These two discs feature groups seeking the dance pulse at the heart of jazz without any percussion instruments at their disposal: L.A.'s Supernova uses the instruments of the classical string quartet (two violins, viola and cello), while the Norwegian group String Zone features a violin, two guitars and a double bass.
On String Zone's delightful Mystery Bag, a simple but highly effective formula yields 11 original numbers: the guitars (Per Einar Watle and Oivind Wang Tollefsen) set up a light but funky groove, bassist Per Mathisen holds down the low end just enough to propel things and violinist Stig Roar Wigestrand joins with the guitarists on soloing. Whether dabbling in reggae riddims, Middle Eastern scales, high chromatics or the occasional hoedown break, String Zone's melodies bounce along with an easy, winning insouciance that makes them seem less complex than they are; the deft solos, however, find all their harmonic nooks and crannies. The few ballads are feather-light but more affecting for it-even "Nesquick," whose title seems to imply something much jumpier.
Supernova's members-violinists Ludvig Girdland and Robert Anderson, violist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and cellist Jacob Szekely-can also lay down a groove, whether plucking out a beat, tapping their bows or just slapping their instruments. But they do more that just groove on their self-titled debut: They throw in a Baroque-style slow interlude in Anderson's "Forward to You," render Pat Metheny's "Question and Answer" in minimalist loops, suffuse Atwood-Ferguson's "But Wait" in naked yearning and throw in some computer FX on a silvery arrangement of "Billie Jean." The individual moments are always convincing, but they play each individual moment with such overbearing intensity (amped up by a close, aggressive recording) that the pieces themselves never seem to cohere; the rapid shifts among styles and affects tear up the musical fabric rather than adding to its subtlety. It's probably too much to expect from a band named Supernova, but you begin to long for a controlled burn instead of constant fireworks.