Two things point the marriage between jazz and rock ‘n’ roll onto the rocks. One is bad taste; for example, Pat Metheny’s devotion to Ornette Coleman couldn’t save him when he tried to mix it up with his affection for James Taylor. The other is a hard-to-resolve fundamental difference in their relationship to virtuosity. Jazz requires and generally benefits from extraordinary instrumental competence and a highly developed grasp of harmonic and rhythmic subtleties. Rock, on the other hand, often sounds worse the better it’s played. Played with jazz chops, rock tunes can sound like weak frameworks for onanistic showing-off.
The Finnish-American guitarist Raoul Björkenheim has been serving up mixtures of rock and jazz for over 30 years, but nowhere have I heard him do it better than with Scorch Trio, which he formed eight years ago with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The thirtysomething Norwegians both possess unassailable jazz chops, but they also know that if you’re going to rock out, you have to bring energy and a bit of noise. It’s also worth noting that their extensive free jazz experience helped to move the music beyond tricky meters or a simple backbeat into areas of nuanced interaction, especially on their last album together, the brilliant 2008 recording Brolt! Simultaneously sprawling and laser-focused, eerily atmospheric and battering ram forceful, it’s one of those records where a band brings its shared language to a new level by breaking it wide open. It’s also the end of a good thing; Nilssen-Love left after the record was done.
Rather than let Scorch Trio die, they recruited Chicagoan Frank Rosaly to fill the drum chair. It’s a canny choice; he and Nilssen-Love (who gigs in Chicago often enough to be a more than honorary member of its scene) have shared countless bills and worked with many of the same people, Håker Flaten included. But you can’t pull someone as imaginative and powerful as Nilssen-Love out of the mix without changing things, and Melaza (which is Spanish for molasses — reportedly all of the titles are Puerto Rican slang) feels quite different from its predecessor.
The big picture remains the same. Björkenheim still wields an array of attacks — Mahavishnu machine-gunning, Hawaiian slip-sliding, and elaborate but clearly articulated extrapolations from bold melodies — with brusque self-confidence. Håker Flaten and Rosaly bring emphatic force to the stark spots and a blizzard of blows to the dense ones; the bassist’s furious flurries ensure that the music never stands still. The way the drummer wreathes Björkenheim’s bowed melody on “Raitrú” with a light skittering across the cymbals and snare brings a welcome, paradoxical lightness to the guitarist’s blue brooding, and his pounding attack on the title tune simultaneously defines and refracts the backbeat, ballasting the heaviosity of the other players’ power riffing. But if you could hear music being pushed beyond its boundaries on Brolt!, the way Melaza moves from one mode of playing to the next feels like a marking out of territory.