Guitarist Hilmar Jensson's Skronk and Bonk
Was a time, back in the '60s and '70s, when many jazz people regarded rock as a mortal enemy. The Beatles and all the bands who followed in their wake did more than Elvis ever could to push jazz musos into unemployment lines or another line of work. That's partly why jazz was slow to pick up on rock's electric-guitar breakthroughs. Even after the death of Jimi Hendrix, master of distortion, controlled feedback and writhing sustain, most jazz guitarists remained loyal to bass-up, treble-down, quick-decay amp settings. Think, say, of Kenny Burrell (who was, however, trendy enough to record Buffalo Springfield's “Everydays”). There were good reasons to stick by that old-school jazz sound. Emphasizing the front of the note, the moment when pick plucks string, maximizes swing: you kick each note ahead.
Younger jazz pickers who grew up with rock in the air had a very different outlook, though: how could boomers resent the music they first kissed, drank beer or painted their nails to? Think John Scofield—or Bill Frisell, whose volume-pedaled fade-ins were the antithesis of the old front-loaded attack. Nowadays there's no shortage of smart rock-savvy jazz guitarists. One's who's been catching my ear lately is Iceland's Hilmar Jensson, whose music smacks of the downtown New York scene and its outer-borough outposts.
Jensson, born in Reykjavik in 1966, has been playing guitar since he was a kid. In his early 20s he left home to study at Berklee in Boston, and in that urban incubator he (like so many Beantown music students) forged alliances that would sustain him for decades—with drummer Jim Black and alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Andrew D'Angelo, for two. By the early '90s all three were living in Brooklyn. Jensson spent only a year there, gigging around, rooming with his buddies, and studying with Joe Lovano, before returning to Iceland to raise a family. But he sees his brief time in the Apple as central to his development.
To amplify the point, he organized the trio Tyft with Black and D'Angelo, whose eponymous debut came out on Songlines in 2002. Their new Meg Nem Safor Chris Speed's Skirl label takes them a mile further—though at their best, they never seem to leave the suburban garage.
Tyft's opener, “Short or Hairy,” obligingly demonstrates what they do best: make a good loud racket. Jensson has a rocker's love of splanky rhythm guitar (where jazz strummers like Freddie Green are praised for being felt more than heard). He knows the joys of whacking at some rude bar chord with the distortion cranked, as well as the uses of free players'splintery effects. On his website he enthuses about Human Feel—Black, D'Angelo, Speed and whiz picker Kurt Rosenwinkel—and about wide-open/Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Swedish metalheads Meshuggah. Those references help mark his territory.
Jim Black's specialty here is to keep the fat accents moving around like the third monte card, while deploying a rock drummer's caveman attack and eighth-note feel. No matter how seductive a backbeat, he'll pop open the pattern to keep things shifting. He mutates the groove. (He and Hilmar also play in Jim's quartet AlasNoAxis.) Andrew D'Angelo can squall on alto like his axe is feeding back; he brings an R&B tenor's thrust and guttural inflections to the smaller sax, making it bulge at the seams.
Much of the debut album's in that rough-and-ready vein, but it's marred by less-inspired side trips: noodling acoustic numbers that slow things down like a David Crosby tune on a Byrds album; splayed-arpeggio wobbles like Mahavishnu stilt-walking in high water; some of that crinkly laptop embroidery that was all the rage five years ago and already sounds like a quaint period touch.
On Meg Nem Sa the trio zero in even more on their inner skronk-and-bonk garage band, starting with the crunchy, "Kashmir"-lined “Led Tyftelin,” where Black comes on less like Bonham than some demented offspring of Philip Wilson on Julius Hemphill's “Dogon A.D.” D'Angelo's rhythmic incisiveness on the knotty heads is even more crucial here—it can turn the whole band into a rhythm section. The music's almost punky clunky (in a good way) sometimes, as Jensson steps into lead, rhythm and bass roles at once. For original rhythm playing, hear the fluttery tremolo shimmer that rumbles through “Tumble Bugs,” and his double-pick motorboating on the title track.
Jazz elegance is a beautiful thing, but rude tooth-rattling has its place too. You don't want to be like Charles Ives'proverbial milquetoast Rollo, quaking in fear of impolite music. For jazz content, check out “Hilsner” with its adjacent-string Monkish minor-seconds, and a tart D'Angelo hinting at Ornette—but then Jensson jumps into power-chord mode for the back half.
The band's other preferred style, on either disc, seems almost geographically predetermined: the Nordic, glacial lyricism of ECM stereotype, where Hilmar leans on that Frisellian volume pedal. Move the slow, chilly ones to the top and cut a couple of the raunchier rockers, and Meg Nem Sa could almost be an ECM record.
Between those trio CDs came the Tyft+2 changeup Ditty Blei, adding downtown supertrumpeter Herb Robertson and bassist Trevor Dunn; in reality it sounds less like the trio expanded than another, more lyrical group. If you want to know why many of us consider Herb one of New York's too-well-kept secrets, hear him weave around D'Angelo on “Mayla Mayla” (over an off-kilter bass-and-drum groove like an '80s Braxton “pulse track”), shape his notes with (I think) a cup mute used as a plunger on “Grinning,” and splatter like Jackson Pollock all over “Abbi.” There's also another trick-bag turn by Jensson, wrangling feedback throughout “Gobbles,” underlying the melody's downtown twists and turns.
Easy to hear why Herb Robertson blossoms so, in this setting. Like him, Hilmar's garage gang isn't afraid to go for it.