The music sounded inconspicuous enough at first with Frode Gjerstad and Steve Swell squaring off in a light but lovingly fussy dialogue on alto saxophone and trombone, respectively. But the whispery exchange proved to be a prelude of sorts for the melee to come – specifically, an improvisational suite that tested the stamina as well as the musical resources of Gjestad and his all Norwegian trio along with veteran New Jersey bandleader and improviser Swell. The collective results, which clocked in at just under an hour, made up the bulk of last night’s vigorous but surprisingly intimate Outside the Spotlight performance at Mecca.
Gjerstad and Swell are pros at this kind of mischief and last night was no exception. Their playing either complimented the performance cunning of the other or fed into the immediacy of the entire ensemble. Part of the latter involved finding a foil among the other two players. In drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, Gjerstad and Swell had an accomplice that was physically and intuitively tireless. A veteran of many OTS shows over the last 12 years, Nilssen-Love proved again to be a monster player. He summoned a percussive firestorm of speed and agility under Gjerstad’s fragments of bop and blues on alto sax early into the suite. But Nilssen-Love was just as resourceful during a playful duet where Gjerstad switched to clarinet.
Swell was as fascinating to watch as he was to listen to. Early into the extended improv, he arched his back and tilted the trombone so low that it nearly swept the floor, all while summoning a squall line of short, brassy outbursts. But he also found room for a more guttural exchange during a brief duet with bassist Jon Rue Strom.
But the there were also several instances where all four players exploded into improvisational glee simultaneously. While all seemed to speak for themselves, their ferocious playing also enforced an ensemble spirit that remained vital even as the music began to splinter into solo and duo passages.
Similarly, the evening’s second and final improv – a five minute reverie dubbed “a little goodnight song” by Gjerstad – was as slow, spacious and intimate as the initial centerpiece suite was a lesson in exhaustive jazz dynamics.