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Paal Nilssen-Love / Peter Brötzmann / Ken Vandermark / The Ex - Woodcuts / Chicago Volume / Milwaukee Volume / Lean Left

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Artist: Paal Nilssen-Love / Peter Brötzmann / Ken Vandermark / The Ex

Album: Woodcuts / Chicago Volume / Milwaukee Volume / Lean Left

Label: Smalltown Superjazz

Review date: Jun. 24, 2010

The indefatigable Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love has become the sparring partner of choice for some pretty heavy reeds players. The latest four releases from Smalltown Supersound document these partnerships in a few different contexts.

Woodcuts (STSJ 170) is a typically blistering duet with Peter Brötzmann, whose slashing tarogato opens the title track like a blade. The dry acoustic of this recording suits the texture of Nilssen-Love’s drumming, which is crackling and woody like Roy Haynes crossed with Paul Lovens. It’s sometimes been said of Brötzmann – who’s recorded duets with powerhouse drummers for decades – that he simply hurtles himself atop whatever rhythmic base is being provided for him, taking little care to interact (and we’ve all heard the jokes about Brötz simply playing too loud to hear them anyways). But this opinion isn’t fair to the reeds master, and you can certainly hear the intricacy of his interactions in his subtle (yes, I said it) inflections and alterations of line in response to the crackle and roll of the drummer. By the time they get into the surge and momentum of “Glasgow Kiss,” Brötzmann is marvelously coruscating on his B-flat, stuttering, growling, and sending out waves of sound that crest with those marvelous swells Nilssen-Love can create. On the 18-minutes plus “Rode Hard and Put Up Wet,” they muscle their way first through open space and then through dense earth, ending with a drum pattern that recalls Ed Blackwell while Brötzmann serenades the set’s end by playing “Song for Che.” Fantastic.

With longtime associate Ken Vandermark, Nilssen-Love delivers a couple blistering sets at familiar venues. At Chicago’s The Hideout on Chicago Volume (STSJ 179), they serve up three beefy improvisations. “New Paper” is a tenor saxophone blast of heat where Vandermark sounds ferocious, combining repetition, rapid registral shifts, and overblowing with a real freshness and vitality. These guys know each other so well that the subtlest of gestures or cues can open up a dizzy funk breakdown, a sudden dropoff, or a rollicking swing section. And they’ve got the good taste as improvisers not to stray too quickly but also to avoid letting any particular idea overstay its welcome. This important in lengthy pieces like “New Paper,” where good instincts for form and change find Vandermark clearing the air with a long sustained single note from the tenor; out of the open space he clears, Nilssen-Loves’ soft tom pattern ushers in a fine clarinet soliloquy. The restraint carries over onto the spare, almost somber “Text of Sound,” where organic bass clarinet and woodblock percussion seem to be crawling their way atop scalar constructions. But the viscera returns on “Mort Subite,” with dervish clarinet and cycling patterns providing a bracing conclusion to the set.

At Milwaukee’s The Alchemist Theater – on Milwaukee Volume (STSJ 180) – the music opens up in a trilling, more spacious manner. Vandermark sounds even more fluid and inventive on his clarinet here, pulling out some Giuffre-like phrases that show his range. Again they seem to have an inclination for space, as Nilssen-Love plays with his snare, turning it on and off to get a rounded tom sound and then a rattle, with Vandermark exploring each tonal shift amidst his very delicate phrasing. When they shift into the tenor phase here, they continue to avoid the headlong rush that too many duos coast on, and they also steer clear of the particular kinds of repetition they get up to on the Chi volume. Instead, amidst generally good listening (but not slavish chit-chat), Vandermark sets the pace with a few well formed ideas that are good vehicles for variation. They change direction on “Cause of Action,” with some tasty warp/woof circling breathing and scratchy asides, and follow it up with the circuitous “Cut and Thrust.”

On Lean Left (STSJ 166) they’re joined by guitarists Andy Moor and Terrie Ex for a hot live set at Amsterdam’s Bimhuis. “Left Lung” opens with Nilssen-Love in a decidedly Lovens-y mood, with woodblock patterns and subtle volume swells. When Vandermark’s lusty, grainy tenor sound gets to soaring, they sculpt the sound down to a powerhouse riff which pushes its way through to “Lean Over.” It’s only here that the guitarists enter, with a howl and whine of uncontained feedback erupting with great surprise. The music all falls apart marvelously, as the guitarists drag the sound into their spring-loaded workshop, with all manner of metallic mischief: buzzing obsessive strums, 1950s Acme rocket science, No Wave, and Company week on Saturn. Speaking of which, when the music cools down at length, Vandermark has a laugh and plays “Sun Ra and his band from outer space have entertained you here” for a few measures. It’s a joyous set, filled with great contrast and depth of sound as the reedist and drummer follow their nose only to have the Ex stink up the joint with marvelous mischief.

By Jason Bivins

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