Step Up Your Performance

Step Up A Second! (DISORDER 09) is that rare thing, a lengthy jazz composition for a small ensemble of players. I say rare, as it’s a format that’s underused in my view, and I’m hard-pressed to name a formal composition in the jazz mode since Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill (1971) and maybe some recent forays of Keith Tippett. Our Swedish friends Lisa Ullén (pianist and composer) and Anna Högberg (saxophonist) composed this and also play in the Ensemble, joined by a troupe of talents including Finn Loxbo on guitar, and Eva Lindal on violin (she appeared on that impressive Bäver album with her sister Anna). The combined sound of the instruments – woodwinds, strings, brass, percussion, bass – is as pleasing as you’d expect, and the combo evidently enjoy playing together, in the context of a composition that allows a good deal of leeway for each individual voice, and programmed spaces for improvisation.

But rather than structuring it to allow conventional “solos” in the traditional manner, Step Up A Second weaves and layers the playing together in an ingenious seamless way, avoiding any pitfalls of chaotic mayhem and instead celebrating the power of joyous polyphony. The whole 33:16 minute piece is arranged as a suite, meaning there are very distinct musical “episodes”, each conveying their own particular type of mood or expression. It’s also refreshing to hear a jazz-inspired piece that isn’t afraid of melody and harmony, and one that rewards the listener with a goodly amount of content to digest. Even when they reach a discordant or jarring passage, it’s not threatening or off-putting to the ears, rather it strives to reach for a particular emotion in a very natural way. My only reservation might be that the playing, while accomplished and very crisp, is a little bit stiff and lacks the true “swing feeling” we might associate with jazz; the composition emerges as poised and manicured, as opposed to the heavy-hitting gusto of a Charles Mingus bruiser. But Ullén and Högberg still manage to surprise us with their mannered, eccentric, European charms. The cover photo by Lisa Grip seems to depict an embryonic bird – not sure why. (19/07/2021)

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