September 20, 2002
What's up with Oslo, Norway? Two of the outstanding recordings of 2014 have come out of the city: pianist Paul Bley's Play Blue (ECM Records), and now Los Angeles-based pianist Chris Dundas' Oslo Odyssey (BLM Records).
Dundas' profile isn't exactly soaring through the stars. He has one previous recording as a leader to his name, a very good mainstream affair from the year 2000, featuring saxophonist Bob Sheppard. What Oslo Odyssey represents for Dundas is something of a (bluesman) Robert Johnson moment-he slips off the recording radar for a long spell, then comes back with a set so fine he may well have made a deal with the devil.
Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, an ECM Records mainstay, as a sideman and leader, is the senior member of the quartet Dundas assembled. His presence is huge. Dundas hoped to achieve a sound and atmosphere with this set similar to pianist Keith Jarrett's Scandinavian Quartet, featuring saxophonist Jan Garbarek. He succeeded with a cinematic and spacious sound that also recalls Andersen's 1970s quartet recordings on ECM Records.
Note that "ECM Records" keep coming up. The cover art and the sound of Oslo Odyssey: the translucence spaciousness, the clarity, the ephemeral, dream-like quality of the compositions - all Dundas originals, with the exception of pianist Denny Zeitlin's beautiful "Quiet Now," on disc 1; all group improvisations on disc 2 - and the cinematic scope of the overall work of art would fit right in with what is called the "ECM aesthetic." And BLM Records? Not much info out there on them. Google BLM Records and you get a lot of information about the Bureau of Land Management.
Along with Anderson, Dundas is joined by two more Norwegian players - drummer Patrice Heral and saxophonist Bendik Hofseth. The sound they create is mystical and luminescent. There are moments of subtle electronic drone (from Anderson and Heral) acting as a backdrop to the the most delicate and measured - yet spontaneous sounds. Time seems suspended, or rendered without meaning.
Disc 1, as previously mentioned, features Dundas composed music. In-the-moment improvisation is a huge part of this package. Arild Andersen solos like no other bassist alive - sharp, succinct notes perfectly situated inside the transparent and exquisite comping. And then the quartet takes that art of inspired spontaneity to the next level on Disc 2, beginning with the astonishingly gorgeous 23 minute "Pilgrimage," and on into the the closer, "Full Circle," that begins with Bendik Hofseth's holy notes, a saxophone prayer leading into Dundas disjointed sounds - a wind chime piano - before the quartet gels into an unexpectedly wicked, danceable groove, with saxophonist Hofseth growling demonically. The devil taking his payment perhaps.
This is a quartet set of the highest order. Music at its very best.
"Chris Dundas goes global with an all star line up and staggering results!
Chris Dundas released his critically acclaimed debut roughly fourteen years ago. Since then, Dundas took the time to ensure there would be no let down in creativity. Combined with the arduous task of saving the money necessary for a quality recording and the well documented trials and tribulations of the music industry, a funny thing happened on the way to the studio. A somewhat conceptualized release, Dundas draws on the inspiration from Keith Jarrett's Scandinavian Quartet from thirty five years ago. To complete his harmonic journey he recruited Oslo's premier bassist Arild Andersen and his drummer Patrice Heral while rounding out this most formidable 4tet with tenor saxophonist Bendik Hofseth.
There is an organic warmth that permeates this stellar recording as the disc is presented in the order in which the compositions were recorded and with an open ended spatial exploration of improvisational conversations. Walking the harmonic tightrope in this setting can be fraught with peril yet Dundas makes the journey seem effortless. The contemplative mood of "Great Pacific Garbage Patch Waltz" bookends well with Denny Zeitlin's "Quiet Now" which embraces that three dimensional spatial quality, a zen like approach where no notes are wasted. The dynamics evolve within themselves as both tempo and corresponding mood shift on the fly. "Pilgrimage" is a full contact blowing piece yet utilizes the harmonic space left free by each contributor.
