Elsa Nilsson performed in front of a small but attentive audience. The venue was Somethin’ Jazz, the younger sister of the club with the same name in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, now celebrating its second anniversary on the 52nd Street in New York. Elsa had brought with her a band consisting of Renato Diz on piano, Yuka Tadano on bass and Cody Rahn on drums.
The repertoire over the two generous sets consisted of a mix of originals and arrangements of folk melodies from Elsa’s home country of Sweden. The young flutist from Göteborg arrived in New York a year ago via Seattle. It was clear that this was her gig and she was in charge of the music, despite her modest manners. The sound of the band was consistent and very pleasant, erring on the side of smooth contemporary jazz with no major surprises or dramatics. As often tends to be the case with flute-led bands, there were some Latin flavors blended into the mix.
The first set started with an original, which Elsa played on an alto flute with an almost vibratofree tone. The band’s sound initially reminded me of some of the classic Scandinavian quartets on ECM records (think Arild Andersen or Lars Jansson), with a crisp piano, string bass and drumming that accompanies the music instead of just providing the beat. The tune, which started as a ballad and moved between minor and major keys, also had a number of rhythmic changes that made it interesting. Yuka Tadano played her first solo of the night with a thick clean tone. The second piece, Extra Shock, also an original, was somewhat livelier with a brisker tempo.
The band fit perfectly into the medium-sized space with near-perfect acoustics, at least for this kind of music, allowing each of the instruments to be heard clearly. Unfortunately, there were only ten people in the audience (three of whom were Elsa’s own support troops) occupying about a third of the tables. Perhaps this is understandable, given that it was a Tuesday night and the performers were not yet widely known.
The rest of the first set comprised a series of three Swedish tunes, starting with a folk song from the Dalarna region, Kristallen den fina, arranged in 7/4. There were some fine moments in the tune with a low bass vamp against the drumbeat while Diz plucked on the piano strings and the flute provided some atmospheric effects. Elsa’s solo was slightly stiff tending towards somewhat square on-the-beat phrasing. She clearly found her groove in the next tune, Allt under himmelens fäste, which was performed with a vaguely Latin beat. The piano started with nicely dissonant tones and evolved into a solo reminiscent of McCoy Tyner. Tadano played an inspired bass solo. The problem with the piece was that about midway the there was a noticeable acceleration in the tempo.
The next piece was probably my favorite throughout the entire evening. Gläns over sjö och strand sounded like another folk song, but when I chatted with Elsa during the intermission she revealed it was actually a Christmas song written in the 1970s. Elsa’s mother had observed that Swedish Christmas songs all sound like they were funeral marches; hence, this arrangement had Rahn playing a funeral march tremolo on the snare, à la Saint James Infirmary, which perfectly fit the slow beautiful melody played in the low register of the alto flute. Elsa added some Arabic scales for flavor, which also seemed to go well with the melancholy Nordic mood. While the slow march was is proceeding towards its destination, Yuka Tadano picked up a walking bass line, still in 3/4, which led to a gradual build-up of collective improvisation after good alto flute and bass solos, before the serene melody resumed.
The final piece of the first set was a straight funk unabashedly in Herbie Mann style. Most enjoyable, I must say, with fun solos by Renato Diz and Elsa. Unfortunately, again, as Rahn started his solo the tempo accelerated so rapidly that I initially thought it was an intentional devise. After the drum solo, the band caught up and the tune ended with a solid steady beat.
During the intermission, Elsa was chatting with her friends and with some customers, while the rest of the band sat at one of the front tables. The thin Yuka Tadano dressed in a summer dress grabbed a large glass of beer. All the while the owner, or chairman, of Somethin’ Jazz, Satoru Steve Kobayashi worked the tables serving drinks and snacks to the patrons and charging those who were leaving (I heard one of the single men who had had a couple of drinks at a tall table complain that he had not been aware of the music charge. Somethin’ Jazz doesn’t have live music every night, so people apparently stop by in the pleasant 3rd floor bar just for drinks after work.). The bald-headed Kobayashi is also the man behind the original Somethin’ Jazz in Tokyo and is a well-known jazz character in Japan.
Sipping my Pinot Grigio, I was thinking about how some bands and musicians have left an indelible mark on the way jazz is played today. The classic Coltrane Quartet is an obvious example and its influences were evident tonight too, not least in the playing of Renato Diz. I could not help but discover nuances from the original Return to Forever, prior to its electronic fusion reincarnation, and Joe Farrell’s flute in some of the music tonight. So light and effortlessly moving it was.
The second set began with Arabic influences in an original in which Rahn accompanied the flute by drumming with his hands. The second tune started with a solo flute and then moved effortlessly into a medium rhumba, a nice transition for a Swedish folk tune. Elsa’s flute tone was getting thicker presumably as she was now more comfortable with the setting. The third tune, Buckwheat and Banana Bread (at least that’s how I heard her call it), was the set’s most modernist piece, with the flute and piano providing the most ‘off’ solos of the evening. It was moderately ambitious and good as such, but in some ways the least pleasing, perhaps because it came in between the generally rather harmonious concert, as demonstrated by what followed: a beautiful slow waltz in which all players shone. Elsa played a beautiful solo, as did Tadano on her bass. Rahn was at his most sensitive reacting to the whims of the soloists, playing slow triplets in tune with the piano.
The final tune was another Swedish number, Uti vår hage, turned into a Latin celebration. Renato Diz played was at his best, playing a full-fledged salsa piano solo that drove the small audience into wild applause. It was a superb ending to the good concert.