“Atomic continues to mine its unique meeting place of American-centric free jazz, Scandinavian melodies and a personal approach to composition-cued spontaneity.” John Kelman All About Jazz
Scandinavian supergroup Atomic began their career confounding convention and eighteen extraordinary years later they are still at it. The band’s latest album, Pet Variations, a signature blend of impassioned jazz and rebooted contemporary-classicism, is a fresh departure from the norm. First, the backstory…
The first convention Atomic dismissed was the “Scandinavian sound” then expected of bands from Norway and Sweden. The style, which emerged during the late 1980s, was conceived by ECM label founder Manfred Eicher as an alternative to the American, and particularly African-American, jazz tradition. It eschewed emotional engagement in favour of a resolutely ascetic approach, and often borrowed harmolodic motifs from Scandinavian folk music. There was nothing wrong with that, but by 2000 the paradigm had become a one-size-fits-all rule book. What had once been liberating was now restricting.
Atomic, by contrast, regarded the American tradition as an inspiration and made it a cornerstone of their style. They debuted with the appropriately titled Feet Music in 2001, an album which fizzed with energy, emotion and a sense of fun. By the time their second album, Boom Boom, was released in 2003, the band had shaken up the Scandinavian jazz world and found an enthusiastic new audience for the music.
The second convention Atomic rejected was the notion that hot jazz and conservatoire sensibilities are incompatible. From the start, the work of modernist composers such as Edgard Varese has echoed in the compositions of Fredrik Ljungkvist and Håvard Wiik, who write most of the band’s material. Atomic did not invent this synthesis, of course, other free spirits came before them. George Russell and Gunther Schuller were mixing things up in the 1940s and 1950s. Frank Zappa’s inspirations as a teenager were the unlikely pairing of doo-wop and Varese. But few bands have blended soulful jazz with cerebral European composers as intoxicatingly as Atomic, creating an emotionally as well as intellectually rich package.
Reinterpreting other composers
Which brings us to the latest convention to be ignored by the group. Having forged an identity with original material, few bands give over an album to the work of other composers. But this is what Atomic do on Pet Variations, interpreting pieces by musicians as diverse as Olivier Messiaen and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson – and making every track resoundingly their own. Among the handful of jazz artists who have pulled off a similar feat was Rahsaan Roland Kirk on his album Other Folks’ Music (which, coincidentally or not, was recorded around the same number of years into Kirk’s career as Pet Variations is into Atomic’s).
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