The presentation is varied in meter and execution yet the musical co-conspirators are able to get in and get out without getting in each others way. The chemistry here while certainly left of center is lyrically undeniable. To compare the sound to performers from another label can be difficult but for those familiar with the history of ECM, think of this as ECM all grown up."
When everything visual about the Oslo Odyssey release first informs you that it's an ECM gig, even though it isn't, pay attention. You're being given the right signals. Pianist Chris Dundas is, as I am, as many are, a HUGE fan of ECM, the most elegant music label in the aesthetic annals of Earth. The imprint may have run afoul of idiots like Tina Pelikan and the Universal distribution system in later days, but that doesn't subtract from the cogency of Manfred Eicher and his exceptional German company per se. The influence of that original historic effort continues to resound throughout jazz and progressive musics without cease and in many fashions. Then, of course, the presence of one of ECM's many legendary mainstays in Oslo, bassist Arild Andersen, pretty much puts a variant of the Edition of Contemporary Music's much valued Stamp Of Good Mindkeeping Approval on Dundas' sophomore effort…14 years in the making (!!!).
Did I mention the incomparable Erik Kongshaug, ECM's sound ace, engineered Oslo? Yeah, he did, and thus, after all that, I probably needn't write another syllable as you rush out to lay eager hands on the release…but will anyway 'cause this marvelous twofer certainly deserves it. Dundas is a careful kinda guy, does not rush into things, but, as you'll hear in just the first few minutes of CD 1, that he waited a decade and a half to follow his well-received eponymous 2000 disc is along the lines of a crime against humanity (I'm checking with the Hague and poring over the Geneva Conventions right now, to see if delaying the world in a chance to uplevel its intelligence is actionable, and so far: nothing; what's wrong with those guys?). If you doubt, merely glom his take on Denny Zeitlen's Quiet Now, a stellar example of West Coast Cool meeting chamber jazz.
Except for that track, the entire first CD is written by Dundas. He also produced the release, which probably accounts for the time span taken: this sorta thing ain't cheap. Besides everything else, he had to travel to Norway to recruit the consummate talent heard. The second disc is pure improv, and, oh God, what a quartet of free jams! Night and day to the primary outing yet so similar in degrees of excellence. Perception, finesse, and discretion are everything. That's VERY evident here. What kicked the whole journey off, though, was Dundas' burning need to procure Anderson as a cornerstone. Pilgrimage, on CD 2, shows why in spades. Then there's sax player Bendik Hofseth, who displays a goodly degree of my personal sax god, Jan Garbarek, though less monastic, more…hm, damned if I can think of the word, but whatever it is, he's it.
Drummer Patrice Heral is mindful of another of my deities: Jon Christensen, both being drummers who remain firmly at ground level but, by virtue of well-constructed ambiences, can echo a lot that's not actually there…or maybe it is and I'm just too stunned by the conversational methodologies of their approaches to fully grasp it all. Hardly matters, as cats like this break the zombie deadlock that rock suffers from (save in the persons of Neil Peart, Keith Moon, Mike Portnoy, Dave Kerman, Morris Pert, and precious few others), keeping the instrument fresh and vital rather than purely metronomic, making sure the kit is a playable instrument not just the ground upon which one's fellows walk.
Dundas, however, is surprisingly modest, self-effacing, sometimes disappears entirely (don't be too fooled, though: he's doing Cage-ian things in the jams, along with everything else), thus giving away tons of sonic real estate to his fellows, who waste no time capitalizing on the gesture, as well they should. Chris is definitely not like my third guru, Keith Jarrett, but is actually fairly mysterious. Possessing elements of Beirach, Evans, Winston, more than a few times Satie-esque, he takes the path of pensivity, of the observer, the guy whose interjections shift the course of events as they're wending their way. When he wakes fully up in the very last cut, though, it's like walking through a delicate wonderland marrying Nature with cathedraline architecture, snowflakes closely examined, later with a light swing put to matters.
