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“Mercurial Balm” is the second Food album on ECM and follows “Quiet Inlet” (ECm ECM 2163), released in 2010, of which The Guardian’s John Fordham wrote, “ECM’s scrupulousness about sound quality certainly counts here.‘Quiet Inlet’ vibrates with irresistibly fascinating detail and visceral excitement. Strønen ushers it in with a clamour of percussion and electronic sound, from rattlesnake fizzes to running feet, while Iain Ballamy’s soprano sax floats above... This is contemporary music through and through, with an urgent mix of acoustic and electronic sound.”

Originally formed as a quartet in 1998, Food was reconfigured in 2006, and has since revolved around the unit core of Norwegian drummer and electronics artist Thomas Strønen and UK saxophonist Iain Ballamy, joined by selected musicians for recordings and live performance. This open door policy has the double effect of keeping a sense of surprise alive in the work while also maintaining a sense of sonic continuity, a flexible group identity informed by Strønen’s floating grooves and sound-colouration and Ballamy’s strong melodic sense.

“We seek clear and solid ideas,” said Strønen recently to radio journalist Fiona Talkington, “There can be too much going on in a jazz ensemble, so we’re conscious to pare things down to what’s absolutely necessary. To express what you’re really trying to say without overplaying. It’s better to just give a clue, give small hints. Keeping everything open, but strong, that’s a difficult combination. A lot of people don’t realise that we’re making improvised music. People make assumptions, but in our case it’s pretty much everything. Music that has strong form can sound like composition.”

For this to work, however, like-minded players are needed who share, at least broadly, Food’s fondness for textural exploration, for lyrical non-idiomatic improvising, for minimalistic settings, but also for strong pulses and the creation of soundscapes, atmospheres and environments... Guest players require a sense for all of this, but there is room for other viewpoints, too. Iain Ballamy likens the process to a debate: “If everyone is agreeable it can make for a rather benign conversation. It often sounds more interesting to be counterintuitive musically, using unrelated rhythms, or tonalities which aren’t immediately obvious”.

Ballamy and Strønen record almost all their concerts. Material on “Mercurial Balm” was drawn from recordings at three locations, the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, the Victoria National Jazz Scene club in Oslo and Rainbow Studio.

This year’s guests are Christian Fennesz and Eivind Aarset on guitars and electronics, Nils Petter Molvær on trumpet and Prakash Sontakke on slide guitar and vocals. Sontakke’s innovative approach to the slide guitar conveys the expressive emotional range of Hindustani music in a freely improvised context, and it’s particularly interesting to hear him alongside Eivind Aarset whose use of drones in his own work often conjures ‘Eastern’ associations.

Prakash Sontakke makes his ECM debut on “Mercurial Balm”. Aarset has several earlier ECM appearances including Nils Petter Molvær’s landmark “Khmer” (ECM 1560) and “Solid Ether” (ECM 1722) albums, as well as his own newly-released “Dream Logic” album (ECM 2301). The rapport of Norwegian trumpeter Molvær and Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz with Food’s world was evidenced already on “Quiet Inlet”: both find new things to play here.

Further ECM recordings with Food personnel are in preparation. Next up is the project Quercus with Iain Ballamy, pianist Huw Warren and the great English folk singer June Tabor, for release in Spring 2013.

Thomas Strønen’s work outside Food includes the trio Meadow with John Taylor and Tore Brunborg, and Humcrush, variously a duo with keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and a trio with Storløkken and singer Sidsel Endresen. Strønen made his first appearance on ECM in 2004, as a member of the band Parish.

Food with Christian Fennesz plays Gdansk in Poland in November, bridging the Jazz Jantar Festival and the Dni Muzyki Nowej Festzival; a Food tour is planned for early 2013.

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