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The second ECM album by Norwegian cooperative group The Source gets back to basics. Since its formation in 1993, when founder-members Trygve Seim, Øyvind Brække and Per Oddvar Johansen were all students at the Trøndelag Conservatory of Music in Trondheim, The Source has been very much a moveable feast, its motto, “No two concerts alike!” The group has embraced the wildest stylistic collisions, working variously with poets and DJs, rai vocalists and rappers, ice hockey players, and conceptual and performance artists. Their collaborators have ranged from rock band Motorpsycho to classical musicians including the Cikada String Quartet (as on their 2000 ECM recording The Source and Different Cikadas). Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of their performances have been as a quartet, most of their music was written for quartet, and this eponymously titled disc addresses a backlog of much-played material whose appearance on disc is overdue.

The elemental and unembellished Source is a revelation: a sax-trombone-bass-drums band whose collective playing stands up alongside the work of the best exponents of this unusual instrumentation (the New York Art Quartet, for instance, or the Archie Shepp/Roswell Rudd group, or Albert Mangelsdorff’s quartet with Heinz Sauer), while compositionally The Source is in a league of its own. The Source features exceptionally well-crafted material, played with wit and fire and flair, by a band that can be ‘free’ and precise simultaneously. “Not having a chordal instrument in the line-up gives us a lot of room to move, and makes the music much more open,” says Trygve Seim.

On The Source and Different Cikadas and on Trgyve Seim’s albums Different Rivers and Sangam the saxophonist and trombonist Øyvind Brække gave evidence of their growing interest in ‘eastern’ sonorities and sounds inspired by the bansuri flute, the shakuhachi and the duduk, and what Brække has described as “the search for a breathing, minimal, yet warm and spontaneous kind of music.” On the present disc such colours surface especially on drummer Per Oddvar Johansen’s two pieces, “Tamboura Rasa” and “Mmball”, the latter a reprise of a piece heard on The Source and Different Cikadas, rearranged and included at producer Manfred Eicher’s urging.

Yet in total this feels more like a ‘jazz’ disc than its predecessors. Seim agrees: “Most of the material this time is Øyvind’s and, in some ways, he is more ‘jazz’ than I am. And when the group started out, we listened a lot to Ornette Coleman’s (late 60s/early 1970s) quartet with Dewey Redman, that was definitely one of our models, one of our main inspirations, we used to play their songs, and I think some of this recording has an energy related to that .” In the sequence of Brække pieces that comprises the second half of the programme, this feeling is underlined by Mat Eilertsen’s Haden-like bass drive. Eilertsen, a powerful player who has previously appeared on ECM recordings with Jacob Young (Evening Falls) and Thomas Strønen/Bobo Stenson (Parish), and whose own groups have at different times included Brække and Seim, joined the group shortly before the recording of The Source. He replaces Finn Guttormsen, who in turn replaced original bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten.

Brække’s “Caballero” which opens the programme is as old as The Source. Now cunningly adapted for quartet, it was originally written in 1993 for a big band project. The “Caballero” of the title is Cervantes’ Quixote, tilting at windmills, and it has an indirect connection also to the Spanish bolero. Seim’s “Un Fingo Andalou” also goes back to the group’s beginnings, and has several inspirational sources, including the Salvador Dali/Luis Buñuel film “Un Chien Andalou”, The Source’s early success at a jazz competition in Bilbao, and Edward Vesala’s adaptations of Finnish tango. None of this explains why Seim’s solo and the melody itself seem to fall into the cadences of Albert Ayler: “I like Ayler, but have never studied him closely. But of course Garbarek loved Ayler and I was strongly influenced by Jan, so that’s likely where that’s coming from.”

Edward Vesala’s conception of the free ballad has also been important for the Source (and many other northern bands). Seim played with the drummer-composer’s last group, and learned the piece “Libanera” from him. He continues to play music from the Vesala camp in the group of Edward’s widow, Iro Haarla (refer to the album Northbound). Vesala is also one of several references embedded in the closing “A Surrender Tryptich”. Øyvind Brække: “We have lots of links to Edward Vesala, and the ‘Tryptich’ title, as well as being descriptive of the three-part form of the piece, also acknowledges the Garbarek/Andersen/Vesala group that played on ‘Triptykon’ – it relates to that musical area.” (The title also makes a philosophical point about ‘surrender’. In the modern world, Braekke says, the concept of “acceptance” gets aired too infrequently. “National and individual interest revolves so much around the idea of attack and defence. But it is possible to try to be happy with what you have in life.”)

The bracing “Life So Far” is described by Øyvind Brække as “a tribute to Keith Jarrett’s ‘Belonging’ band. It also reflects The Source’s ability to play in and out of a loose tempo with a lot of energy.” Brække’s “Østerled”, meanwhile, “is inspired by old Viking roots. It was motivated by a tour to Russia, to Siberia, in 1998. I wrote this piece for that journey and it sounds somehow ‘Russian’ to me. It has that minor tonality and sense of melancholy.” Well-known in the Oslo area as an arranger for big bands, Øyvind Braekke has toured with Chick Corea and the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra as well as The Source and the group Pocket Corner and as freelancer performs in jazz, rock, Latin and free improvised settings. “Mail Me or Leave Me”, “a humorous piece” plays around with “pop bass lines and Latin grooves” derived from these freelance experiences.

Seim has played with a number of great drummers but values none more highly than Per Oddvar Johansen. “Per Oddvar was largely responsible for getting me to listen to the more free varieties of improvisation in the first place, and he’s amazingly responsive as a drummer. I can’t think of another player who works so purely with the music, with what is there, who is so consistently interactive, and who is so little concerned with self-display. He’s the most fascinating drummer I know.

“Øyvind has a similar character in some ways. Only in it for the music, not for his ego. He always makes these great pieces out of small ideas and somehow even the most simple of his compositions is also intricate – there are so many layers, and I always feel conscious thought behind his musical decisions. There’s nothing superfluous in his writing.”

Brække’s bell-clear sound bears little resemblance to that of the pioneering New Thing trombonists. He suggests that this may be because he has been “more inspired by trumpet players. And even in ‘free’ playing I’m probably more melodically oriented than George Lewis, say, or Roswell Rudd. But the biggest influence has been really this band and the way it has developed with the interplay between the two horns and the drums. Trygve and I are always taking our tonality and chords from each other, and that’s the characteristic quality of this group.”