Circulasione Totale Orchestra - "Yellow Bass & Silver Cornet Ii, Part 2" (Bandwidth)
When Norwegian saxophonist and clarinetist Frode Gjerstad first gravitated to free jazz in the 70s, he was out of step with the local scene. The pristine ECM Records sound that defined cutting edge had little in common with the fiery sounds that most inspired him, so he created his own opportunities by reaching out to foreign players like Englishman John Stevens and South African Johnny Dyani. As time passed he became the guy that younger musicians sought out; Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, to name just two, first related to him as a mentor, but have maintained close creative ties. They’re both on this three-disc behemoth, the Circulasione Totale Orchestra’s sixth album since its debut was released in 1989.
Gjerstad first conceived of the CTO as a jazz-rooted, poly-stylistic large ensemble of younger Norwegians, some more involved with rock and roll, that would play his compositions and get some acquaintance with free music. The Orchestra has gone through innumerable line-up changes and long dormant periods, but in recent years has made a strong comeback, even playing (with a host of Americans around at Scandinavian core) some concerts in the USA. Although it’s still Gjerstad’s band, he’s hardly its elder. Instead of convening a master class, he’s assembled a conference of esteemed improvisers that crosses generations and includes styles that probably weren’t on his radar when he founded the Orchestra in 1984. Cornetist Bobby Bradford is in his 70s and has played with Ornette Coleman; drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, who isn’t much younger, is a key figure in European free improv and South African jazz. Reed player Sabir Mateen and, on disc three, drummer Hamid Drake are Americans who represent NYC’s ecstatic jazz community and Chicago’s ascendant improv scene. Morten Johan Olsen, Anders Hana, and Lasse Marhaug quite literally bring the noise. Kevin Norton, Nick Stephens, Børre Mølstad, Paal Nilssen-Love, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and Per Zanussi round out the crew.
Bandwidth is culled from jazz festivals in Zurich, Molde, and Moers. It comes packaged in a nice three-panel digipak with the usual Rune Grammofon attention to design, but not a lot of information beyond the names of the players. There are no credits to indicate whether the music is composed or freely improvised, but there’s nary a music stand in sight in recent online pictures. But they’re certainly not following the same practice as, say, the Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, where they process of working out the music before the audience is the point. However the purposeful procession that the CTO accomplishes throughout this set suggests that they’re following some kind of guide. Sometime the ensemble swings madly behind a single soloist, other times a proliferation of colors frames exchanges between a few players. There’s enormous contrast, with woofer-blowing electronic fuzz butting against nimble percussion discussions and squalling saxes giving way to serene atmospheric explorations; the clarity and incisiveness that the group sustains as they negotiate these changes make this a far less daunting record than you might expect. Even so, it’s pretty hefty, and the listener who sets out to hear the whole thing is anteing up quite a commitment. Although each disc is divided into three or four tracks, they seem to be straightforward concert documents, so you’re in it for at least 45 minutes (the length of the shortest disc) at a stretch. This is not a record for dabblers, but neither does it deserve to be played once and parked on a shelf. Rather it’s an invitation to take this music as seriously and experience it as joyously as did the players who made it. On that count, the message comes through loud and clear.