Live In Japan (VA FONGOOL VAFCD012) is the second album we’ve heard from the Norwegian jazz players Lana Trio – but right there it seems even the word, or genre, “jazz” is not adequate to contain the entirety of what these gifted contemporary musicians do, and we’re invited to search for “traces” of their extra-curricular musical tastes in popular and avant-garde music in amongst their long-form free music exploits. Last time around I was reaching for Cecil Taylor and Keith Tippett comparisons to account for the piano work of Kjetil Jerve, but I’ll certainly need a new book of metaphors to come to terms with the first half of ‘Candyism’ here. It’s a notable achievement of broken, slightly depressing free music, the sound of speculative minds dwelling on uncomfortable facts and doing their best to reconcile multiple opposites as they conduct their cerebral discussion. Jerve’s piano seems especially lost, forlorn, and even inarticulate, his trademark ultra-fast runs reduced to incomplete phrases left hanging in the air like unanswered questions, dangling in a vague and uncertain environment of steely doubts summoned up by Andreas Wildhagen’s cymbals. This existential moment (about 11 mins long) culminates in grumbly burrs breathed through the stentorian lungs of Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø into his pessimistic trombone – and at this point the music suddenly lifts off. A shift in tempo marks a return to more certain ground, the stumbling instruments finding their voices again. But what follows is not a scrabbly free-for-all improv fest of over-zealous performing, and each musical phrase is still laced with that anguished scepticism and ambiguity. An encouraging start, no doubt.
This must be one of Lana Trio’s “other” faces, one which wasn’t exhibited much on the user-friendly self-titled debut album. It’s a strain that continues on ‘Meanwhile, Somewhere’, which if anything is even more cold and bleak than the above. Although the trio speak warmly of their sojourn in Japan (record shopping, drinking, musical discussions, travelling on very fast trains, blathering about John Coltrane [1. Probably to refer to Coltrane’s famous first-and-only 1966 tour of that country.] to anyone who’d listen), the coldness and desolation of Norway [2. Disclaimer: actually Norway is a beautiful country. The above is just stated for rhetorical purposes.] is still carried around in their corporeal frames as they enact this 18-minute meditation on perplexment. If I’m being asked to dispense with jazz and improv comparisons, I’ll put the severest chamber music I can find by Scelsi on the table at this point, with Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke up my sleeve as a trump card…once again it’s Jerve’s fragmented and pointillist piano strokes that prompt this interpretation, along with the extremely manicured dissonances in tone which probably speak volumes about European post-serialism. But once again the superbly disciplined percussion of Andreas Wildhagen is a big part of the equation, reining in that tendency which most drummers have to overstate everything, and instead inserting punctuation points into the music with the precision of a calligrapher. Meanwhile, Nørstebø simply murmurs in the most unobtrusive possible manner, a wailing Greek chorus to this abstract tragedy. Impressive.
With ‘Through Sound’ we’re back to the power-trio jazz forms which are bound to prove more “accessible” to a majority of listeners, and an overall sound and energised approach that is meat and drink to Cecil Taylor / Jimmy Lyons fans…one of the things I noticed that I don’t miss at all in this equation is the addition of a honking saxophonist adding unnecessary screams and blurts to the mix, and at this point what became very evident to me is the strong sense of discipline and structure in Lana Trio’s music. It somehow shines forth clearest on this track, and the architecture of it is once again a combination of the pianist and drummer synched together like two intertwined locomotives, climbing into the air. Here, Nørstebø uses his ‘bone sparingly, draping soft shapes around the complex skeleton. It’s like hearing the aural equivalent of a gigantic Christo wrapping installation, purple sheets of vinyl billowing around a steely iron frame.
At a time when it seems that free jazz as a genre may be on the verge of extinction, it’s mightily encouraging to hear the music being reincarnated and refitted in meaningful ways (by white Europeans, yet!) and, with these additional avant-garde dissonant leanings, perhaps even updated for a contemporary audience. I much prefer this dynamic method of “living preservation” to simply sealing the music in amber.