With his deep ties to the Brooklyn avant jazz community, Icelandic guitarist Hilmar Jensson has never been a conventional jazzer, but after 2009′s Skirl label release Smell the Difference, one wonders whether he’s preparing to ditch even avant jazz for good. It’s not like Jensson followers couldn’t see this coming all along, particularly after his Skirl debut, 2006′s Meg Nem Sa, featuring the Tyft core trio lineup of Jensson, reedman Andrew D’Angelo, and drummer Jim Black. In spots on that album, Jensson truly found his inner Meshuggah, and merely naming a track “Led Tyftelin” further revealed the influences slamming around inside his head. Meg Nem Sa was a particularly heavy outing for the guitarist, but the title track was all about the groove, and Smell the Difference is even more so, nearly start to finish. Here, Jensson has expanded his band to include another old Brooklyn pal (and Skirl label founder), saxophonist Chris Speed, along with trumpeter-of-the-moment Peter Evans. Once again there’s no bass, but the guitarist’s bottom end is damn heavy — not exactly dub deep, but no one is likely to complain that Jensson’s sound is thin, as in “This music really needs some bass, man!” (More likely: “That guitarist and bassist are really tight, man!”) And at the higher frequencies, there’s enough dirt and gravel in his tone to suggest post-grunge and even noise rock. But that groove is what really stands out, and nobody can push a groove out of the gate and ride it around the track as crisply and cleanly as Black, a model of both power and economy. He nails that part of the rhythm that moves your foot despite time signatures that confound your head, while Jensson cranks out skewed lines in jagged, funked-up repetitions that suggest, as a writer, he’s a bit of a pummeling post-punk Tim Berne.
Layered over the top are the squalling saxes of D’Angelo and Speed, by now as classic a reed pairing as the Brooklyn scene has produced, in close-interval harmonies whose astringency is a perfect match for the Jensson/Black rhythm section’s attack (that is, the reeds aren’t intended to sweeten the pot). In this band Evans’ role might be heard as a throwback to ’90s Dave Douglas or Cuong Vu; he’s got the extended techniques down and also brightens and tightens the front line in a way that brings to mind another avant band from the old neighborhood — Doctor Nerve, which, after all, counted Douglas as a member for a while. The avant funk-grunge vamps and turnarounds, tight horn parts, and wild soloing are more than enough to keep you entertained, and there’s also great pleasure to be heard as these by now longstanding friends — and comparatively new friend Evans — truly lock in together with such drive and unity. Still, unpredictability is a nice touch, and the best tracks are those when the unexpected rears up, as in Jensson’s foray toward pure machine-gun metal in “Pittles,” the emergence of a dramatic theme out of chaos at the conclusion of “Froth,” the flow of the band through multiple sections of escalating energy during the riveting “Clinton,” and even some beauty and subtlety, as in the chamberesque intro to the album-closing “Klinglet.” A bit of counterpoint featuring Jensson’s unusually clear guitar, D’Angelo’s bass clarinet, and Speed’s clarinet in “Kryppa” also stands out — with Speed in particular bringing his customary lovely tone in effective contrast to what might be construed as a raccoon chattering through a distortion box in the left channel. Add “pesky” to the list of adjectives applicable here. – Dave Lynch