There’s a perception in some quarters that Scandinavian jazz offers cold and sometimes bleak music which reflects a cold and sometimes bleak landscape. ‘Minusgrader’, the fourth album from Swedish saxophonist Örjan Hultén’s band Orion, disproves this perception while sometimes playing with the idea of it. The band are currently celebrating their tenth anniversary. During that time there has been just one change of personnel with pianist Torbjörn Gulz replacing predecessor Adam Forkelid on this recording. Gulz has been a performing member of Orion for some time as anyone who saw the them on their tour of the UK last year will be aware. The fact that they have effectively been one unit for most of their existence was certainly evident to their audience on that tour. They are a tight band in a live context.
This tightness certainly sounds as though it transfers to their recorded output of which Minusgrader is the latest manifestation. The album features compositions by each of the members of Orion with three from Hultén and two each from the other members, Torbjörn Gulz at the piano, bassist Filip Augustson and drummer Peter Danemo.
The album’s title track is the opener. ‘Minusgrader’, translated as Minus Degrees opens with Gulz at the piano painting the very cold bleakness of which I wrote at the beginning of this review. It is inspired by a sombre poem by the great Tomas Tranströmer, who was responsible for the inspiration behind Jan Garberek’s 1984 ECM album ‘It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice’. That album was an altogether bleaker sounding affair than Minusgrader. Incidentally my copy of ‘New Collected Poems’ by Tranströmer (pub. Bloodaxe 2011) translates the poem as Below Zero. Either way it’s a cool piece of music which graduates like a suite from the unaccompanied piano opening to Danemo’s crisp cymbal work then Hultén joining the band to further along the story before an arco bass intervention reduces the quartet to a piano trio producing an interlude which would not have been out-of-place on an EST album.
It’s difficult to pick out single highlights on such a consistently fine album but Hultén’s ‘Adore You’, with a lovely piano solo from Gulz is one such. In a live performance I could imagine this one allowing everyone to really stretch out.
‘Blues I Manegan’ takes us firmly into late night Blue Note territory with some muscular tenor playing from Hultén.
‘1961 (Echoes)’ a composition from Peter Danemo sees the drummer driving things along with urgency behind Hultén’s tangy soprano saxophone.
‘Heading East’ has a beautiful opening bass introduction from Filip Augustson before Hultén’s tenor saxophone brings in a somewhat yearning theme and solo before Gulz, the composer gives us another of his many gently outstanding piano solos. It’s a soundtrack for that movie in your head.
Elsewhere bassist Filip Augustson’s, ‘One For Britten’, cooks with a passion and ‘October in May’ by pianist Torbjörn Gulz introduces us to a light pastoral theme that fairly skips along. The closing track, ‘Do It Anyway’, another Augustson composition brings things to a strong conclusion with bold playing all round particularly from Hultén on tenor saxophone.
I believe the band are set to play some UK dates to promote the album later in the year. If you spot that they are appearing near you I would urge you to experience them live. I think that the material on this exceptionally crafted album will have opened up new possibilities within itself with work and performance.