For its second album on ECM, the Food duo of Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen and British saxophonist Iain Ballamy continues to invite guests to bring something to the table. Their guests for Mercurial Balm are guitarist Christian Fennesz and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær - both previously around the table for Quiet Inlet - plus, on three different tracks, Indian slide guitarist and singer Prakash Sontakke and Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset. The party produced, in Iain Ballamy's words, "a strange mix of musicians and musical genres", but it's a compelling mixture.
The form-and-texture conscious improvisations here are drawn from live performances in Victoria National Jazz scene in Norway and the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, and sessions at Oslo's Rainbow Studios. To the latter group belong 'Chanterelle', the title track of 'Mercurial Balm', and 'Magnetoshere' on which the slide guitar and vocals of Prakash Sontakke are partnered by Eivind Aarset's atmospheric guitar and electronics. The first half of the album finds Food augmented by Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz, taking further the experiments with layers of sound begun on Quiet Inlet. Nils Petter Molvær joins Strønen, Ballamy and Fennesz for the slice of 'Moonpie'. The whole album was mixed at Rainbow Studios by Jan Erik Kongshaug and Manfred Eicher.
Food's priorities, the emphases upon melodic playing, textural development and the creating and exploration of sound-environments, shape the contexts for these improvisations. The acoustic aspects of Food's music, with drums, percussion and lyrical saxophone, are again enhanced by the use of electronics as a structural element. The scope of expression runs "from minimalist to very turbulent". They like to surprise - themselves as much as the listener.
Personnel: Thomas Strønen (drums, percussion, electronics), Iain Ballamy (saxophones, electronics), Christian Fennesz (guitar, electronics), Eivind Aarset (guitar, electronics), Prakash Sontakke (slide-guitar, vocal), Nils Petter Molvær (trumpet - 6)
In the past, all members of a jazz band might pick up claves, shakers, bells or tambourines during a performance. Percussion was a common instrument. But today, the unifying force can often be electronics.
On this fifth album by the ensemble jointly led by British saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen, the bulk of Food’s members use a laptop, distortion pedals or an effects unit of some kind in addition to their ‘traditional’ axes. The result is an album in which the finer points of the sound canvas – the flickers, filigrees and fleeting rumbles of GM-tone – are as important as the more obviously organic surge of horns and drums.
It is tempting to describe the music as a blend of ambient groove and improvisation, whereby manipulated noise provides a backdrop for theme and solo. But the modus operandi here is less binary, and less about improvisation ‘over’ clearly stated chords.
Ballamy does make noble statements on pieces such as Ascendant where his round, robust tenor rings out like a bugle in swirls of wind. But on many occasions the horns and guitars play astutely spaced legatos that stream in and out of the whirlpool of electronic bubble, and squeak so that the leader-sideman distinction is scrambled.
Furthermore, the 10 relatively short tracks segue into each other to create a continuous mix, making the point that the recording is the whole rather than the sum of its parts. While the harsh, astringent timbres of Eivind Aarset and Christian Fennesz’s guitars fashion occasionally bleak, industrial ambiences, the subtext of Indian and African music is nonetheless strong.
Wistful drones are used liberally and the fine mesh of Strønen’s brushes and marimba-like pitches on Astral recalls nothing other than the hiss and buzz of a balafon. All these carefully wrought tingles of sound, constantly placed in a wide dynamic range, have a hint of the music of mid-80s Jon Hassell, an artist whose influence on Mac-age jazz is not minor.
--Kevin Le Gendre
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