Dan McClenaghan over at AllAboutJazz encountered the same problem I did in trying to hunt up data on Dundas and his BLM label, failing at the gambit. I contacted top-notch L.A. PR guy Mike Bloom, and he elicited a response from Dundas himself, who speaks to the graphics of the release but therein quietly reveals that BLM is him and he is BLM. I reprint it for the edification of the FAME reader (slightly edited):
"I took all the pictures myself (other than the one of me at the piano), not with the thought that they would for sure be used in the artwork but just because I was having fun with photographing Oslo the city, and the studio and musicians. I have many more left over that I might use for the next project. I walked for several hours a day for a week there, because I was always lost. My phone wasn't set up to receive Wifi so I couldn't easily GPS my way around. But that worked to my advantage in that I got many more pictures than I would have had I known where I was going and then gone straight there. The front and back covers are a picture I took, Photoshopped to my vision. The intention is very clear to me, but I think I'd like to leave it as an expressionist painter leaves his work: up to the interpretation of the viewer. I'm influenced by many things—different musical styles, environmental concerns, social issues, astronomy, and more, but the largest single influence on my music is ECM. Their music and artwork are a huge part of my musical identity. And so it's only natural that my music and artwork would fit side by side with theirs. My website lists in excruciating detail my influences: http://www.chrisdundas.com/influences.cfm" [and let me say, after reading it myself, that he'd go nuts were he to run through my 30,000+ piece music collection—I stopped counting a couple years ago at 30K - 'cause our tastes match up surprisingly well]
And thus we see that what I'm sure Pelikan and the rest of the troglodytes at Universal will grit their teeth over (an irately imputed theft of identity, branding, and corporate etceteras) is actually deep homage, thanks giving, and the exercise of a welter of artistic talents in Dundas himself: musician, composer, photographer, designer, and so on. As the labels have seen in desperate chagrin, this is the way of the future, it's no longer megalomaniacal corporate, things are reverting back to the creatives, the management class is being seen for what it is, and thus you, me, art, and everything is far the better for it in all possible ways. The apocalypse has already come and gone, this is what's rising in its wake.
Pianist Chris Dundas puts together a quartet effort that models itself quite successfully on the classic phase of ECM jazz coming out of Europe in earlier days. Oslo Odyssey (BLM 1100/01) gives us two-CDs of music with a nicely balanced group of forces. Dundas wrote seven of the numbers, which are featured on the first disk. The second disk contains collaborative quartet-generated spontaneity, aka group improvisations.
The quartet is a good one. Dundas mans the piano with a generative in-the-moment presence that does not copycat as much as it revises and recreates anew, the legendary Arild Andersen is on contrabass, sounding great, Bendik Hofseth plays tenor, launching from Garbarek but going beyond to his own space, and Patrice Heral plays creatively and loosely on drums.
I especially like the second disk for its free-tonal qualities. But the whole set gives us a kind of revisitation of classic ECM jazz from the vantage point of today, which means it is no clone. It involves extension.
For anyone who loves the middle-period of ECM music, this will send you. There is non-formulaic playing and writing, a fresh take on it all. Recommended!
"While interpreting Keith Jarrett's "So Tender," unaccompanied, Dundas exhibits the lyrical sense of melody and harmony that prove to be his greatest strengths. As a singer would caress each line and impart contextual meaning, he phrases the ballad in such a way that we can clearly appreciate the song's purpose."
Jim Santella, L.A. Jazz Scene
"Dundas has an inexhaustible supply of interesting piano chords and right hand combinations that were a joy to listen to."
Glenn A. Mitchell, L.A. Jazz Scene
"A pianist whose style is a branch of that great bushy tree with its roots in Bill Evans...is aggressive and probing." "Autumn Leaves gets a surprisingly abstract treatment. Dundas offers some fine lyrical - without being overtly sentimental - piano and Sheppard blows exploratory saxophone that probes the edges of the tune's harmonies."
Dave Dupont, Cadence Magazine
"The variety of the compositions and the many moods make this CD consistently of strong interest. Well worth checking out."
Scott Yanow, All Music Guide
"It is a wonderful example of small group jazz, and a worthy addition to your collection. I heartily recommend it."
Paul Andersen, Los Angeles Times