Album reviews

Undercurrent Orchestra – ‘Everything Seems Different’

Undercurrent Orchestra – Everything Seems Different

(Zennez Records ZR2109020. Album review by Len Weinreich)

According to my memory (an increasingly fallible source), from 1919 onwards, the jazz repertoire makes no reference to the devastating Spanish ’flu epidemic. But, a century later, social attitudes have changed and a group of musicians from the Netherlands have made what must surely be the first jazz album inspired by the current pandemic: Everything Seems Different by the Undercurrent Orchestra.

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In normal circumstances, when the need for describing loss, catastrophe and disappointment arises, jazz has a compartment especially reserved: the all-encompassing blues, its most popular and enduring form. But when an artist tries to convey the sheer enormity of Covid-19, ‘normal circumstances’ can’t oblige. Possibly the reason why the Undercurrent Orchestra called this album Everything Seems Different.

Comprising eleven tracks (ten original compositions and one standard), Everything Seems Different proposes a set of soundtracks to accompany the dizzying gamut of emotions experienced over the past two years (according to the sleeve: “dreamy soundscapes, solid grooves and burning improvisations create a strong story in multiple layers. The cinematic pieces tell a story about fear and hope, boredom and inspiration, sadness and joy”). That’s a whole bunch of see-sawing moods expressed through ensemble, solo and group improv, impressionistically slipping between thoughtful arrangements, loose affiliations and uninhibited free music, all suspended over an eclectic set of rhythms. The Orchestra, enthusiastically underlined by drummer Marcos Baggiani, picks and mixes beats from samba, railways, Saharan caravans and horseback.

Unrestrained by bass or keyboard, the musicians provide intriguing tonal colours from combinations like Annie Tangberg’s cello and Guillermo Celano’s guitar. Fascinating to hear a trio of trumpet, clarinet and Joost Buis’trombone (the classic New Orleans’ frontline) blowing to unusual effect. However, they reach a new high (or should that read ‘low’?) for musical melancholia by pairing Iman Spaargaren’s bass clarinet (notoriously known to musicians as ‘the Gloom Tube’) with cello (hardly the sunniest of strings). Elsewhere, Spaargaren’s tenor saxophone conjures faraway traces of Stan Getz’s translucent sound. And I could swear I heard Gerard Kleijn pay homage to Chet Baker (a fellow trumpet player whose life ended messily in Amsterdam).

The final track seems a curious choice: Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s perennial Smoke Gets In Your Eyes from 1933, performed almost chorally with no drums, luscious rich chords and great respect. The reason, according to Spaargaren’s notes, is that it expresses “a longing for freedom and carelessness.”

There will be no end to artistic interpretation of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the courageous Undercurrent Orchestra were certainly among the first to tackle this toughest of subjects. And, what’s more, have done a commendable job. Faithful studio presence supplied by producer Hans Ravestein.

Iman Spaargaren tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Gerard Kleijn trumpet,flugel horn; Joost Buis trombone; Annie Tangberg cello, effects; Guillermo Celano guitar, effects; Marcos Baggiani drums, percussion. Recorded Studio Groenland, Hilversum, Netherlands, March & April 2021.

LINK Everything Seems Different at Zennez Records

Iman Spaargaren’s website

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