|About this Recording
86025-2 - TOLVAN BIG BAND Plays the Music of Helge Albin
TOLVAN BIG BAND
Helge Albin alto saxophone / flute & leader
Imagine whole countries (or even continents) completely devoid of big bands. For the most likely examples you don’t have to go through the alphabet much further than "A": Albania, Afghanistan, Antarctic, Andorra? However, if you continue, the picture changes radically when you get to "S" for Sweden. Here quite the opposite applies. Already back in 1957 an LP by "The Jazztone Mystery Band" was later revealed to be Harry Arnold and his Swedish Radio Studio Orchestra, despite the fact that several American jazz musicians and critics, when asked to guess the identity, were convinced that it must have been an American band! Dom Cerulli stated in Down Beat: "All of the soloists are at worst very fine, and at best, frightening."
Now, more than forty years later that standard has been upheld and extended. Sweden, a country with a population smaller than New York City has roughly 500 big bands! Naturally, the greater number of these are local amateur groups still discovering that "Moonlight Serenade" and "Lil' Darlin' " are not the easy charts they first appear to be. Nevertheless, out of many of these bands, young people make their way into the excellent music institutions to begin devoting their lives to studying the art of playing (or singing) jazz. In Sweden today there are a handful of big bands of world-class standard and among them the name Tolvan is synonymous with the most ambitious and up-to-date big band jazz you can hear anywhere today. Many voice the opinion that there can be no finer band in Europe. This state of affairs didn’t, of course, just happen overnight. Tolvan is an abbreviation of En Tolva Skåne, an earlier name which took its derivation (and inspiration?) from a generous measure of the famous akvavit coming from the southernmost province of Sweden, Skåne. Most of the members of Tolvan come from the region around Malm*, a town not much more than a stone’s throw away across the water from Copenhagen with its continental lifestyle. In fact this ensemble has been in existence since the end of the ’sixties, channelling all its energy into playing quality big band music in a variety of challenging musical situations, and never losing sight of its objectives. This is of course largely due to the staying power of Helge Albin, a musician of unquestionable authority and experience as a saxophonist, teacher, composer and arranger, who has been Tolvan’s leader since around 1979. No big band can hope to hold a position of international respect and reputation without someone with a sound musical vision in the foreground. However, Helge is not only a good organiser but is completely involved in the whole process of making music, playing and writing prolifically for this ensemble. While being an excellent tenor player, his role in the present Tolvan is as altoist and sax section leader, and you will also hear much evidence of his prowess as a soloist.
Perhaps it can be said that the band achieved its first important breakthrough in 1984 with a recording made in part at the Montreux Jazz Festival ("Montreux and More"), which won them the coveted "Golden Disc" award from the Swedish Jazz Magazine "Orkester Journalen". Tours followed in France, Germany and Poland. In 1991 as the Baltic states were regaining their independence the orchestra thundered through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, celebrating triumphs everywhere. During these years of activity Tolvan have made their impression not only on audiences and critics but on several of the world’s most prominent musicians. Dizzy Gillespie, whose late-’forties big band shook the jazz world with its daring new bebop harmonies and Afro-Cuban rhythms, was overcome with surprise when he first collaborated with Tolvan at the Kristianstad Jazz Festival in 1983, declaring : "It’s the best big band I’ve played with since 1947!" Two giants of modern saxophone playing * David Liebman and Michael Brecker, have both visited Sweden for projects together with the band. David Liebman was so impressed with Tolvan that after a tour in March 1985 (one concert of which was televised) he returned the following December for three days of recording, which resulted in the album "Guided Dream". Four years later it was the turn of Michael Brecker to embark upon a tour with the band, which also included a televised concert. His reaction was: "You can’t find such a band as this even in New York". These meetings were extremely important for Helge Albin and Tolvan. The inspiration they received was a confirmation that the musical policy they were following was (and still is) the right one for them. One particularly interesting and significant point is that neither Brecker or Liebman had previously regarded big band environments as particularly rewarding in relation to their conceptions of musical freedom. Who could blame them? During the big band era of the ’thirties, ’forties, and early ’fifties, no soloists could expect the chance to stretch out and develop their ideas for more than a very limited number of choruses (or even bars) before the bandleader signalled a return to the written arrangement. There are, naturally, some notable exceptions such as Paul Gonsalves' historic 27-chorus marathon with Ellington at Newport in 1956, but In the history of jazz there have been unfortunate examples of eager soloists who, in the act of creative abandon, played one-chorus-too-many, only to find themselves unemployed at the end of the gig. It was mainly in the small groups that individualism was given the opportunity and encouragement to grow and flourish. Therefore it is all the more surprising (and gratifying) to hear the words of praise from these two star saxophonists, Liebman and Brecker, who found in Tolvan a big band which provided them with a musical platform over which they could fly freely without feeling in any way restricted.
As the years have passed there have been several artistic high points with other prominent guests, such as the English pianist Mike Westbrook and his singer-wife Kate in a programme of music by Rossini, and the outstanding Swedish artist Tommy Körberg, with whom Tolvan has recorded twice (the second time being the CD: "Live in London"). In the late ’eighties Swedish Radio commissioned a suite to be performed by the orchestra, the result being the CD "Colours", an example of Helge Albin’s ever-growing talents as a world class composer-arranger, and the orchestra’s ability to play music demanding great skill and versatility. In 1995 the band recorded a CD titled "The Touch", which has also been met with enthusiasm everywhere.
