Balans - Harald Lassen
Balans = Balance
Balans, Harald Lassen's fourth album, is a fascinating self-portrait of an improviser who finds freedom in a good song, a songwriter who invites listeners and fellow musicians to explore what he has created, and an artist who understands that the only valid taste is the personal.
It opens with high-pitched dialogue between saxophone and band in "Liturgi / Leave Me Be" and ends with a thoughtful piano monologue surrounded by forest sounds and electronic crackling on "Impromptu Wonder". It is an album that revolves around a bittersweet melancholy that is not resigned, but accepted, and which leaves room for new faith in art's possibility to make human connections.
As a saxophonist, Lassen has been influential in the Norwegian music scene through collaborations with Susanna Wallumrød, Anja Lauvdal (Moskus, Skadedyr), American singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins, the experimental club scene in Oslo, ECM legend Jon Christiansen, and smart pop with No.4, to name a few. His previous album, Human Samling, was nominated for the Spellemannprisen (Norwegian Grammy) for 2020. On Balans, he brings all of himself into play - the saxophonist, the pianist, and not least the songwriter with a precise pen, who finds clear meeting points between big, romantic feelings and the more enigmatic, the almost surreal. He himself often says that he appreciates how art does not require strict adherence to conventional "meaning": It can be a place where you arrive with your luggage, and that it makes room for you.
At the same time, Balans consolidates his preoccupation with how an album of instrumental music can constitute a personal musical narrative. The musical journey does not return to the beginning, but rather is concerned with changes in mood and textures. It tries to show you places, and it examines the unexpected things that happen when music that is fresh, spontaneous, and created in the moment encounters the creative possibilities of the studio.
The collaboration with technician Marcus Forsgren in Studio Paradiso has lasted a couple of albums now, and there are good reasons for that - they steer clear of grasping overproduction, but still don't shy away from occasional delicate overdubs, double-tracking of saxophone, and slightly adjusting the character of the various sound sources. It's certainly removed from the classic documentary jazz aesthetic, but it's also done with love for the spontaneity, for the detours and digressions, and how a small mistake can lead to new and fruitful opportunities. It is an aesthetically intermediate position - or a sense of balance, if you will.
The musicians Lassen brings with him on the road tell the story of how he got here. On the acoustic debut Rainbow Session, he established a collaboration with the Belgian pianist Bram de Looze, who makes a characteristically startling guest appearance on the song "Jeg Elsker Deg" here. On the second record, Eventyrer, the creative rhythm section of Stian Andreas Egeland Andersen (bass) and Tore Flatjord (drums and percussion) joined the fold. Here, the longer acoustic quartet songs were supplemented with small miniatures, characterized by studio play, extended experimentation and the natural field recordings that have stayed with him ever since. The 2020 album Human Samling contained a number of very interesting demonstrations of how a jazz band can record an album without being able to meet all together in the studio. It was also strongly coloured by the contributions of Sander Eriksen Nordahl, one of the most remarkable guitarists of his generation, who leaves his mark on everything from the sci-fi orchestra Billy Meier to Nordic favorites Darling West, and works with a very personal arsenal of sounds. For Balans, bassist Andersen has made a switch to electric bass, and the lineup has been further expanded with keyboardist and clarinetist Solveig Wang, one of the key figures in Oslo's new electronic improv scene, who is also an essential part of the generation-defining orchestra Fieh.
It is an ensemble that can take the music to many different places, and does so - from the quirky and almost idiotically catchy jazz pop on "Dada-Dadida" with a wonderful and characteristically sweet and sour Nordahl solo, to the dramatic, synth-influenced theme on "When He Sleeps", which could easily have disappeared into the cinematic landscape if it hadn't been for Flatjord's unusual choice of percussion and Lassen's familiar hum. That's Balans - a record that entices with Disney-like harmonies, soul jazz flute, mournful whistling, gospel vamp, electro-acoustic abstract excursions, great seriousness, and sly smiles. The list of ingredients is long and the result potentially explosive, but instead is perfectly contained surprise. Its source is genuine, and not only can this be heard, but it is also what keeps you listening.