Thursday, June 13, 2013
Review: 4003 - Jonas Holgersson
Personnel: Jonas Holgersson: drums; Gerard Presencer: trumpet; Hans Ulrik: tenor saxophone; Mathias Landaeus: piano; Johnny Åman: bass.
Be forewarned: this is a long one.
I read a review of Swedish drummer Jonas Holgersson’s recording 4003 by Chris Mosey in All About Jazz that piqued my interest. Mosey seemed almost personally offended by Holgersson’s approach in 4003 to some classic jazz performances, playing not just the same melodies and chords as the originals but the same arrangements as well. Jazz listeners certainly understand jazz musicians adhering to the melody and harmonic structure of previously-performed tunes—that’s why they’re called “standards.” So why should someone have a problem with performers adhering closely to a previously-performed arrangement? Mosey claimed in his review of 4003 that “something—a great deal actually, is always missing,” that “the gap between their enthusiastic efforts and the real thing is enormous.” As with all things in jazz, the proof is in the listening, so I resolved to check this for myself. (Also, I was curious about saxophonist Hans Ulrik, who I hadn’t heard before.) I decided that for each of 4003’s cuts I would listen to the original performance first and then to Holgersson’s version to see if the musicians failed to produce “the real thing.”
“Deciphering the Message” is originally on Art Blakey’s Live at the Café Bohemia, Vol. 1. Composed by Hank Mobley, it has a rousing hard bop theme taken at an upper mid-tempo, and it features fine, lengthy solos by Mobley and Kenny Dorham. Holgersson’s version (4:01) is very similar to Blakey’s. The soloists, though, do their own thing. Ulrik has a laid-back style, with a straightforward approach to phrasing, somewhat similar to Mobley’s. Landaeus’s piano solo sparkles but is too brief. Presencer’s solo is very melodic and skillful, and he employs here a sound and approach to phrasing similar to Dizzy Gillespie’s. Holgersson adds a brief but tasteful solo. Even juxtaposed with the original, this version struck me as being very good; more succinct and focused than Blakey’s version, with solid improvisations.
The original of “The Thing to Do,” a Jimmy Heath composition, is on Blue Mitchell’s recording of the same name. This one sounds like a classic Horace Silver type tune, a mildly funky, mid-tempo swinger. Mitchell plays a relaxed, textbook jazz solo; aspiring jazz trumpeters would do well to transcribe this one. Junior Cook adds his own excellent solo. On Holgersson’s similar version (6:23), Presencer mixes in some high note stabs and against-the-grain phrasing in his solo, quite different from Mitchell. Ulrik’s solo is mellow and solid, in which he prefers quick bursts of melody rather than long, drawn-out lines. Landaeus’s solo is very tasteful and swinging, reminding me of Wynton Kelly’s playing. Aman briefly takes the spotlight for a nice solo.
Grant Green’s version of “Idle Moments” (on his album of the same name) is taken at a remarkably slow tempo, the epitome of dreamy, sensuous jazz. It almost seems too slow, though I’m sure Green got just the effect he wanted. It’s very long, too, at almost 15 minutes, though Green, Duke Pearson, Joe Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson fill up the time with superb improvisation. (Joe Henderson’s tenor solo is so languorous and played at such a low volume that it almost seems tongue-in-cheek.) Holgersson’s version (5:35) is taken at a slightly faster tempo; Green’s version is around quarter note = 55, while Holgersson’s is around 80. It’s also much shorter: 5 ½ minutes to Green’s 15. Holgersson’s version is still cool and sensuous, but it may take brevity too far (which I think is a recurring problem on 4003); Ulrik only gets one chorus for his solo, though he uses it well, and Landaeus doesn’t even get a full chorus. Presencer at least gets two choruses for his solo, which is very good and includes some imaginative, lithe phrasing and showy high-note blowing.
The next three cuts are departures from 4003’s classic tenor/trumpet re-visitations and have original arrangements (by Torbjorn Gulz). The first of these, “Prism,” was originally from Keith Jarrett’s recording Changes, with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, and it is a fine jazz trio performance of a typically imaginative and lyrical Jarrett composition. Holgersson’s version (7:18) is a re-working, with a wholly original intro, a faster tempo, and a more pronounced melody line, stated by the trumpet and tenor in harmony. Aman starts things off with a graceful bass solo, Presencer contributes a fine flugelhorn solo, and Landaeus plays a strong, angular, Jarrett-ish solo. (Ulrik refrains from soloing on this one.)
“Isotope” is, of course, Joe Henderson’s jaunty blues from his Inner Urge recording. Holgersson’s version (6:24) has a fairly long, original intro, with Ulrik and Presencer in unison, and a slightly altered melody. Ulrik plays an interesting, lively solo with a lot of variety. Landaeus is more relaxed and straightforward, and Presencer plays a well-developed solo.
“Sonnet for Caesar,” from Duke Ellington’s recording Such Sweet Thunder, is a stately, melancholy piece played on clarinet (by Jimmy Hamilton, I think), without any improvisation. In Holgersson’s version (5:41), his snare beat almost turns the piece into a slow march. Ulrik and Presencer take turns playing the theme until the end of the piece when they play in unison, and the rhythm players vary their backdrop throughout. This cut is something of an odd departure for the album, considering its origin as a big band piece with no improvising. Perhaps Holgersson was enchanted by the melody and thought it would be a good change of pace at this point in the recording.
