Anna Högberg is not fucking around. Had the Swedish alto saxophonist been around 40 years ago, her no-nonsense demeanor and fierce commitment to her art might have made her the model for a character in one of Tove Jansson‘s novels. She works a lot, leading three major projects — the trio Doglife, the quartet/quintet Se och Hör (“see and hear” in Swedish), and the sextet Anna Högberg Attack. She’s also been a member of Mats Gustafsson‘s Fire! Orchestra since its inception, and plays in other groups and improv situations as opportunities arise.
Anna Högberg Attack has recently released its second album, Lena. The group’s self-titled debut was recorded in 2015 and released the following year, and featured Elin Forkelid on tenor saxophone, Malin Wättring on tenor and soprano saxophone, Lisa Ullén on piano, Elsa Bergman on bass, and Anna Lund on drums. (I reviewed it here in 2017.) Lena was recorded in December 2019, and features one change to the lineup: Wättring is out, and trumpeter Niklas Barnö is in.
The debut fit seven tracks into 42 minutes, and the follow-up is even more concise, offering just six tracks in 40 minutes. The basic compositional strategy is the same as it was the last time: these are pieces that acknowledge free jazz as a language, and speak it with fluency and verve. The first track, “Pappa Kom Hem” (“Dad Came Home”) opens with an extended stretch of long sax tones, pushed so far and so hard that the notes begin to decay like the reed is dissolving as she goes. After about a minute and a half, the other horns come in, honking like cars stuck in traffic, and the rhythm section lands like they hurled their instruments off a roof, playing all the way to the ground. In the final 45 seconds or so, they settle in for an Albert Ayler-esque march-into-or-out-of-hell fanfare. It’s a positively room-clearing way to open an album, but it sets the tone very well. You’re either in or you’re out.
The next piece, “Det Är Inte För Sent” (“It Is Not Too Late”), kicks off with a drum solo that sounds like it was played on a kit made of cardboard boxes and small Chinese gongs, with an astonishing amount of reverb on the cymbals. When Lund settles down, Ullén (who made a fantastic triple CD of solo music a couple of years ago) comes in, quiet but creepy, striking underwater almost-right notes that make me think Tom Waits is going to start muttering any second. Instead, Barnö offers a series of stifled, whistling phrases like air escaping a balloon that gradually rev up into something one could honestly describe as a “trumpet solo.”
“Dansa Margit” is the most conventionally melodic and riff-based piece on the record, at first anyway. It starts with a big bass groove, some pumping piano, and an almost Blue Note-ish horn line, but Forkelid’s tenor saxophone solo gets fiercer and fiercer until eventually the entire band just gives up and lets her go off. She’s out there alone for a full two minutes, until eventually she notices, like Wile E. Coyote noticing he’s run off a cliff again, and she starts playing a single phrase over and over to lure the others back. It works.
The album’s longest track, the 10-minute “Tjuv” (“Thief”), kicks off its second half. It sounds directly inspired by Cecil Taylor‘s Conquistador!, if he’d only had access to the half-out-of-tune piano he played at the Café Montmartre in 1962. The horns do a lot of unison shouting at first, as Ullén and Lund go all out like nobody else is even in the room. Once the rhythm section drops out, the other three begin a polyphonic eruption that congeals somewhat miraculously into a complex unison line, which eventually draws Bergman back into the fray, with the other two showing up after a while.
Lena is a stronger album than the debut; Anna Högberg Attack have spent the time necessary to really develop a voice of their own. Högberg herself is an excellent composer (all the pieces are hers, and the musicians take what she gives them and run wild with it). She recognizes the strength of the ensemble, and lets others take more spotlight turns than she does, but her voice is unmistakable throughout. This is likely to be one of the best “free jazz” albums of 2020. Stuck at home? Buy it on Bandcamp and crank it up.
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