Mercurial Balm

Food - Thomas Strønen, Iain Ballamy


The Food team of Norwegian drummer Strønen and British saxophonist Ballamy continues to invite guests to bring something to the table. The form-and-texture conscious improvisations here are drawn from live performances in Norway, England and Germany and studio sessions at Oslo’s Rainbow. To the latter group belong tracks on which Indian slide guitarist and singer Prakash Sontakke is partnered by Eivind Aarset’s atmospheric guitar and electronics. The first half of the album finds Food augmented by Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz, taking further the experiments with layers of sound begun on Quiet Inlet. Nils Petter Molvær joins Strønen, Ballamy and Fennesz for a track recorded at Mannheim’s Enjoy Jazz Festival.

Die Gruppe Food um den norwegischen Schlagzeuger Strønen und den britischen Saxophonisten Ballamy lädt immer wieder Gäste zur kreativen Mitwirkung ein. Die form- und struktur-bewussten Improvisationen hier stammen aus Live-Auftritten in Norwegen, England und Deutschland, sowie Sessions in Oslos Rainbow Studio. Zu den Letzteren gehören auch Tracks, auf denen der indische Slide-Gitarrist und Sänger Prakash Sontakke von Eivind Aarsets atmosphärischen Gitarren- und Elektronikklängen ergänzt wird. Auf der ersten Hälfte des Albums wird Food von dem österreichischen Gitarristen Christian Fennesz unterstützt, mit dem sie die Experimente mit Klangschichten weitertreiben, die auf dem Album „Quiet Inlet“ begonnen hatten. Nils Petter Molvær gesellte sich für ein Stück, das beim Mannheimer Enjoy-Jazz-Festival aufgenommen wurde, zu Strønen, Ballamy und Fennesz.
Featured Artists Recorded


Original Release Date


  • 1Nebular
    (Christian Fennesz, Iain Ballamy, Thomas Strønen)
  • 2Celestial Food
    (Christian Fennesz, Iain Ballamy, Thomas Strønen)
  • 3Ascendant
    (Christian Fennesz, Iain Ballamy, Thomas Strønen)
  • 4Phase
    (Christian Fennesz, Iain Ballamy, Thomas Strønen)
  • 5Astral
    (Christian Fennesz, Iain Ballamy, Thomas Strønen)
  • 6Moonpie
    (Christian Fennesz, Iain Ballamy, Nils Petter Molvaer, Thomas Strønen)
  • 7Chanterelle
    (Eivind Aarset, Iain Ballamy, Prakash Sontakke, Thomas Strønen)
  • 8Mercurial Balm
    (Eivind Aarset, Iain Ballamy, Prakash Sontakke, Thomas Strønen)
  • 9Magnetosphere
    (Eivind Aarset, Iain Ballamy, Prakash Sontakke, Thomas Strønen)
  • 10Galactic Roll
    (Christian Fennesz, Iain Ballamy, Thomas Strønen)
“Mercurial Balm” is the second Food album on ECM and follows “Quiet Inlet”, 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” and “Solid Ether” albums, as well as his own newly-released “Dream Logic” album. 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.