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Christian Wallumrod Ensemble: Fabula Suite Lugano

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Among the ranks of the important new wave of Norwegian jazz musicians sparking up the international scene, pianist-composer-bandleader Christian Wallumrød is one of the most fascinating and least easily categorized. More to the point, part of the fascination arises out of his slipperiness, the intriguing way in which he eludes genre limitations, including the jazz element itself. Especially on his last two, hypnotic albums-his sextet’s masterful The Zoo Is Far and the new Fabula Suite Lugano-Wallumrød sidesteps jazz tradition by morphing and re-orienting the link to improvisation.

In an interview, Wallumrød expressed his ambivalent feelings toward jazz proper, particularly its head-solo-head orthodoxy. Tellingly, though, he admitted loving Miles Davis’ Nefertiti, the title track of which has no “solo,” as such, apart from the free-range, discursive rumble of Tony Williams’ drums. A similar effect, within strict melodic guidelines, governs Wallumrød’s music: He might give improvisatory license to trumpeter Eivind Lønning (in a chair previously held by Arve Henriksen and Mathias Eick) or his longtime, coloration-sensitive drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, but ensemble consciousness is always paramount, balanced and dispersed among the 18 tracks of his latest suite.

Meanwhile, in Wallumrød’s carefully calibrated sextet, the leader weaves in aspects of classical music-especially Baroque manners and timbres, as heard via Giovanna Pessi’s Baroque Harp, Tanja Orning’s cello parts, and on pieces such as “Scarlatti Sonata”-and Norwegian folk tradition, most readily represented by Gjermund Larsen’s indigenous, sympathetic string-endowed Hardanger fiddle. Harmonically, Wallumrod’s palette moves from classical propriety to abstraction, from major to minor and back, ever in search mode.

Though primarily serious and probing in musical temperament, Wallumrød also courts sonic sensuality and subtle Nordic humor along the way. The album opens with the onomatopoeically named “Solemn Mosquitoes,” marked by a slow-moving melodic motif nervously energized through flitting tremolo (reprised, in skeletal form, in the penultimate track, “Mosquito Curtain Call”). The effect appears again on “Dancing Deputies,” and the slow, sludge-grooving “I Had a Mother Who Could Swim” is the closest thing on the album to a “song” form, worthy of a Real Book in some parallel jazz universe. To close out this ensemble-geared suite, the musical math boils down to just the leader, laying down minimal broken chords and ringing long tones, on “Solo.”

In some way, Wallumrød’s sextet music may serve as an ideal example of the ECM aesthetic in the label’s 40th anniversary year. Airs of classical composure and contemplativeness, Nordic folk rusticity and jazz mentality meet, firmly and beautifully, but also with mystique intact. No wonder some of us are so beguiled and bewitched by the ongoing Wallumrød adventure

Originally Published