Is Skala a jazz record? The guy who made it, Mathias Eick, is certainly a jazz musician. The Norwegian trumpeter, age 31, improvises all over Vespers, the glacially paced new album from the Iro Haarla Quintet. But on Skala, his second (and most scripted) album as a leader, Eick largely sticks to melodies and motifs. His devotion to composition, coupled with drummer Gard Nilssen’s tendency to play in bouncy 4/4, means that, at times, Skala behaves less like modern jazz than it does horn-laden pop. The punchy “Day After” could be mistaken for a backing track awaiting a Donald Fagen vocal. And “Oslo,” a riffy postrock tune, is reminiscent of Eick’s work with Jaga Jazzist—Norway’s answer to Tortoise.
Which is not to say that this octet outing is free of improvisation. Tenor saxophonist Tore Brunborg steps out on a number of occasions. On the midtempo title track, for example, he sails long, Garbarek-esque notes over the ripple of pianist Andreas Ulvo’s programmatic accompaniment. But semi-freeform moments such as this are less characteristic than Eick’s layered trumpet work at the end of the album-closing “Epilogue.” As multiple trumpet overdubs swell against a cumulative rhythm, the whole concept of genre becomes somewhat irrelevant. With music as lovely as this, does it really matter if it’s really rock dressed up as jazz?