Kristiansen & Fonnesbæk Have “The Touch”

1014347 - The Touch - Front

GOODMAN-ROYAL: Soft Winds. PETERSON: Nigerian Marketplace. Love Ballade. Night Child. Wheatland. Hymn to Freedom. GROFÉ: On the Trail. ØRSTED-PEDERSEN: On Danish Shore. JONES-SYMES: There Is No Greater Love / Søren Kristiansen, pno; Thomas Fonnesbæk, bs / Storyville 1014347

The premise of this album is to give “jazzical” performances of the music of Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen. Danish music critic Søren Schauser has predicted that “in a couple of years we will see pieces by an Ellington or a Peterson in regular concert programs in entirely classical contexts.”

As much as I would want this to be true—and anyone who has red by online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond knows that it has been my lifelong dream to have entire repertoires of jazz-classical hybrids—I fear that this is wishful thinking except, perhaps, in a country like Denmark (or Sweden, or Switzerland) where jazz is considered to be an art form on the level of classical music. Elsewhere in the world, there is still an incredible amount of condescension in the classical world towards jazz as a “simpler,” “less structured” form of music, even though such past geniuses as Ellington, Eddie Sauter, George Russell, Charles Mingus and even Ornette Coleman have already proven them wrong.

I enjoy the playing of both Peterson and Ørsted-Pedersen but, to be honest, I don’t know enough about either of their repertoires to say which pieces on this CD belong to whom except for the tunes written by Peterson. I would assume that Benny Goodman’s Soft Winds, Ferde Grofé’s On the Trail and Isham Jones’ There Is No Greater Love were Peterson specialties, but perhaps they were Ørsted-Pedersen’s.

I’ve been a huge admirer of Thomas Fonnesbæk’s playing since I reviewed his 2017 release, Synethesia, on my blog (an album which, curiously, also included Peterson’s Nigerian Marketplace). In that review, I noted that “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.”

Yet most of the American jazz press still hasn’t caught up to Fonnesbæk—or, if they have, they surely don’t appreciate him as much as I do. And that brings us to another barrier in today’s jazz world: for most of the American jazz critics, European artists scarcely exist. I’ve already mentioned, in my articles on the great German saxist-composer-bandleader Silke Eberhard, that this is a far cry from the 1950s and ‘60s when German, Swedish, Danish, Franch and German jazz artists were given as much attention and praise as their American counterparts, but somewhere along the way American critics decided that only American artists were worth recommending.

To listen to this album in a blindfold test, however, I seriously doubt that any American jazz critic would be able to say that Søren Kristiansen “sounds” like a European jazz pianist; he swings with a ferocity that I’ve not heard since the glory days Horace Silver, Erroll Garner or Peterson himself although, as in Nigerian Marketplace, he relaxes the beat and restricts himself to simple chording in order to allow Fonnesbæk to shine, as he did on Synethesia. In terms of rhythm, Fonnesbæk is a bit more classical and less purely jazz; he plays a relatively strict 4 most of the time. The swing in this piece only becomes evident once Kristiansen returns to solo himself. But that’s fine because what Fonnesbæk does with his instrument simply cannot be done by 80% of American bassists. He has his own unique style and knows what his musical place and goals are.  His second solo, in which the notes just stream from his instrument from top to bottom and fill the harmonic spaces in is typical of what he brings to the table. His playing sounds like a combination of Eddie Gomez and Oscar Pettiford, two of my favorite bassists. He possesses a unique ability to play truly lyrical solos that have structure and form in addition to his percussive and counter-melodic abilities.

The duo so completely rewrite Grofé’s On the Trail that I wouldn’t have recognized it without the title being known. One might more appropriately refer to it as “jazz variations on On the Trail.” It is, in fact, so completely rewritten that it sounds like a contrafact, no less complex than the ones that Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker created in the 1940s and ‘50s, and on this track Fonnesbæk really does swing, and swing mightily. Once again, he knows his place and his function within each piece. At the 4:45 mark, the duo suddenly doubles the tempo and rides Grofé’s Grand Canyon burro into the sunset like a hot rod Ford.

Peterson’s Love Ballade has a certain Chopinesque quality about it, but not the usual overly-soft feeling you get from most Chopin pieces. The structure is not quite as complex, either, but that’s what the improvisations are for, an expansion of the basic material into something more complex and interesting. Night Child also starts out very much in a ballad style, but once Kristiansen starts improvising, the heat level increases exponentially.

Ørsted-Pedersen’s On Danish Shore is a fast but fairly simple tune in the minor, with a few quick switches in and out of the major here and there. This, too, is a particular showcase for Fonnesbæk, but Kristiansen makes sure that his presence is felt as well. This time, rather than doubling the tempo, they halve it and swing all the harder in the second half of the piece. Fonnesbæk puts his swing shoes on once again for There Is No Greater Love, one of Isham Jones’ less-well-known songs, and Kristiansen matches him in both swing and musical invention, including some double-time passages in the midst of his solo. The program ends with Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom, played in an appropriately relaxed yet swinging style by Kristiansen alone.

Kristiansen and Fonnesbæk are clearly a superb jazz duo, and this CD needs to be heard. It is simply marvelous.

—© 2022 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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