Paal Nilssen-Love is the most kinetic of drummers. His freewheeling energy seems to be fuelled by his motion, rather than vice-versa. Add to that his power, spontaneity and apparently innate musicality. Few can match him, though he can be complemented, as he was by the comparatively easeful intensity of Michael Zerang for the latter-day outings of the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet.
Nilssen-Love’s self-descriptive Large Unit is an undectet (11-piece) vehicle for his own original compositions, and he’s obviously selected its members with equal care. It’s less raw-sounding than Brotzmann’s group and, despite the titular emphasis on unity, it’s often broken down into smaller sub-groups, the better to exploit its full dynamic potential.
Erta Ale, named after a geographical region that’s equally prone to igneous ejaculation, comes quickly after the Unit’s too-brief First Blow, and it’s more of the same, but in a bigger package. You can take it two ways; either as a triple CD set, or, if you pay double, as four 12″ slabs of vinyl plus a CD and a flexidisc. Either way, it’s a meaty proposition.
There are 17 tracks in total on Erta Ale (only 16 on CD). Half were recorded live in Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim during a Jan/Feb 2014 tour of Norway, the other half “on location” in a Trondheim studio. The vinyl edition bonus CD – same as the third disc in the CD set – presents four alternative performances recorded six months later at Moers Jazzfestival. The only track missing from the CD set (unless there’s something worthwhile on the flexi) is a live version of “Slow Love” featuring Lasse Marhaug, which would’ve fit onto the first disc of the CD edition. Its omission is disappointing, since Marhaug is a notable presence and a wildcard operator, adding grit to the grain with turntable and electronics.
On the main body of work, the studio cuts are interspersed with live performances, all of equally clean audio fidelity. The Live at Moers disc – comprising four pieces, each around fifteen minutes long – is a tad more raw, but actually presents a pretty neat encapsulation of the Unit’s method of operation.
“Round About Nothing IV” begins with a rude fanfare of brass and horns, all punching through a loose scree of turntablism and electric strings. After the percussionists enter and tangle with bassists, individual voices in the frontline take turns to soliloquise as the group texture breaks down. The saxophonists are loquacious, the brass players more guttural, drawing the collective momentum down prior to a passage of abrasive, free-form electric guitar.
After such a restlessly discursive start, “Fortar Hardar II” powers in emphatically on a bass/drum ostinato that’s soon bolstered by riffing unison horns. When baritone sax starts to trawl the depths of the groove and Marhaug turns irruptive, the Unit’s concerted momentum is sustained until six minutes in, when there’s a sudden spotlight on the Unit’s sole cornetist, Thomas Johansson. Instead of the expected return to full-bore, the other players make only stabbing, percussive sorties, fizzling out into fitful flurries of muted trombone. The bass/drum ostinato is re-insinuated only at the death, lifting the group into a final unison recap of the tune’s thematic riff.
“Austin Birds” begins blue ‘n’ bruised, with Ornettish alto sax prominently solo amid less orthodox, even slightly unhinged group interplay. Later, following a middle passage of vocalised brass and scraped-string textures, there’s some scrabbly harmolodic guitar studded by brass-strafed percussion. It all hangs together, ending with a coda for solo trumpet that successfully encapsulates the texture of the whole.
“Culius” begins with pile-driving unison riffs and raw dis/connects of distortion, but soon bursts into a powerfully funk-inflected, brass-bolstered vamp that breaks first into a loping, almost musclebound groove, then into massed noise ending in a welter of feedback-scored dual-kit percussion. It’s one of the few pieces here that’s reminiscent of Nilssen-Love’s work with The Thing.
The drummer’s compositions reflect his playing style, in which sustained flurries of frenetic activity are punctuated by oases of acute sonic sensitivity, and punchy rhythmics are offset by textural, a-rhythmic sound-painting. Remarkably, the Large Unit’s considerable resources are bought into play on those pieces with a similarly responsive acuity, and all the economy of a much smaller entity.