Mattias Ståhl reps the vibe for Europe

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The vibraphone remains a staple in jazz music, yet within the genre it's ultimately not a particularly popular instrument. Chicago, for instance, can only boast a handful of serious full-time players—Jason Adasiewicz, Justin Thomas, and Jim Cooper are the ones that spring to mind, and Cooper hasn't lived in town since the late 90s. Plenty of percussionists include the instrument within their arsenal, but it's only a part, not the main battery; Adasiewicz and Thomas are part of a relatively recent wave of new voices on the instrument that also includes Chris Dingman, Matt Moran, Warren Wolf, and James Westfall. Europe seems to have an even more serious drought in terms of youngish vibists, which makes the work of Swedish mallet master Mattias Ståhl all the more special. To these ears, he's as good as any of his American counterparts, and only Adasiewicz—with his aggressive, supersaturated style—can top him in terms of forging new aesthetic models. Ståhl's tone and style hark back to lesser-known geniuses on the instrument like Teddy Charles and Walt Dickerson, eschewing the wide-open vibrato of Milt Jackson, but his melodic shapes, sense of dynamics, and group interactions are thoroughly modern.

I saw Ståhl perform as part of a quintet led by the excellent Swedish pianist Cecilia Persson in Lulea, Sweden, a few years ago, and although I had admired some of his recorded work, his playing there knocked me out. We chatted, and after I remarked that his thick beard and glasses made him come off like the Swedish Adasiewicz, he told me he'd often heard that (Adasiewicz says people have made similar comments on numerous occasions). But their shared penchant for improvisation and group interplay are more meaningful than the beard and glasses—those can be removed, but good taste is inherent. Last year Ståhl further impressed me on a deft, chamberlike trio album made with clarinetist Fredrik Ljungkvist (Atomic) and bassist Patric Thorman (Seval) called Två for Tommy (Found You). There he niftily triangulated between harmony provider and rhythm maker, and reacted with impressive alacrity and empathy to the elegantly swinging contributions of his partners. Of course, he also contributed his fair share of tuneful, dynamically varied solos.

But I'm even more floored by the new Jag Skulle Bara Gå Ut (Moserobie), a fantastic trio album with bassist Joe Williamson and drummer Christopher Cantillo. On the surface the music is more conventional—it swings, it's melodic, and the group interprets durable themes by the likes of Duke Ellington and the great Swedish pianist Jan Johansson—but closer inspection reveals an attractively knotty, rumbling quality to the music, especially in the work of Cantillo, who manages to push the music forward while giving it some heft and tension, dragging objects across and scraping and thwacking at his kit as much as he uses sticks and brushes on its heads. Likewise, Williamson alternates walking patterns with viscous arco lines and thick, tangled flurries. The album opens with a raucous spin on Ellington's "The Mooche" (which you can check out below), and right from the start there's something about it that reminds me of the quicksilver energy and spontaneity of the pianist's classic Money Jungle album with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. The band injects a heavy backbeat into its energetic treatment of "Did You Give the World Some Love Today, Baby?"—a song originally recorded by the Swedish cult singer Doris, who's been rediscovered of late—while "Formaldehyde," a tune by Williamson, veers from tension-building clatter to moments of sublime lyric beauty. The trio nails the tenderness of Johansson's special strain of folk-jazz, and the album closes with a killer version of Sun Ra's "Satellites are Spinning." Few adventurous jazz records I've heard this year are this subtle. Or this good.


Today's playlist:

Thomas Köner, Novaya Zemlya (Touch)
David Lang, Pierced (Naxos)
Moacir Santos, Maestro (Blue Note, Japan)
Hiss Golden Messenger, Poor Moon (Tompkins Square)
Frode Haltli, Arne Nordheim: Complete Accordion Works (Simax Classics)

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