Motif is a Norwegian quartet (saxophonist Atle Nymo, pianist Håvard Wiik, bassist Ole Morten Vågan, drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen) that used to be a quintet. Trumpeter Eivind Lønning left in 2010, so for this record, their Clean Feed debut, they brought in a ringer: German experimental trumpeter Axel Dörner. They have four prior releases – 2004’s self-titled debut, 2006’s Expansion, 2008’s Apo Calypso, and last year, they put out a three-CD box, Facienda. I haven’t heard any of those records.
Musically, this disc is kind of bipolar. Dörner starts things off with nearly three minutes of scrowling, hissing and plosive bursts of air through the trumpet, without lowering himself to anything so vulgar as playing notes, but this is a mere (anti-)fanfare, as the band soon launches itself into relatively conventional, even swinging jazz territory on the first proper composition, “Moccasino,” and the trumpeter joins right in. After the head, though, the solos are squiggly and unadorned, the rhythm players dropping away entirely as Dörner and Nymo squawk and squabble. After a moment or two, Wiik rejoins, picking out a cautious melody before the full band resumes, trumpet and sax blowing long, long tones as the rhythm lurches around like an insect trying to flip itself off its back after being upended. Eventually, it all comes together again.
There’s a lot of code-switching like that throughout; the pieces (two of which, “Krakatau” and “Korean Barbeque Smokeout,” appeared in live versions on Facienda) are half-abstruse, half-gutbucket, and the result is weirdly exhilarating, not at all what one might come in expecting. In some ways, the group reminds me of Mostly Other People Do The Killing, minus the overt sense of pastiche. There’s humor here, but it’s not self-mocking; it’s just a kind of exuberance that’ll make you laugh in a childish-joy sort of way.
The group plays with great force, particularly bassist/bandleader Vågan; he slaps and yanks the strings with a brutal efficiency, and he leads the group through some ferocious grooves, particularly on “Lines for Swines,” which has an almost Charles Mingus-esque energy to it. On “Something for the Ladies,” Nymo switches from tenor sax to bass clarinet—I don’t know that I’ve ever considered the bass clarinet an instrument of seduction, and even if I had, his valve-flapping solo on this piece would leave me thoroughly unconvinced. It’s only at about the halfway point, when it begins to swing (like a corpse on a rope), that the group really puts their strengths on display, particularly drummer Johansen, who tosses in lots of little filigrees. But when it gets going, it really goes, and the same is true of pretty much every track on Art Transplant.
This CD arrived unexpectedly, I put it in the player on a whim, and was very pleasantly surprised by what I heard. Dörner’s opening solo piece, which I’m unlikely to ever play again, is the sole exception; it’s just too reminiscent of the sounds in horror movies about evil locations, like Session 9 or Yellowbrickroad, for my taste. Motif have just enough hard bop and swing at the core of their lurching free jazz to keep my melodic “sweet tooth” satisfied, while displaying all the “extended technique” any fan of Euro improv could ask for.
By way of illustration, here’s a video clip of the band playing “Lines for Swines” live in May of this year: