Fonnesbæk & Kauflin Plunge Into the Jazz Abyss

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SYNESTHESIA / FONNESBÆK: Synesthesia. Panic Attack. Waiting. Semiosis. Catwalk. KAUFLIN: Lost. Skybound. PORTER: It’s All Right With Me. LENNON-McCARTHY: For No One. PETERSON: Nigerian Marketplace / Thomas Fonnesbæk, bs; Justin Kauflin, pn / Storyville SVL1014310

So you think you know what a piano-bass jazz duo sounds like? Well, maybe you don’t unless you’ve heard this extraordinary pair, because bassist Thomas Fonnesbæk plays like no one else. He’s lyrical, inventive, and percussive all at the same time. He can act as a ground bass, lead voice, or alternative soloist at any given moment—sometimes, perhaps performing two of those roles simultaneously. He tends to stay a lot in the upper range of his instrument, which generally makes it sound more like a cello than a bass, and he has absolutely no fear. He’ll go anywhere and do whatever is necessary to perform what he wants to say. And his partner, pianist Justin Kauflin, has “big ears” and goes wherever Fonnesbæk or his own muse leads him. I would best describe Kauflin’s style as “minimalist Lennie Tristano” or perhaps a combo of Tristano with John Lewis. His playing is not just precise technically but absolutely crystalline in execution, and he holds nothing back intellectually. Rather than show off, like so many jazz pianists today (even good ones), he is more concerned with creating musical structures that have walls, ceilings and floors. In his own composition Lost, he is not above tossing in a quote from the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, but only if it fits and helps him bridge the gap between point A and point B. He does not cite others’ work unless it has a structural function.

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Fonnesbæk and Kauflin (photo: Brigitte Soffner)

Perhaps the casual jazz listener can get a handle on how this duo functions when listening to the well-known Cole Porter standard, It’s All Right With Me. As Kauflin states the melody straight, Fonnesbæk is flitting around him, creating fascinating, syncopated counter-figures. Then, as the pianist moves into an almost Baroque fantasy on the theme, the bassist continues in the same vein, showing us how “basso continuo” can be something creative and not just a functionary role. By the third chorus, Kauflin is flying and Fonnesbæk is still working around him, somehow fitting into whatever he plays not just effortlessly but with a real purpose. As Kauflin steps aside to play chorded fills on the keyboard, Fonnesbæk steps up his game, producing a bluesy, ingenious chorus of his own. You never miss any other instruments because they never stop interacting or inventing. Later in this tune, Kauflin also plays off-the-beat counter-figures to his own left-hand musings.

The duo takes one of the more obscure Beatles tunes, For No One, and turn it into a jazz ballad of sorts. I say “of sorts” because the bassist’s continually edgy (albeit soft) background lines belie the concept of a ballad. Nonetheless, both musicians forego their normally busy style here to play sparsely, relaxing the beat just enough so that it swings instead of rocking. This is the closest thing to “ambient jazz” on the album, and it’s still more complex than most tunes in that genre.

This is then followed by three Fonnesbæk originals in a row, with Panic Attack being the funkiest and most swinging of them. This almost sounds like Cannonball Adderly meets Bach. It swings but it’s quite complex in both conception and execution. The bassist’s solo is so complex that you’d think he was playing his strings with both hands! Waiting is more relaxed, almost at a medium tempo but with a ballad feel, and here again we hear the extraordinary interaction that this duo can create. Kauflin’s lines become increasingly complex but also more swinging as the piece unfolds. I simply can’t get over the extraordinary, almost Baroque quality of Fonnesbæk’s playing; every note has a firm center, yet he tosses each one off like pellets striking a bell. He has the harmonic acuity of a great pianist and the perfect timing of a great percussionist. Semiosis is a relaxed swinger, with both players leaning back a little from their classical chops and giving us a bit more conventional piano-bass interaction. It almost has the feel of one of Vince Guaraldi’s more relaxed pieces, played at a nice waltz tempo.

Oscar Peterson’s Nigerian Marketplace has a line that closely resembles Sonny Rollins’ Pent-Up House, only not quite as angular. The duo really takes off on this one, and Fonnesbæk’s solo is absolutely extraordinary, flitting around the bass with melodic and harmonic impunity. From here we move on to Kauflin’s Skybound, with its quasi-calypso beat and sunny harmonies. Here the duo almost sounds playful as they lean back from their normal complex interactions, though Kauflin’s solo work in the middle of the tune becomes quite busy.

In the finale, Catwalk, the duo again sounds more relaxed. The whole set, then, almost seems like an unwinding, starting from a point of greatest tension (musically speaking) and arriving at a point of relaxation. Fonnesbæk is as inventive as ever here, but less busy, and Kauflin relaxes as well. It’s a fine ending to a simply extraordinary album, one you’ll listen to again and again.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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