Helge Albin being the genuinely modest man he is, (a common trait of one who commands musical respect), would be the first to insist on the praise being shared fairly among all the members of the band, as well as other arrangers such as trumpeter Sten Ingelf and Malmo guitarist Bo Sylvén, who are just two names who have contributed to the band’s sound over the years. However in this CD it is exclusively the compositional and arranging talents of Helge Albin that we hear, and they are remarkable in their intensity and intricacy. As the keen listener will notice there is also form, development and logic in the music, which is the hallmark of the best jazz writers. Some passages may recall shades of Gil Evans, Thad Jones and some of the outstanding writers of today, such as Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely and Maria Schneider, but on having listened to the whole CD there can be no doubt that the music is Helge Albin’s and no one else’s.
As for the music itself, it is far too multi-faceted for a detailed commentary in words, however it would be remiss to not give credit where credit is due to the soloists for their contributions.
The Game introduces the album and immediately creates a typically exciting up-tempo Tolvan atmosphere. One musician who was an important soloist in the band for many years is the gifted Malmo trumpeter Anders Bergcrantz, who is now pursuing an international career after making successful American club appearances, including a live recording, at the Village Vanguard in New York. It is unlikely that anyone else than Peter Asplund could fill the solo trumpet chair with such conviction. As well as leading his own Stockholm-based group, already at the young age of 28, Asplund is a veteran of almost every big band of note in Sweden, giving him a wealth of experience which is well in evidence here. Helge follows Peter with a burning solo also conveying the authority with which he plays his instrument. As the composition nears the end we get a chance to hear the tremendously facile drumming of Lennart Gruvstedt who has been much in demand for his all-round capabilities for some years. Had he been born in the USA he would quite likely have been called "Groovestead" by now. Everyone sounds as though they are enjoying playing this arrangement right up to the last chord as lead trumpeter Roy Wall nails a high "G" to the ceiling.
The Mysterious No.7
With its broken and seemingly irregular pulse, one cannot help comparing this composition to conventional big band conceptions of the past, and pause to think of how jazz rhythms have been developing over the years thanks to composer-arrangers such as Helge Albin. Here he combines the freer feeling of a smaller group while retaining big band disciplines. The fine bass player Lars Danielsson (who has also recorded in New York, at Visiones, with the quartet he has together with David Liebman, pianist Bobo Stenson and drummer Jon Christensen) has the responsibility of keeping the pulse moving along, while Lennart Gruvstedt and pianist Jörgen Emborg have a polyrhythmic discussion around him. Meanwhile soprano saxophonist Cennet Jönsson makes full use of the situation to build an imaginative solo full of ethnic associations.
One Minute for Myself.
To be able to write convincing big band ballads is almost an art in itself. Bob Brookmeyer’s "First Love Song" and Maria Schneider’s emotional "My Lament" are outstanding examples. This one by Helge is another, and his alto solo is straight from the heart.
The tempo is up again, and Jörgen Emborg from Copenhagen is featured all the way in this complex Albin composition, which makes full use of an acoustic keyboard soloist in the midst of a big band -- a resource that is often overlooked. Emborg shines like a bright diamond, and only a big band of the highest calibre can play an arrangement as challenging as this!
After an introduction painted in some Gil Evans colours the arrangement proceeds into Helge-land. Close your eyes and soak up the warm tones from Peter Asplund’s flugelhorn in one of the most evocative arrangements to come from the pen of the leader.
Nice and Easy
Not to be confused with Frank Sinatra’s popular recording from 1960, and although Nelson Riddle was a wonderful arranger, there isn’t much here to remind us of him in Helge’s score. There is however a lot of off-the-beat syncopation in the theme with the band floating lightly as on a cloud, and some relaxed straight-ahead solos by Helge and Peter Asplund again. Per Bäcker leads the reed section on this one. Nice? Definitely! Easy? Well . . . .
This features two other solo voices, tenorist Inge Pettersson and trombonist Vincent Nilsson, both longtime members of the band and each in his own way an extremely expressive soloist. Inge transforms some of those once-revolutionary Lester Young tongue-on-reed effects into modern-day sax phraseology, while Vincent explores the extreme upper range of his horn.
David Liebman once pointed out (in a sleeve note for a Tolvan LP) that most people don’t realise the tremendous amount of hard work and time it takes to compose and arrange, especially for a large group like this. He is of course perfectly right, and it is usually done through countless long dark nights when the rest of the family (and almost everyone else) is asleep. How immensely rewarding it must have been for Helge Albin when in 1995 he was honoured with the Sydsvenska Dagbladets Europapris, a prize for, among other things, his resolute efforts in developing Tolvan Big Band to become a European Institution of significance. The Europapris has previously only been awarded to politicians and scholars, one of these being the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt. In the case of Helge Albin it was surely not a day too soon.
Plans for the future? At the moment he is preparing a large work for Tolvan together with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra scheduled to be performed in late 1998. That sounds exciting to say the least.
Anyone wanting to hear where big band jazz is at today should direct their attention to what Tolvan Big Band is doing. Like that famous akvavit, it’s the real thing. Accept no substitutes!
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