Given that freely improvised music has marginal appeal within a minority interest music, starting yet another label to document its progress might seem like a triumph of hope over experience. Yet free improvisation has often had little more to go on than hope so that’s probably fair enough. In the tradition of such labels, SOFA is run by musicians - the drummer Ingar Zach and the guitarist Ivar Grydeland - and is an offshoot of the Norwegian jazz and folk label NOR-CD. As might be expected drummers and guitarists are to the fore. Zach and Grydeland battle it out in a jagged duo set and appear with our own Tony Oxley and Derek Bailey. The Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is given the rare opportunity to record solo and two excellent ensembles, the Sten Sandell Trio and No Spaghetti Edition complete an impressively distinctive debut for the label.
Paal Nilssen-Love’s solo percussion project Sticks and Stones (SOFA 505) is exemplary, balancing the colours of three different drum-kit layouts with meaty ideas. The music hovers delicately or locks into spluttering patterns, with rude interruptions from a host of woodblocks, bells and exotic cymbals. The descriptive sounds Nilssen-Love gets from his cymbals on the delicate «Butterfly Wings» melt in the ear. Nilssen-Love is also responsible for the powerhouse drumming on the scintillating Standing Wave (SOFA 504) from pianist Sten Sandell’s trio with Johan Berthling on bass. Nilssen-Love’s Andrew Cyrille meets Paul Motion playing matches Sandell’s densely ornate lines to perfection. There’s a hint of the Andrew Hills about his playing and though he deals with the tension/release of sonic energy that is food and drink to free music, he does so in a highly original way. Frenetic certainly, but also kaleidoscopic and expansive music which taps into considerable resources of Dionysian energy.
In a turn up for the books, Ingar Zach and Ivar Grydeland’s Visiting Ants (SOFA 502) sounds more like Derek Bailey than the Derek Bailey CD but has a purity and uncompromising quality that is admirable. «Think Happy Thoughts» plunges us into the sort of electronically distorted white noise that makes Jimi Hendrix sound like Nelson Riddle and the rest of the CD is pitched at pretty much the same angular decibel level albeit achieved acoustically. And you’ve got to admire their punning titles, «Sofasticated Lady» and «Sofamiliar».
Bailey’s own Llaer (SOFA 503) is live duo set with Ingar Zach recorded in Oslo in October 2000. The press blurb claims that «everything was right; the music, the venue, the audience and the atmosphere» and the relaxed enjoyment of the players is palpable. The first track opens with the gossamer textures of Bailey’s electric guitar over Zach’s rumbling skins - an unexpected and beautiful sound. Likewise in his solo feature, Bailey comes up with something that hints at a ballad. His playing is spacious, light and airy which in turn brings out Zach’s sensitive side. An engaging addition to the Bailey discography.
Most of Tony Oxley’s Triangular Screen (SOFA 501) was recorded at the same Oslo venue only a few months before Llaer and features Ivar Grydeland with Tonny Kluften on bass. From a slightly prosaic start, the music builds tremendous head of steam. The second section opens with one of those epic Oxley drum solos that sweeps the listener along with its booming power before Grydeland and Kluften enter sounding like one enormous string instrument. This CD is labelled as "Tony Oxley Project 1" so we can hopefully expect more from this most creative of British drummers.
Listen...and tell me what it was (SOFA 506) by the twelve piece ensemble No Spaghetti Edition is a sort of hyper-Sofa experience that has both Nilseen-Love and Zach on drums (and you can tell them apart!), Grydeland on guitar, Pat Thomas on piano and a host of top Norwegian improvisers. The orchestra is a different beast to other improvisation orchestras and achieves a genuinely unified ensemble sound. Rolf Erik Nystrom and Hakon Kornstad’s saxophones only occasionally rise to the surface of a music that is characterised by flowing pointalistic splashes of colour from accordion, female voice and two electric guitars. Surreal recorded extracts appear and the CD is an impressive calling card for the collective vitality of the Norwegian scene.