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Midnight Suns

Eight standout albums of jazz and improvised music from Scandinavia

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SOLVEIG SLETTAHJELL | Good Rain | Curling Legs

When I listen to this Norwegian singer, it makes me embarrassed for Norah Jones. On her fourth album with the aptly named Slow Motion Quintet, Slettahjell swings across the lines between jazz and pop with confidence and grace, articulating gorgeous melodies with luxuriant patience and stunning pitch control. She doesn't solo, scat, or play loosey-goosey with her phrases, instead using more subtle variations to infuse her lines with depth of meaning--she never sings a word the same way from one chorus to the next, for instance. Her band, which includes keyboardist Morten Qvenild (In the Country, Susanna & the Magical Orchestra) and trumpeter Sjur Miljeteig (Jaga Jazzist), demonstrates similar restraint, creating interest with detailed arrangements that emphasize a different layer or texture with each pass through a section. Whether you're paying attention to the vocalist or the instrumentalists, you'll have something new to discover with every spin.

INGAR ZACH | In | Kning Disk

This Norwegian percussionist, now based in Madrid, first made his mark as a free improviser (he visited Chicago a couple times in the trio Tri-Dim with guitarist David Stackenas and reedist Hakon Kornstad), but he's since channeled his energies into abstract sound pieces that follow preconceived structures. His solo record In is a single 26-minute track of muffled clatter and wobbly, resonating drones that steadily builds in density and tension as it progresses. Aside from rolling on what sounds like a bass drum, Zach does very little conventional drumming--instead he bows and rubs drumheads and cymbals, cajoles objects in metal bowls into motion using handheld electric fans, and amplifies a simple harmonium called a sruti box. The resulting body of sound almost seems to breathe.

SIDSEL ENDRESEN | One | Sofa

For nearly three decades Sidsel Endresen has been seeking out unusual settings for her parched, lovely singing. The approach she's developed incorporates radical wordless improvisation and Nordic folk music--sometimes singly, sometimes together. There's no trace of folk on One, a fiercely experimental solo outing--in fact there are no melodies at all. Instead Endresen uses a wide array of unconventional techniques: long windlike sibilances, choked consonants, clacks and clicks made with the tongue and lips, and a veritable encyclopedia of glottal skitters. Easy listening it ain't, but it leaves little doubt that she's working territory that's all her own.

FREDRIK LJUNGKVIST & YUN KAN 5 | Badaling | Caprice

Swedish reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist, best known these days as one of the primary composers in the great Norwegian-Swedish quintet Atomic, expands on his already strong postbop songwriting with the second album by his band Yun Kan 5. He leans harder on extended passages of wide-open improvisation and tightly arranged unison lines, and though his tunes are unpredictable--he never uses head-solos-head "jazz" structures--they always sound fluid and organic. This quintet has two low-end players, bassist Mattias Welin and tubaist Per-Ake Holmlander, and it's a credit to Ljungkvist's skill as an arranger that their intersecting lines support each other while remaining distinct. And no matter what band he's playing in, it's a treat to hear Ljungkvist take a solo.

ARVE HENRIKSEN | Strjon | Rune Grammofon

Norway's Arve Henriksen, a member of the quartet Supersilent and one of the most distinctive and original trumpeters to emerge in the past decade, recorded with Supersilent bandmates Stale Storlokken (keyboard) and Helge Sten (guitar) for his third solo album. Henriksen has a plush, painterly sound, without any of the acid bite the trumpet is capable of; on his first solo disc he convincingly imitated a shakuhachi, and here he uses a malleable tone that's remarkably like a human voice. His horn sobs more than it wails, and moves so fluidly from note to note it's hard to believe it has valves. Henriksen developed most of the dozen pieces here from fragments of old home recordings (some of which he made decades ago, while still in his teens), and they're all more like studies than tunes--free-floating bits of melody drifting like clouds, changing shape to accommodate whatever they blow into.

STEN SANDELL TRIO | Oval | Intakt

The third album by Swedish pianist Sten Sandell with his regular trio--drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Johan Berthling--is a roiling blast of free improvisation. Tensions between the players constantly shift, and the motion of the music as a whole swings from static and suspenseful to blisteringly hard driving. Sandell, perhaps best known as Mats Gustafsson's bandmate in Gush, is particularly interested in microtones--an odd obsession for a guy who plays a tempered instrument. In the past he's added organ or harmonium and taught himself to throat sing, all in an attempt to create the illusion that he's playing between the notes, and on Oval he uses several techniques in combination to create a similar effect: whanging on the keys in an all-out physical attack, manipulating the foot pedals, damping strings or otherwise tinkering inside the piano, and playing odd harmonies with Berthling. Sandell favors low-end rumbling, and the rest of the trio shares his love for bass--which makes his right-hand figures leap out like the flash of a razor.

ZANUSSI FIVE | Alborado | Moserobie

Led by Per Zanussi, a Norwegian bassist who occasionally plays musical saw, this quintet has a three-saxophone front line that includes Rolf-Erik Nystrom, who visited Chicago last fall with Poing. The reedists bring an impressive emotional range to Zanussi's tunes, which run from lush Ellingtonian balladry to balls-out blowups a la the Vandermark 5--sometimes in the same piece. Zanussi makes the most of the reedists too: his scrappy, ingenious arrangements use sharp counterpoint and spectrum-filling harmonies to create a mini big-band sound.

OLA KVERNBERG TRIO | Night Driver | Jazzland

This young Norwegian violinist got his start playing Gypsy jazz a la Stephane Grappelli, but lately he's broadened his horizons--last year, for instance, he turned up on a noisy, jagged quintet album by bassist Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten (now a Chicago resident). His own beautiful new trio disc, Night Driver, isn't as aggressive, but it's impressively diverse. Bassist Steinar Raknes and drummer Erik Nylander craft huge grooves, sometimes loping and sometimes frenetic, but no matter how busy they get, Kvernberg always has loads of room to maneuver, all alone on the front line. Wise beyond his years, he doesn't race to fill that space: one of the best things about this album is the way he occasionally plays slow-moving, dilated lines against the churning rhythm section. He muddies up his tone with a bit of amplification, but he still sounds ebullient on country--flavored originals, hot jazz numbers, a tune reminiscent of Radiohead, and even a piece based on a traditional Gambian song.

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