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Large Unit – Erta Ale

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Large Unit - Erta AleLarge Unit was born when Paal Nilssen-Love was asked by a festival promoter to put together the band of his dreams. Nilssen-Love found the musicians among long-time friends and collaborators or by looking for young musicians with the extreme qualities he needed to present his musical visions. This all-Norwegian band (apart from one Swede) has no lack of skills and all the abilities to improvise in all kinds of directions.

Celebrating his 25th release on his own label, Paal Nilssen-Love gives the fans a box of music maybe trying to sum up some of his inspirations to date by being many years in bands and collaborations with Peter Brötzmann, Frode Gjerstad, Ken Vandermark, The Ex and Lasse Marhaug, to name only a few. The latter also being an important asset to this release, Paal Nilssen-Love shows how important the sonic side of music is to him, and how his inspiration also is focused on dynamics and energy. Raised by parents who run a jazz club, the history and traditions of jazz comes also to life in the composing and conducting of his Unit.

This box set (of three CDs, three cassettes or four LPs) is a mix of tracks recorded live or as studio works. The band being in its second year, you might wonder if a box is a bit premature. I had no such thoughts after listening for a while, as it documents the the vast amounts of dynamics and range of the music on offer. The group is put together not only as a whole band of eleven, but of duos, trios, quartets and of course soloists. Nilssen-Love leaves enough room for all kinds of combinations of musicians, it seems, and I find the box is a good way to document them by putting it out in one go. If you count together the amount of releases he has done on his own label, and all other releases he has contributed to on others, or knowing the fact that he is always on tour or recording something, or running a festival, booking bands, and putting together gigs, never stopping doing all these things he loves, it comes as no surprise that when he releases something by his own Large Unit that a big collection is the most natural thing.

But over to the music! As with the Ethiopian volcano by the same name, Erta Ale erupts with a surprisingly large amount of energy, the music flows against the listeners in masses of lava flowing unstoppably, with a range of frequencies and colours, but still steady and unyielding like mountain rock. The title track itself sounds like an exploration of sounds from the African savannah, developing slowly in various directions, but never letting the energy take the lead, unlike “Fortar Hardar,” which ultimately also sounds like some exotic African name, but I suspect that the title is taken from a Norwegian dialect expression meaning “faster, harder.” When hearing the track this meaning becomes quite evident, although it has some varied dynamics throughout.

The compositions on this release sounds like Nilssen-Love has been a sponge. Over the years he has been absorbing vast amounts of traditions within jazz, rock, avant-garde and African or Latin American music. But unlike the sponge, when twisting himself to release the absorbed material, he filters the output in his own uncompromising way, putting the traditions in whatever direction or order; or mixes them all together, either in complete cacophony or creating riffs and energy that will drive people to their happy place, hypnotized in amazement. Listen to “Culius,” especially the live version on the bonus disc. It is a good example of how he creates a catchy, full-energy track, leaving people wanting more.

During the course of this box, the listener can hear a direct line from jazz’s traditional innovative forebears such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis (also evident, I guess, by naming a track “Round About Nothing” and the live version gave me immediately a hint of the fantastic “We Want Miles!”) or John Coltrane, all the way through free jazz seniors such as Peter Brötzmann and straight into the modern improv, avant-garde and/or noise scenes. The sonics of this release are at times coloured by the full blast of the entire unit or the change to three or four members at a time. Even the solo numbers are having no arguments with each other, rather being pieces that fit perfectly together in the puzzle. Nilssen-Love has achieved the difficult task of composing structured pieces while also leaving quite enough room or direction for free improvisations. As a drummer himself, he still leaves enough room for another, and the drums are also never the highlight, but rather well mixed in the tracks to enhance the grooves or sonic sides of them.

Nilssen-Love enhances his band to go in many directions: traditional or untraditional instrument usage; outer limits spaced-out improv jazz; catchy funky groove parts; or noise from hell. Occasionally you can hear some post-modern drone works, tape manipulations or quiet sound-fiddling, though set firmly still in the traditions he represents. This is no ordinary big band or larger ensemble of jazz musicians trying to run through the history of the genre. This is something more. Large Unit gives directions, pointing to where more should go. Too many jazz musicians live in the past without moving forward. Large Unit proves that the opposite is possible; keep the traditions, but move, goddamit! The future is now, so wake up the jazz clubs! The live tracks gives you the evidence; you have to go and see them if they come within flying distance.

-Ronny Wærnes-

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