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Ditty Blei

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Album Review

Hilmar Jensson might be a jazz guitarist, but he's not necessarily one of jazz's nice guys. His textures, harmonic choices, and rhythms often steer closer to experimental rock and even post-grunge than mainstream post-bop, and you can forget about gauzy chord washes or flirtations with widescreen Americana (isn't it about time to make Icelandia a musical style?). So for those seeking unpredictability in their jazz (and who also prefer music that keeps them awake), here's your man. Ditty Blei is Jensson's second Songlines release, following 2003's crazily diverse Tyft. This new recording sounds "jazzier" than Tyft, due in large degree to the expanded lineup that adds trumpeter Herb Robertson and bassist Trevor Dunn to the core trio of Jensson on guitar, Jim Black on drums, and Andrew D'Angelo on alto sax and bass clarinet. But the lineup is only one element that tilts Ditty Blei further toward jazz. A greater sense of flow also permeates the recording; Jensson has penned music with a seamless feel regardless of its startling contrasts. And there is a bright melodicism present in memorable themes the band almost seems to stumble upon by accident (the opening "Letta"), although even then little dissonances from a broken guitar phrase or ragged horn blurt can often be heard flitting around the edges. If there's an element to be singled out as one of the least jazzy aspects of Ditty Blei, it might be Jensson's skewed sense of rhythm, brought to life by Dunn and the incomparable Black. At least on the evidence so far, Jensson would appear to have a severe allergy to swinging tempos; while forward momentum is important, keeping the listener off-center is a guiding principle. Start tapping your foot and you never lose the sense of pulse, but given all the odd meters you're also in and out of sync with the band from measure to measure. Few groups could navigate this knotty stuff so gracefully. Jensson has also penned material that takes full advantage of this quintet configuration and the highly idiosyncratic styles of the individual musicians — which means there are plenty of opportunities for Robertson and D'Angelo to cut loose with their deliriously over-the-top approaches to vocalizing through their horns ("Grinning," "Gobbles"). Unlike some of the more relentless free jazz exercises, however, Jensson knows these top-shelf improvisers have a deep capacity for lyricism, so he provides them with opportunities to display that talent as well, as on the folkish "Correct Me if I'm Right" and the understated conclusion of "Grinning." These tracks feature some of the leader's finest work on acoustic guitar, proving that he can be a nice guy if he puts his mind to it. [Ditty Blei is another Songlines showcase for Super Audio Direct Stream Digital technology, developed for those who find that conventional CDs just don't sound good enough, dammit.]

Ditty Blei, Hilmar Jensson
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