in performance: friends & neighbors

Friends & Neighbors. From left, Andre Roligheten, Oscar Gronberg, Jon Rune Strom, Thomas Johansson and Tollef Ostvang.

For a band from Norway, Friends & Neighbors began its Outside the Spotlight concert Saturday at the Kentucky School sounding remarkably American. Well, it did for about a minute or so.

Maybe it was a bit of a tease or simply a touch of tradition at play, but the introduction to the concert-opening ballad “Influx” employed the band’s traditional quintet instrumentation (trumpet, sax, piano, bass and drums) to provide a spaciousness that would not have been out of place in Miles Davis’ classic groups of the early and mid ‘60s. The atmosphere was cool and open while the band interplay seemed conversational. But Friends & Neighbors never fully boarded the flight to America. The tune, one of six pieces in an hour-long program devoted the new “What’s Next?” album, preferred to stay in a state of musical wanderlust, maintaining a setting where short bursts from trumpeter Thomas Johansson and tenor saxophonist Andre Roligheten colored a canvas where fragments of melody and a few boppish turns were enhanced in almost dance-like fashion by pianist Oscar Gronberg. The result was music that, despite the initial greeting, sounded solidly European.

Given its references to more free-oriented jazz (the band’s name comes from an overlooked 1972 album by Ornette Coleman), the rest of this very enjoyable set regularly operated from a strong compositional base, whether it was through the Monk-ish piano accents and deliciously fractured trumpet swing on “Mozart” or the way bassist Jon Rune Strom propelled the closing “Headway Heat” as much through the tension and tone of his playing as through groove.

Moments of pure abstraction were pretty much absent. Instead, “Kubrick’s Rude” let a bouncy, circular horn pattern play off a piano melody that sounded playfully classical while “Reflection” revisited the same hushed, ensemble spaciousness of “Influx.” Roligheten’s took a few modestly scalding turns on the latter, but that was as corrosive as this inviting performance got.

Adding to the charm of the evening was the setting. The performance was held outdoors at what was the Beer Garden at Al’s Bar (now part of the still-under-construction Kentucky School). The coolness of an early spring Saturday made Friends & Neighbors’ Euro-flavored music sound all the more, well, neighborly.



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