Large Unit - Downtown Arts Center, Lexington, KY, 17.06.2015

The Musical Box

"Ready to rock"?
That was the call to places by Paal Nilssen-Love for the 10 fellow musicians of the aptly titled Large Unit last night at the Downtown Arts Center.

But as anyone who has witnessed the Norwegian drummer in action at his numerous appearances here over the last 13 years for the Outside the Spotlight Series, “rock” is a relative term.

When he cranks into action, Nilssen-Love packs the precision and sonic assault of a schooled rock drummer. That happened several times during this 80 minute performance, creating a percussive firestorm as dueling rhythm sections punctuated the sometimes placid, sometimes corrosive sounds of a potent front line of horns and winds.

But Nilseen-Love is an improviser of the first order and Large Unit – composed of players from Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark – is a jazz army that fleshed out compositions by the drummer with modern classical flourishes, free jazz immediacy and a curious symmetry that sounded, well, Nordic.

The show-opening Austin Birds was an open display of the band’s cagey dynamics in action. A whir of electronic static from Tommi Keranen introduced the Large Unit sound in increments – strains of tuba from Per Ake Holmlander lifting out of a sonic fog, guitarist Ketil Gutvik and Nilssen-Love battling over two different bassists (Christian Meaas Svendsen and Jon Rune Strom) and exchanges from the four-member front line. Then everything hit head on and accelerated with the aural force of a rocketship, gaining speed and intensity until the music receded and splintered.

The down side of such a make-up was that several players were often left with little to do. For much of the performance, one rhythm section sat out as the other propelled the music. Other musicians – specifically, Gutvik – seldom got much elbow room in Large Unit’s almost inclusive sound.

That was likely part of Nilseen-Love’s design for the music. The dynamics created an almost Zappa-like undercurrent during Erta Ale 2. But in a leaner passage, the tune yielded a sparse, willowing exchange between Keranen and trombonist Mats Aleklint so symmetric that it became tough difficult to differentiate the electronic ambience from the organic improvising.

Then there were tunes like Circle in the Round that simply exploded with color – cartoon like bass runs, trombone led grooves and the two rhythm sections tossing rhythmic shifts back and forth. Topping it all was a horn/wind melody that wound this circus up with a pastoral coda that sounded almost mournful.

It was a lot to take in. But such were the challenges and rewards that resulted in having a jazz battalion like Large Unit around to shake up the senses.

Walter Tunis

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