Inland Empire

Inland Empire
Clean Feed CF 548 CD

By Ken Waxman

Cementing a Northern alliance, Canadian pianist Kris Davis joins Swedish tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Fredrik Ljungkvist and Norwegians, bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Øyvind Skarbø for six originals that slyly build on each player’s skills.

A mercurial stylist who often unexpectedly changes course in the middle of a tune, Davis’ “Surf Curl” vibrates with intermittent keyboard fluctuations. These quicken alongside reed peeps and tambourine-like smacks to invest the performance with nervous energy. Contrast this with her Arcadian patterning evolving in tandem with Ljungkvist’s rustic clarinet squeezes on his Jag Vet Inte. It’s a tune that’s so understated that Skarbo’s beat is the result of pulsed brush work. He makes up for that on his own Fighter which carves out space for a pugnacious drum break that’s all splatters and ruffs within a composition that’s as slinky and mysterious as a cop show sound track. Vågan’s string thumps here and his distinctive woody reprise on his tunes “Truffle Pigs” and “Katmandu Stray Dogs” are the bassist’s only features. But his cohesive pulse is a constant. Like Davis’ crimped asides or Ljungkvist’s theme variations cycling through multiple pitches and volumes, technical interludes usually evolve in duo situation or only briefly as singular showpieces. Group sensibility and keeping cohesion paramount throughout appear to be the CD’s aim. It fits with the common view of the musicians’ respective countries as reflections of non-aggressive competence. Clichés aside, musically this is one Inland Empire worth a visit.

-for The Whole Note October 2020