Listening to: Food, Quiet Inlet

Food Quiet Inlet

A review of Food’s Quiet Inlet (2010).

In its web review, the BBC calls this “a magical hybrid of technology and improvisation, Europe and America, ambience and dance.” It’s definitely all those things.

I find myself especially excited about this release because there have been so few genuinely successful jazz/electronica hybrids worth listening to. This music manages to be idiomatic and credible in both genres. The genre transcendence achieved on this disc has a magical, mystical, almost spiritual aspect that – in an interesting way – places it firmly into the tradition of ‘acoustic music’ regardless of the actual sounds and instrumentation used. It’s not really jazz, not really electronic music, but it’s not world music either. It’s what Miles Davis tried to do in his electric days, only in 2010, there are no more limitations to instrumentation, sound design or the possibilities of arrangement.

Food is Thomas Strønen (drums, live electronics), Iain Bellamy (tenor and soprano saxophones), Nils Petter Molvær (trumpet, electronics) and Christian Fennesz (guitar, electronics). A super group of sorts, at least in the areas of European improvised jazz and brainy, glitchy electronica. Strønen and Bellamy have been at it for a while as Food. Molvær had a short but intense brush with fame in the late 90s when he released a few reasonably successful electronica/jazz crossover records on ECM (only to leave the label when it couldn’t get its head around the openness of remix culture, preferring to think of albums as complete artist statements). Fennesz has enjoyed a surprisingly high profile given that he has released only a handful of records of ambient, glitchy, noisy guitar-driven electronica in the last 10 years (his latest, Black Sea, is brilliant and very listenable; Venice and Endless Summer are quite brilliant but not terribly listenable).

Quiet Inlet is a collection of fiercely rhythmic ambient jazz, partially composed and partially improvised. The overall profile of this ensemble is saxophone, trumpet, electronic pads and textures, and electronically treated drums.

Thomas Strønen is a fantastic drummer – the booklet images (in typically stylish black and white ECM photography) show him using a huge amount of electronics, possibly greater in number than actual drums – with a fail-proof sense of groove and the uncanny ability to shoe-horn any amount of polyrhythmic detail and ornamentation into a track without cluttering it. He strikes me as a sort of contemporary Manu Katché, an impossibly groovy and musical drummer, but with an embrace of the full spectrum of electronic enhancements, sampling, loops, and so on.

Iain Bellamy sounds like a very focused free jazz improviser. Given that this is an ECM release, his sound often comes across as not entirely unlike Jan Garbarek‘s, but with more Celtic (and obviously fewer Nordic folk) influences. I really find myself appreciating the restraint he exercises in these pieces – there’s a great economy in his playing, not dissimilar to Jon Hassell‘s, maybe.

Nils Petter Molvær has a beautiful, subdued, muted, yet sharply-drawn Miles Davis trumpet sound that blends easily and effectively with Bellamy’s. I recall not liking his previous ECM efforts all that much (they seemed like the explorations of someone fascinated by electronic music who was nonetheless not entirely able to make the jump), but here – since he’s not setting the agenda (I assume) – he’s an outstanding session contributor. Of course, it’s hard to say which of the four musicians is responsible for which electronic texture, so it’s quite possible that Molvær is much more instrumental to this than I think. (I should also say that I haven’t heard anything of his since Solid Ether.)

It’s even harder to say where Christian Fennesz’ noises on Quiet Inlet begin and end. His guitar mostly acts as an ‘input’ instrument and he hardly ever plays a lead part (although you can hear his guitar clearly on ‘Fathom’). Knowing his other work as I do leads me to imagine that quite a lot of the textures, pads and ‘bass lines’ here may be his.

ECM’s sound, as always, is impeccable – clear, crisp, spacious, great imaging, full, present without losing any of the dynamics of the music. I love this label (I’ve been listening to a lot of ECM lately), and this release may be one of its best in 2010. Highly recommended.

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