in performance: cortex

Cortex. From left: Kristoffer Berre Alberts, Gard Nilssen, Ola Hoyer and Thomas Johansson. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

The Norwegian quartet Cortex set a quiet precedent when it first played the Outside the Spotlight series three years ago this week. It displayed the kind of improvisatory prowess favored by many of the more abstract minded free jazz units that have been guests of the series over the years. But what distinguished Cortex in 2015 was its sense of balance, its ability to embrace composition and groove as complimentary vehicles for the wilder improvs.

That kind of cunning was placed on abundant and appealing display again earlier tonight for an OTS return at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery. Here, Cortex used foundations of blues, bop and coarse swing as enticements for more corrosive mischief.

The show opening “Standby” placed the band’s stylistic extremes in motion, locking in a unison melody line established by trumpeter Thomas Johansson and tenor saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts. Once the very Mingus-like cool of bassist Ola Hoyer was added in, the tune embraced an almost deceptive sense of swing. But the momentum remained spacious enough for drummer Gard Nilssen to guide the sound through rougher melodic waters and back to safe harbor again.

On “Chaos,” one of two tunes played from Cortex’s recent “Avant Garde Party Music” album, the sound turned more turbulent with a cyclical horn phrase by Johansson and Albert that summoned the band’s disparate melodic strategies like a reveille before dispersing them again.

There were appealing variations of these excursions, as well. “Lament” simmered the music to a slow blues boil while the set closing “Legal Tender” let the rhythm section loose with a fun, rubbery groove that Albert took several deconstructed swipes at on alto sax.

Topping it all was the new “I 797 B,” a tune named after the visa forms the band members had to contend with for its current United States tour (a trek that has already had two canceled dates due to Hurricane Florence). Like all of Cortex’s music, there was brightness to the melodic construction but also enough trap doors for various solos to break with the sense of musical order and, for a few bars, bust the room up.



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