The Scandinavian quintet Atomic are now entering, in piano player Haavard Wiiks words, "our difficult second box set-phase". Not too many years have passed since their universally acclaimed 3-disk bonanza The Bikini Tapes, but now they are at it again with Retrograde. The triple collection is bursting with exciting new material that is further advancing the legacy of this stellar jazz combo. Their initial goal of combining the american Fire music of the sixties with the advanced stylings of european improvisational music have since long been achieved, and they are now constantly refining and/or attacking their own tradition.
One of the most memorable tracks on Retrograde can be found on disk one, titled "Invisible cities", composed by Wiik, who alongside reed player Fredrik Ljungkvist writes most of the tunes. It may very well be a tip of the hat to the Italian author Italo Calvino, and his book of the same title from 1972, where we in short chapters are introduced to some fantastically invented cities, as told by adventurer Marco Polo to the emperor Kublai Khan. The cities are fictionalised, but still exist somehow, in the imagination of the narrator - and the listener, as shades of societies past and present, and possibly future ones as well. Likewise: The compositions on Retrograde all evoke images of substantial volume and scope: It is the world atomized. It may also be a more prosaic reference to the fact that the members of Atomic, however tightly knit as a performing unit, live in four separate cities, in four different countries. Magnus Broo (trumpet) and the aforementioned Ljungkvist (saxophone, clarinet) are inhabitants of Stockholm, Sweden, and have been working together for so long that finishing each others musical sentences could be continued while enduring water torture. The Norwegian delegation have been playing together since their early twenties. Paal Nilssen-Love carries his drum kit around the world, from his home base in Oslo, while Wiik resides in Berlin, Germany. And look to the windy city of Chicago, USA for the bass thump of Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. Might as well make the most of it when they do find the time to meet up in the same room! This creative outburst is evident on the two disks of studio material.
But there are other cities represented on this box set as well. "Live in Seattle" was recorded some six months after these studio sessions, and you can sense how developed the compositions have become during the year. The recording sound is knocked out and beautiful, or is that a description of the audience? The disk plays its part in the package as a supplement, to shed light on the very nature of the new material. For our listening pleasure there are also two older Håvard Wiik compositions on this disk presented in glorious new effect, from the starter "Crux" all the way to the typewriter machinegun attack of the final track "ABC 101B".
But the new material most certainly rank among the most precious moments in Atomics eight year long career. Wiik and Ljungkvists material show off their compositional and improvisational skills at full force. But make sure to lend an ear to the tunes by Broo, the funked-up live showstopper "Painbody" (dont ask), and Håker Flatens majestic "Swedish Oklahoma in the desert of love" (dont ask). The albums title refers to the action of moving backwards, but this must surely be a joke. Retrograde is the sound of a band near its peak, but let us hope they never really reach it.