been performing together for decades.

As the opening tune “Laboratory Music” begins, the beautiful lyricism of the piano immediately draws me in. Munk’s trumpet sound, and his playing, draws comparisons with the likes of Christian Scott, Verneri Pohjola and Arve Henriksen. It is though Christian Scott that comes to mind on several of Munk’s compositions as he pulls together a combination of melancholy, storytelling and adventure in an engagingly emotive way. The longest track on the album, “Beginning Laboratory Blues” is defined by its atmosphere. Munk intelligently whispers and cajoles expressive sounds from his instrument as drums, bass and piano combine intuitively to create a gorgeous Scandinavian soundscape. And just when you think you know where the tune’s going, an inventive drum break leads us into a high-octane jazz blow-out from the band. There’s a unified spirit to “Colour of White” that speaks volumes of this quartet, with a melodic richness to its 21st Century jazz vibe. Munk’s compositions are incredibly strong, none more so than on the gorgeous “Song for July”. The bandleader’s muted trumpet intertwines perfectly with piano melodies as the subtle, deep tones of the bass work a lovely groove in unison with the heady mix of the acoustic and electric drums. The beguiling and contemplative “Dans Interlude” leads us perfectly into the intimate creativity of “August”. One of the things I really like about this album is how Munk allows his fellow musicians to shine. There are beautiful spaces created by a musical fellowship that obviously prevails here. Nothing is forced or out of place. And on this track, everything combines wonderfully in a warm and quietly passionate kind of way. The final track “Alt hvad jeg har gjort” features Estonian singer Karmen Rolvassepp, her natural, crystalline voice bringing just the right amount of vulnerability to this exceptional piece.

Munk’s debut album is wonderful. His writing is imaginative and creative, and the quartet’s musicianship is stunning throughout. What’s incredible is that along with his chosen group of musicians, he has forged his own identity immediately. This album is a compelling mix of Scandinavian atmospheres and European jazz at its best. If, like me, you have over the years listened to and enjoyed the music of EST, Verneri Pohjola, Charles Lloyd, Christian Scott, Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson, Jan Garbarek and Arve Henriksen, to name but a few, then I highly recommend you go check this album out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It’ll enrich your day at the very, very least.

Mike Gates