Steel pan sounds phase in and out – or are they chime bars? or electronic sounds? – while a foghorn of a low, breathy, gritted tenor saxophone note blooms and fades around them. Echoed cymbal scrapes and depth-charge bass drum, along with electric fizzes and bleeps, act like glimpses of far galaxies and black holes in this quiet accretion of atmospheres – and then a swift dance motif kicks in on the drums and soprano saxophone declaims behind it.
Yep, this is familiar Food territory but somehow it always feels new and exploratory.
Food is drummer Thomas Stronen and saxophonist Iain Ballamy, and they alway like to have a guitarist along to help them. This time they have three – Christian Fennesz, Eivind Aarset and Prakash Sontakke, though Fennesz is on most tracks on his own, while Aarset and Sontakke appear together on just three. Not that any of them make conventional guitar sounds, you understand. That would not be appropriate for Food.
Oh, and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer makes a brief appearance, too.
Mercurial Balm is another magical album from the Norwegian drummer and the British saxophonist who have been playing together since 1998. Although the band’s sound changed subtly and became more strongly electronically manipulated when they became a duo – having originally started as a quartet with Arve Henriksen on trumpet and Mats Eilertsen on bass – there is a remarkable consistency and coherent flow through their albums from first to last.
That must be down to the strong musical characters of the central pair. Ballamy has always been a favourite of mine, right from Loose Tubes days, but it is Stronen who strikes me as the epitome of the 21st century jazz musician. He is just so talented, and, as if the sounds he makes coming out of your hi-fi isn’t fascinating enough, in live performance he is even more of a musical genius. Never has the label “drummer” seemed so inadequate (and apologies to all drummers if that statement sounds like a diminishing of your skills – it’s not meant to).
I know there are a lot of drummers in jazz who sees themselves as far more than mere time-keepers, but I’m not sure any other drummer plays quite such a multi-functional role. Stronen keeps a beat but he also paints a sound picture, he plays melodies and harmonies, he creates intricate sound sculptures and tells percussion stories. And in concert he seems to be three or four musicians all rolled up into one, apparently making it all up on the spot and in the moment.
He is also a terrific self-editor. There is always loads of space, and while he can make busy music he never makes overly cluttered music.
Mercurial Balm feels more beaty and perhaps more immediately accessible than its ECM predecessor, Quiet Inlet, but it is also possibly deeper and with more mysterious nooks and crannies. There is some lovely Hindustani singing from Sontakke, which fits in a treat, as does his unique approach to the slide guitar.
A beautiful and richly rounded album, and a masterclass in how to incorporate all the technology into the most organic sounding music, as well as a stunning example of how modern musicians can create in the moment in the most original ways. (The composition credits suggest that these are all spontaneous group compositions – a kind of contemporary “free jazz” too!)