The nomadic lifestyle of the collaboration-hungry musician seems to fit Ingebrigt Haker Flaten like strung horsehair does a bass bow. In this regard, he has much in common with bassist Peter Kowald, who made it his mission to seek out like-minded musicians with geographical distance greeted not as a deal-breaking hindrance, but merely as an obstacle to be overcome. In Flaten’s case, this meant travelling frequently from his native Norway and even picking up stakes entirely for relocations to Chicago and most recently Austin, Texas. Along the way, he’s amassed credentials playing with some of the leading luminaries in improvised music including Mats Gustafsson (as part of the free jazz power trio The Thing), Joe McPhee, Atomic and a legion of others. The consistency of that collaborative drive makes two of these three recent releases under his auspices all the more interesting; they feature him with only his own devices to rely on. BIRDS and Steel, the solo outings, are EP-sized in length and available in disc format, while Live at Jazzfest Saalfelden 2011 stretches a bit longer and is limited to just 350 vinyl copies.
BIRDS is a surprising and challenging listening experience from the start, as Flaten avoids conventional technique and structure for much of the program. The majority of the music centers instead on texture-based explorations through the construction of cyclical swathes of striated and often abrasive sound. The immediate analogue to my ears is the sorts of solo 1960s keyboard experiments Sun Ra used to specialize in, although there are no doubt other more recent points of similarity. This is particularly true of the first part, which takes on something of a cosmic grandeur across its relatively brief duration. Effects accoutrements presumably play a sizeable part of the performance, but it’s difficult to parse out exactly how Flaten generates many of the specific sounds. On the third part of the program, his instrument sounds like the aural offspring of an out-board motor and a weed whacker. The finale piece features variations on a melodic fragment in a manner that elliptically recalls Jimi Hendrix’s reconfiguring of the national anthem, at least in spirit, with Flaten setting up an anchoring loop over which to spool out improvisations. Overall, it’s not really my kind of music and the comparatively fleeting glimpses of Flaten’s plucked playing leave one wanting more, but it definitely scores points for defying expectations.
The acoustic set captured on Steel finds Flaten on more familiar footing. The Kowald comparison comes handy again on the opening piece, as Flaten pummels his strings with a visceral ferocity, amassing an enormity of rhythmic aggression without wasting any of it. The recording logistics help greatly in this regard, too, with the raucous reverberation of the instrument reaching figurative fever pitch in the final minute. Flaten doesn’t seem concerned with decorum of any sort and his bass takes a serious beating throughout the recital. After an audible moment to clear the sinuses, the second part centers on bow-generated structures with Flaten sawing up a spiraling web of pulsating drones that generate both depth and momentum. Again there’s a palpable graininess to his sound that swallows up everything in the vicinity, particularly when heard through headphones. A soaring foray into spectral harmonics gives way to some of his most straightforward playing, the rich woody resonance of his instrument fully at the fore. Flaten returns to fingers for the third section, using his bow as bludgeon and building another immersive exercise in percussive vibrations that summons to mind Charles Mingus’s most irreverent pizzicato playing on Money Jungle. The final part of the performance composites many of the elements of the earlier sections beautifully.
Live at Jazzfest Saalfelden 2011 delves into a different side of Flaten still, this time in the context of a sextet, comprised primarily of Chicago-based peers. The music has a pervasive electronics component, with Flaten and guitarist Jeff Parker both bringing separate arrays to the stage alongside their regular instruments. Also on board are Dave Rempis, fielding baritone and alto saxophones, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, violinist Ola Kvenberg and drummer Frank Rosaly. Two lengthier pieces sandwich a pair of shorter ones. “Virgoan Ways,” the first of the former, advances from a starting point of luminous held tones, segmented by comparatively dissonant oscillations. Flaten’s febrile electric bass soon comes into focus amidst the dancing drones, with Adasieswicz’s mallets and Rosaly’s drums joining in the forging of a recognizable modal motif. Rempis’s alto arcs above the churning rhythm and the piece takes on spiritual jazz facets that wouldn’t be out of place on an old fusion record by the likes of Roy Ayers or Lonnie Smith at their most cosmically-conscious. The track’s second half signals a switch to acoustic instruments for several of the principals, with a duet between Rempis, now on baritone, and Flaten on brooding arco bass leading the exchanges and Parker and Rosaly forwarding a relentless groove in the final minutes. The six musicians succeed in stitching a tremendous amount of activity and variety into the album’s relatively terse running time, and while not every detour delivers the same degree of dividends, the ambitious scope of the project is worth admiring.