A Norwegian supergroup of sorts, Atomic is a scorching free-bop force that’s made more than 15 albums over two decades. Think the off-the-rails free jazz of Ornette Coleman laced with punk-rock fervor and you get the idea. Atomic’s output to date has been dominated by original music, which makes its new program a revelation. An electrifying, almost all-covers set, Pet Variations runs the genre-spanning gamut—from European free improvisation (Alexander von Schlippenbach) to American jazz (Steve Lacy, Jimmy Giuffre) to the avant-garde (Paul Bley) to 20th-century classical music composers (Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varèse).
As on its previous effort, 2015’s Lucidity, Atomic dazzles with its musicianship, hopping from precise rhythmic command to freewheeling salvos with ease. The quintet is made up of pianist Håvard Wiik, reedman Fredrik Ljungkvist, trumpeter Magnus Broo, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and drummer Hans Hulbaekmo. Wiik’s hard-charging thrill ride “Pet Variations/Pet Sounds” opens the set, seamlessly segueing into a majestically big-band-like take on Brian Wilson’s pop classic. It only gets better from there. The group stays relatively faithful to the original versions of tunes by Garbarek, Lacy, and Guiffre, but its aesthetic remains unmistakably Atomic. Their renditions of Guiffre’s “Cry Want” and Lacy’s “Art” are pure slow-burning bliss, while covers of Bley’s 1964 fire-breather “Walking Woman” and Garbarek’s “Karin’s Mode” combine shimmering ecstasy and propulsive grooves in sublime fashion.