Cortex, Norway's great new jazz group, returns to Chicago

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Cortex - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • courtesy of the artist
  • Cortex
With the annual Chicago Jazz Festival stealing all of the attention this weekend I think it's important to remember that jazz shows happen in Chicago every day, and once the fest shuts down Sunday the music doesn't go anywhere. For example, in this week's paper I wrote about the local debut on Wednesday of LA sax phenomenon Kamasi Washington at Bottom Lounge, and on that same night one of the best bands in Norway returns to Chicago when Cortex plays Constellation.

The band has been referred to as the new Atomic—never mind that the "old" Atomic is still very much active and playing at a high level—and Cortex does convey a similar embrace of 60s freebop models with a contemporary vocabulary. Last year the group released its third and best album Live! (Clean Feed), which captures a charged performance taped in Oslo in December of 2013. (Full disclosure: I contributed liner notes for a new vinyl version of the album due soon from the same label). The frontline of cornetist Thomas Johansson (recently heard in Chicago as a member of Paal Nilssen-Love's Large Unit in June) and saxophonist Kristoffer Alberts is formidable—they play post-Ornette melodies with precision and spirit, attacking attractive themes in both dead-on overlapping patterns and yin-yang counterpoint, even when they move away from lines written for improvised variations. They're both killer soloists, subtly dropping in flashes of extended technique in composerly improvisations that open up every tune. It certainly helps that the dynamic rhythm section of bassist Ola Høyer and drummer Gard Nilssen provide such a rich foundation by propelling the music, adding muscle, and dropping accents that keep the frontline on its toes.

Cortex seems to be part of a new wave of Norwegian improvised music that's rejecting some of the more ethereal, highly measured sounds that have been the cause of the useless phrase "Nordic tone" and the tired suggestion that everything is a response to fjords and mountains. While some artists have voiced downright animosity for American jazz, the members of Cortex understand their inspirations even as they push the art form in new directions. As much as I love musicians trying radical new things, sometimes there's nothing more satisfying than hearing a young band embrace tradition in their own way—making the mixture of blues, swing, and grit sound like the greatest thing in the world. Below you can check out "Cerebrum" from the latest album.


Today's playlist:

Jeff Ballard Trio, Time's Tales (OKeh)
András Schiff, Leos Janácek: A Recollection (ECM)
Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, Landmarks (Blue Note)
Matthew Barnson, Sibyl Tones (Tzadik)
Steve Lehman Octet, Mise en Abîme (Pi)


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