Atomic @ Twins Jazz - what a great surprise!

Atomic’s smart blend of avant jazz and edgy groove is the bomb,” said the sweet preview (PDF) in the Washington Post Express of Transparent Productions‘ first show of 2007. And while the Express is an odd publication with a Paris Hilton fetish and unpredictable musical tastes (though they did also write a great preview of the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum show a couple years ago), well, they were spot-on here. Atomic are a Swedish/Norweigian quintet that play an energetic kind of avant-jazz that is somewhat free but is still grounded just enough in traditional jazz to be quite accessible. They played last night at Twins Jazz and, in short, put on one of the best shows I’ve seen in the past year (which is saying something).

The energy level was through the roof, and the fact that the small club was lively and pretty much completely full (about 80 people) had a lot to do with that. At the end of the show, saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist said the DC audience was the best audience of the tour so far, and I believe it — folks were really getting into it. In any case, the band certainly gave us a lot to be excited about: Ljungkvist in particular was absolutely on fire everytime he picked up his sax, bringing the roof down with several exhilirating solos. (He also played clarinet, but his work on that instrument was generally more subdued.) Also, I’ve heard drummer Paal Nilssen-Love on several recordings, but seeing him live was eye-opening: the guy was a total beast, filling up all kinds of space and consistently driving the band to higher and higher levels. Nilssen-Love may as well have been the namesake of this band: he was the nuclear power plant energizing the entire group.

The most astounding piece was something called “ABC 101 B,” an appropriate title for a stuttering monster of a composition that featured blindingly fast unison playing in confusingly dynamic time signatures. Those off-kilter unison lines are contrasted madly with slower, more lyrical sections, and then integrated smoothly into free improvisation — the horns interjecting quick lines into the rest of the band’s improvising, creating a fascinating kind of off-balance dialogue. In the fantasy genre of “RIO-jazz,” this song would be a prime representative.

Finally, one of the neat things about seeing this band was their visual element. A lot of their improvising was coordinated through visual cues, some obvious and some more subtle, which were fun to track. But more than that was just the obvious fact that they were really enjoying themselves, grinning at each other when things were clicking particularly well, even openly gaping at each others’ talents during especially strident solos. Nilssen-Love was the most expressive, often watching his bandmates carefully as they soloed; judging by his expressions, he was not just waiting for cues, but also at times figuring out exactly what the hell they were doing — looks of surprise, admiration, even mild confusion all rotated on his face.

In some ways Atomic reminded me of The Vandermark 5 in that both these bands find a great balance between traditional and free jazz. I’m getting to see the latter next Friday, and if they put on a show anywhere near as good as last night’s, I’ll be very happy indeed.

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