How do you follow up a highly acclaimed trio of albums? Where many groups would procrastinate and fret, Motif took a different road: release a triple album. In days of old, a triple album would have been immense ... but were not talking about 3 vinyl platters here: 3 CDs! A full 160+ minutes of music! And better yet, its "all killer, no filler!" And so, we begin as we must: Jazzland Recordings is proud to present "Facienda", the truly remarkable 3-volume album from Motif.
Much has been made of the rhythm section of bassist Ole Morten Vågan (composer of all but one of the pieces on offer) and drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen - and rightly so. On these 3 disks, you get the full range of exploration and invention, sometimes within a single piece. Straight rhythm playing can burst into chaos, or break down into scratching strings or drumsticks squeakily rubbing across cymbals. Johansen has several highlights, notably on "Biggie", where the straightforward idea of a "drum solo" becomes something much more structured in feel, as though composed rather than battered out in lulls and crescendos. And witness Vågans solo on "The Intimacy of Open Doors" as an example of expression and restraint, emotion, and intellectually superior spontaneous composition. It is a truly beautiful moment.
Melody and harmony duck and weave among seemingly erratic textures with catlike ease, breaking into virtuoso solos, before backflipping into restatements of the theme (dare we say "motif"?). Haavard Wiik - fast becoming one of the most potent forces in the Scandinavian Jazz Scene - opens doors through seemingly impenetrable walls of free jazz, and then dives headlong into the fray with a near-gleeful abandon.
Atle Nymos saxophone leapfrogs between velvet tones, goosehonking raunchiness and supersonic squeals with a mixture of intensity and purpose that seemingly defies explanation yet never takes a wrong turn. Equally defiant of easy classification is Eivind Lonnings trumpet ... pulling out harmonic overtones, undertones, and possibly a few tones that lie outside normal musical theory (parallel tones???) he can create moments that feel like careful brushstrokes or mad frustrated scribbling. And just in case you ever become comfortable with your Jazzheads hyper-analysis at full throttle, there are moments where you cant be certain that youre hearing a sax or a trumpet ... and you very well could be hearing both!
This music is pure protein brainfood on one level, but is packed with enough emotional nutrients, almost-comedic carbohydrates, and high-energy fat that there is a full meal on offer, no matter what species of Jazz cuisine you prefer.
Compare tracks like "Seksten" and "Biggie" on the Studio recordings of Volume 1 - the contrast is stark, almost like comparing two totally different groups with entirely different ambitions. Yet the same techniques and skills inform both. What was like free jazz meets Minguss "Fables of Faubus" in "Biggie" becomes unsettling, atmospheric and very close to ambient textures in "Seksten". The track titles often offer hints rather than clear directions - a process which may well mirror the compositional process. Ranging from the purely intellectual ("Die Kunst") to the near-dismissive ("I Distinctly Heard the Sound of A Mexican Rhythm Combo") to hints of socio-political commentary ("Korean Barbecue Smokeout") to the plain silly ("Paddy Whack"), the track titles are never anything other than perfect, capturing the vibe of the music theyre attached to.
Elements of classical chamber music jostle and rub shoulders with free jazz, Zappaesque humour, the IDM intensity of Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, as well as more traditional pre-bop jazz.
Moving out of the studio, Volumes 2 & 3 present Motif in the Live environment - arguably the true home of Jazz music. The majority of material on offer is brand new, and features extended or altered line-ups. Volume 2 (recorded before highly appreciative audiences in Victoria in Oslo and the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in 2009) sees the addition of Håkon Kornstad on Saxophone, Petter Vågan on guitar, Mattias Ståhl on Vibraphone, Ola Kvernberg on violin and Mathias Eick taking up trumpet duties on two of the tracks. Again, the sheer variety is striking: "Krakatau" begins with a fantastic and expressive extended solo from Ole Morten Vågan, and moves into a kind of broken-down ballad (and another fantastic solo from Wiik), before ascending to an eruption of sound from the full combo, and returning to an atmospheric reiteration of the theme; meanwhile, a track like "I Distinctly Heard the Sound of a Mexican Rhythm Combo" lives up to its name, offering a distinctly post-Zappa Latin feeling and fantastically fluid guitar solo from Petter Vågan that seems to be trying to escape across the Mexican border; and then a track like "Korean Barbecue Smokeout" gives us the kind of whimsical seriousness that has become something of a trademark for the group, while embedding it in unsettling passages of expressionistic ambience. Within the frameworks of the compositions, each performer is given a remarkable amount of space, and not one cubic milimeter of that space is wasted. The dual saxophones of Nymo and Kornstad intertwine and counterpoint each other perfectly (Note "Toobaii" in particular, with more than half of its almost 13 minutes given to a steady build-up based on this duo before the theme appears), while the addition of Ståhls vibes and Petter Vågans guitar presents new textures that the core combo of Motif respond to with both sensitivity and enthusiasm. Wiiks piano is as melodic and magical as always (yet has a different elemental core from his work in his trio or with Atomic). While it might be straightforward to classify Motif as a strain of Free Jazz, it is clear that they have as much in common with modern classical chamber music, never stumbling into all-out muscular high-energy performance for prolonged periods, opting instead for short bursts of chaotic revelry underpinned by carefully studied creation of textures.
Volume 3 presents one additional track recorded at Victoria, while the rest of the material is taken from performances at Pit Inn in Tokyo and the Molde Jazzfestival. This time, it is the core five members (with Mathias Eick appearing only on "Allkiis", recorded at Victoria). The feeling of considered urban (and urbane) jazz mixes with a kind of atavistic and primitive wandering, but never lingers in either mode for so long that you lose attention. "Spacewalk", "What Not", and the eponymous title track from "Apo Calypso", their third album (and first Jazzland Recordings release of 2008) appear here, giving a clear picture of the similarities and differences between Motif in the studio and the Live environment. "Spacewalk" races along, never settling anywhere unsurprising. Johansens drums play a larger role on this disk, with a number of great solos, as well as a higher energy level than Volume 2. He also displays a marvellous sense of the overall piece in his solos, winding them down as often as building them up in returning to the compositional theme - a trait rare in drummers, and a further demonstration of why he and Vågan are in increasing demand as a rhythm section. Wiiks piano sparkles wherever it goes, bringing a sense of light to pieces that could easily remain dark and perhaps even foreboding. "Death In Tokyo" again offers the kind of atmospheric improvisation found previously on tracks like "Immunofluorescence", Vågan exploring every possibility his bass has to offer. The ghost of Frank Zappa is nowhere more present than on "Tunnelvision", a fantastic rhapsody that contains some of Nymos finest playing and brilliant drumming from Johansen. Even at its most energetic, the track never loses focus. The closer, the amazing "Apo Calypso" plays with the listener, taking unexpected angular turns between styles and time signatures, sometimes breaking down, sometimes building up, sometimes popping like a balloon, sometimes winding down slowly. And the track manages to disappear for a full three minutes before returning for a beautiful coda! Only Motif would have the nerve to pull this trick off.
And it is this playfulness mixed with intellectual depth and emotional expression that sets Motif apart. Repeated listens offer more each time, new surprises, realisations of how things connect, subtleties that escaped on the first go around. With "Facienda", Motif raise the bar once again for what jazz in the 21st Century can be.