Jeppe Gram’s in the Doldrums

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GRAM: The Shooter. Once, Maybe Twice. Come and Go. For the Love of the Old Beat. Pastoral. Later Blues. Other Windows. Where and When. The Doldrums / Tobias Wiklund, cnt; Ollie Wallace, a-sax; Tomas Franck, t-sax; Jacob Artved, gtr; Anders Krogh Fjeldsted, bs; Jeppe Gram, dm / Storyville SVL1014348-1

This is the fourth album made by Danish drummer-composer Jeppe Gram in his own name, with most of the music being blues variations inspired by such musicians as Kenny Garret, Joshua Redman and Charlie Haden, the famous bassist of Ornette Coleman’s original quartet.

The Shooter opens with a very complex rhythm on the drums, and the melody line, consisting at first of just a few notes repeated three times, also becomes quite complex. I was caught up in the subtle complexity of it all; this is very thoughtful jazz, well put together and defying all conventions except for the fact that the rhythm, though complex, follows a steady beat. This is very different music from the type that Storyville normally issues, and I applaud them for taking a chance on it. Jacob Artved is up first on guitar, and thankfully he plays in a jazz style and not in a rock style. Ollie Wallace’s alto sax is fluid and complex, leaning more towards Charlie Parker than to Coleman, and Tobias Wiklund’s cornet has an odd, funky quality to the tone that almost makes it sound at times like a valve trombone played in a higher register. He, too, plays some complex and interesting improvisations. This is modern jazz on the cusp of free jazz, with some of Wiklund’s phrases going up into his altissimo range, sounding almost like Ivo Perelman on cornet. I wish they had come up with a definite ending rather than the fade-out they used here.

The same vibe continues, in different tempi, throughout this CD, although Once, Maybe Twice is in 3 rather than 4 and has a somewhat more defined melody line. I also liked the way the instruments blended in Gram’s arrangements: he has a good ear for color. Eventually the 3 feeling gives way to a more complex and asymmetric tempo that sounds closer to 4 but may well be in one of those tempi that’s missing a half-beat or so every few bars. On this track, Wiklund’s playing sounds less contained and has a more open sound like a trumpet.

Indeed, by the time I reached the third track, Come and Go, I had the definite feeling that this was a sort of jazz suite. If it isn’t, Gram surely has a keen ear for interrelating his different compositions in a most interesting fashion, and the alternation of ensemble and solo choruses is near perfect. This one has a slow, funky beat, blues related, and features Tomas Franck on tenor sax. This is a band that thinks and feels the music together; there are no prima donnas here. Everyone pitches in to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Anders Krogh Fjelsted also makes his first solo appearance on this track.

Although the general dynamics level of most tracks are on the cool side, Gram makes the most of subtle shifts in volume. For the Love of the Old Beat is a surprise: a real swinger, the kind of music that one almost never hears in jazz any more, with Fjelsted really pushing the music from his bass and Artved adding some nice accents on guitar (and later taking a swinging solo of his own). Wiklund reverts to his somewhat covered-sounding wailing on this one, but he swings, too, as does leader Gram in his drum solo. We then get a sort of round-robin chase chorus featuring the cornet and both saxists, playing some complex figures but continuing to swing.

Following this hot number, we return to our regularly scheduled program with the slow piece (almost a ballad) Pastoral, which has a long and very involved theme. Once again, ensemble and solo passages are perfectly judged and executed, with nary a wrong step by any of the players.

Later Blues uses a stiff ostinato beat at the outset, almost Stravinskian, before moving into a weird sort of 6/4 (with an equally weird melodic line). As usual, all of the solos are excellent—this is a band without a weakness in the solo department—particularly Artved on guitar. When the tenor sax comes in, we suddenly switch to a straight, swinging 4. Gram’s compositions really keep the musicians—and the listeners—on their toes, there’s so much going on here, such as the chromatically descending bass line under both the tenor and drum solos. Other Windows is in a relatively fast 4 and swings well, with Wiklund’s cornet solo being a real standout.

Where and When is another piece in asymmetric rhythm, and swings in its own way, with a sudden slow-down in tempo for four bars at the end of the phrase before ramping up again for the solos. In the finale, The Doldrums, we open with solo bass playing a strange sort of ruminating figure, into which the cornet and tenor come in playing a minimal sort of sad figure. A sudden loud, staccato chord by these two instruments leads into a soft, grumbling solo by Wiklund over the bass ostinato with light drums in the background. A rather strange, sad finale to this otherwise upbeat set, but from start to finish this is a CD to treasure.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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