Norwegian musical cooperative is how many writers have defined The Source, and the description has its aptness—the group of musicians at the core of the group have collaborated with musicians from a large variety of traditions, including rai vocalists, DJs, rappers, rock musicians, and the Cikada String Quartet. But the group is, at its ‘source’ a quartet, and it is as a quartet that they are presented on their latest ECM release, The Source.
Saxophonist Trygve Seim, trombonist Oyvind Braakke, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen are steeped in American jazz traditions as well as European classicism and folks music. But they present free jazz in a manner that makes it seem almost reachable to those whose musical tastes are not averse to that which requires a bit of work on the listener’s part to ‘get it.’ In many respects, it seems slightly incomprehensible that free jazz and the more experimental side of indie rock music have not moved closer together in the last ten years or so. Both seem more disposed toward music that follows its own logical flow rather than relying on a more straightjacketed popular musical form.
“Caballero” conveys none of that influence, being a tightly controlled composition that builds its own logical tension during its six minute tenure. That’s followed by the only Trygve Seim composition here, “Un Fingo Andalou,” which recalls the folksy-tipsy quality of Albert Ayler’s best compositions. That’s certainly here, but one wonders whether Seim’s conception of this sound isn’t filtered through Garbarek and other ECM artists with which he grew up. That probably doesn’t matter, and it says a lot about the way that music is filtered through the listener’s experiences, and as such can never mean the same thing to barely even a handful of people, including the musicians themselves.
The performances themselves are highly nuanced and make the most of the textures available to the group with regard to their instrumentation. Trygve Seimand Braakke are almost telepathic, playing counterpoint around each other and just as easily collapsing into a unison unit. Meanwhile, Johansen’s drums are restless and spirited, providing the energy impact of a supercollider without ever becoming bombastic. Eilertsen is adept at dropping in and out at the right times, making the bass an additional texture and even melodic voice rather than allowing it to fade into the woodwork by virtue of its omnipresence. The group achieves the right balance between a wistful melancholy and energetic joy, and the melodic element of the compositions and improvisations here should not be given short shrift.
Though much of the group’s work is kinetic and even a bit nervous in nature, they can relax into a ballad with uncanny ease. Two examples are Braakke’s “Prelude to a Boy” and the Johansen composition “Mmball,” both of which make use of voicings and arrangement techniques that allow Trygve Seim, trombonist Oyvind Braakke, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen are steeped in American jazz and Braakke to suggest a much larger horn section than merely tenor and trombone.
This is music that is both well-thought out compositionally and well played in the moment by a group of musicians who can add freely to what is being played because they listen to each other so superbly and also because they understand each other’s playing so deeply. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that The Source is filled with beautiful, large-screen, restless, poetic, kinetic music that isn’t done justice by verbal description, either of the actual sounds of the music or of the theory behind it.
I don’t want to give the impression that the music heard here doesn’t challenge the listener—it does, and in fact an engaged listener is essential to its success. But those listeners willing to give up control of the structure of what they are hearing and allow themselves to be carried away and buffeted on the tide of the sounds created by Seim and company will be well rewarded. And ultimately, this is not music that is so ‘out there.’ There’s enough variation of style here that nearly every listener can find something to hang onto to provide him or her a way ‘in’ to the music. It could be the Latin’60s Blue Note aesthetic of “Tribute,” the near-groove of “Life So Far,” or the outright funk of “Mail Me or Leave Me” (hey, guys, thanks for NOT naming this one ‘Email Me or Leave Me’).
The Source is one of the most intelligent, interesting, and new-sounding releases of 2006—and also one of the best.