Christine Dahl’s Quintesse

SVL1014327 - cover

QUINTESSE / DAHL: Invisible Whispering. Quintesse. Stepless Steps. Breathless Octavia. Clarity. Signs and Signals. Slowly Slide. The Scream in the Shrine / Christine Dahl, a-sax; Niclas Knudson, gtr; Nils Bosse Davidson, cel/el-bs; Espen Laub von Lillenskjold, dm / Storyville SVL1014327

Danish saxophonist-composer Christine Dahl is a band leader who writes for both small and large ensembles. On this disc, she is working with her quartet.

Her music is extremely varied in style and techniques. In the opener, for instance, she begins with a quiet statement on saxophone while the guitar strums chords beneath her and the drummer plays out-of-tempo figures, but by the 1:44 mark the music suddenly becomes edgier, with electric bass strumming, before the tempo increases to a funkier beat and things really begin to percolate. Interestingly, Dahl maintains her very cool demeanor in her solo here despite the roiling rhythm behind her and no matter how busy her figures become. The energy is coming from the rhythm section, but the saxophonist stays relatively calm. I was not happy, however, with Knudson’s ugly, rock-influenced solo. You can keep rock music for all I care.

In the title track, Quintesse, Dahl’s music is even more through-composed, with rising and falling chromatics which give the piece an almost microtonal feel. Lillenskjold plays roiling timpani behind the sax and guitar before Davidson plays a cello solo. By this time, the harmonic movement has calmed down and become a bit more normal. Dahl plays a solo, followed by Knudson on acoustic guitar (thank goodness!) which leads to the leader’s return.

Stepless Steps opens with bowed electric bass playing fairly high in its range while Davidson overdubs himself on pizzicato cello. The drummer plays softly with brushes in the background as Dahl improvises above it all. This is another strange piece which also sounds composed and arranged despite the improvising. The electric guitar returns, but thankfully not as abrasive as in track 1, as the tempo slowly increases along with the volume. Then things slow down again and the tempo becomes more amorphous, with lots of jangling percussion in the background.

The same aesthetic is heard in Breathless Octavia, in which soft bass plucking opens the track and leads into Dahl’s alto solo. Much of this is the kind of music one might be tempted to label “ambient jazz,” except that the musical construction is generally very interesting and original. Slowly but surely the tempo and volume increase, Dahl plays more and more excited figures, and the piece reaches a high-fever pitch before it ends.

Dahl continues to present these strange sort of soundscapes throughout the rest of the album. It’s certainly not music to everyone’s tastes, and except for the fact that much of it is improvised it may be difficult for some listeners to hear “jazz” in it, but it’s interesting in its own strange way. The beginning of Slowly Slide is a series of glissando played on acoustic guitar, followed by ominous, low bass and saxophone notes played in a slow, dead-sounding march rhythm.

We end with The Scream in the Shrine, which begins with soft acoustic guitar and Dahl playing at the edge of her reed, creating a breathy sound with a lot of spit in it. The intensity level very slowly increases, as does the tempo, until one reaches a pause, followed by a cello solo, then cello and saxophone intertwining in dialogue. We then return to the strange melodic line of the opening and the slow rhythm underneath it.

Except for that one ugly, screaming guitar solo, this is a fascinating CD of new music on the edge of the jazz periphery, mostly composed and often following classical principles. Very interesting!

—© 2019 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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