Getting us back into classic tenor/trumpet mode, “Infra-Rae” is a slick, upper mid-tempo Hank Mobley composition, coming from the Art Blakey recording The Jazz Messengers, and it features fine solos from Mobley and Donald Byrd and a great one from Blakey. Holgersson’s version (4:44) is lighter than Blakey’s. Ulrik digs in on this tune for a driving solo. Presencer on flugelhorn plays in duet with Holgerson for a chorus, then the bass joins in on the next chorus, and finally the piano, Presencer acquitting himself well throughout. Holgersson plays an intelligent, controlled solo.
“Extempore” is a composition by Clifford Jordan from his recording Mosaic, a relaxed, mid-tempo blues. Holgersson’s version (5:12) basically repeats Jordan’s arrangement, including his tempo. Presencer employs his trademark gliding lines in his solo, but he mixes in some more soulful phrases as well. Both Ulrik and Landaeus add some against-the-grain phrases to spice up their solos.
“Una Mas” is, of course, the classic, Latin-tinged piece from Kenny Dorham. His trumpet solo is pretty funky; he doesn’t just play polite, clean lines. Joe Henderson’s tenor solo has some great twists and turns. Holgerson’s version (5:09) is not as vigorous, but it’s still very good. Ulrik’s solo is both searching and attractive. Presencer employs more of his Dizzy-like upper-register shouts. Landaeus’s solo is graceful and low key and too brief.
“My Groove, Your Move,” by Hank Mobley, is a mid-tempo, smooth, Horace Silver-ish piece, originally on Mobley’s recording Roll Call. Holgersson’s version (6:43) is lighter (Art Blakey is Mobley’s drummer) and a bit slower than Mobley’s. Landaeus employs an elegant style in his solo like Mobley’s pianist, Wynton Kelly. Ulrik plays one of his best solos of the recording, funkier than Mobley’s, who seems to favor a more linear approach. Presencer plays a nice duet with Aman for a couple of choruses before he turns up the heat with the whole rhythm section. Aman finishes the solos with a swinging contribution.
“Roll Call,” also by Mobley, and the title cut of the aforementioned recording, starts with a strong Blakey intro, leading to what is like a bop anthem. (It’s an excellent opener for Mobley’s recording.) Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet solo is scorching. (I hear a lot of Randy Brecker in this solo, though, of course, the influence is the other way.) Blakey’s solo is, once again, great. Holgersson’s version (4:37) starts right in on the theme and is less aggressive than Mobley’s though taken at the same tempo. Presencer plays a smart, lyrical solo, Landaeus’s is short and sweet, and Ulrik trades fours with Holgersson for a couple of choruses.
The recording ends with “Driftin’,” a cool, lower mid-tempo Herbie Hancock composition from his recording Takin’ Off. This tune has a down-home, “good night and happy trails” feeling, so it’s a good closer for Holgersson’s recording. On Hancock’s version, Dexter Gordon plays one of his swaggering, perfectly-constructed solos, and Freddie Hubbard’s solo is laid back and mellow. In Holgersson’s version (6:46), Ulrik is looser and less driving than Gordon. Landaeus solos with clean, precise lines, though he finishes with some funky chord flourishes. Presencer’s solo is a series of fast, pretty lines. Hancock’s version just fades out on him repeating a phrase; Holgersson’s has some group improvisation and a clean finish by the group.
At the end of the day, I don’t understand why Mosey is so down on 4003. Holgersson’s arrangements of some of the classic compositions he plays are very similar to the originals, but my reaction to hearing them is akin to my reaction to hearing the originals: what great tunes and arrangements! Furthermore, it’s not like Holgersson tried to match the originals perfectly; his arrangements generally have a lighter feel and he sometimes takes liberties with tempos and other details (not to mention that he has three entirely new arrangements). Perhaps Mosey interpreted Holgersson’s lighter approach as lacking the passion for the material displayed in the originals, but the players on 4003 seem plenty engaged to me.
Finally, when it comes to improvisations, Holgersson and his teammates are their own individuals, playing with their own styles, and, in my view, they are very good. Maybe they’re not in the same category as Mobley, Gordon, Dorham, or Hubbard, but who is? Speaking specifically about the saxophone player, Ulrik is a skillful saxophonist with a pleasant, contemplative, interesting style. He avoids the altissimo range, and his tone strikes me as being more diffuse than I would prefer—sometimes his ideas don’t get distinctly articulated—but that might even be a problem with how he was recorded. The other primary soloists, Presencer and Landaeus, are consistently excellent. If Mosey listened to this recording and felt “a great deal” is “missing” and he was referring to the improvising, then I just don’t agree, except that in many cases the solos should have gone on longer.
I do wish 4003 had some liner notes to explain Holgersson’s concept for this recording. (Once again, I bought the CD expecting to get some liner notes and got stiffed; shades of Keith Jarrett’s Sleeper CD.) Did he consider changing the arrangements and then decide against it? Did he mean this as a “tribute” recording which led him to refrain from alterations? (This recording could easily have been cast as a tribute to Art Blakey and/or Hank Mobley.)
In any case, I’m glad to have read Mosey’s review of 4003 and to have been led to Holgersson’s recording, which I think is very good. I’m also glad to have been led by 4003 to revisit some classic jazz performances and to check out some I’d never heard before.