Review: Fusk “Fusk”
Avant-garde jazz is very much an acquired taste. Realistically, fearless iconoclasts such as Cecil Taylor and Charles Gayle are never going to enjoy mainstream acceptance. But for those who do comprehend avant-garde jazz, it can be quite a pleasure to hear left-of-center musicians playing the type of music they enjoy instead of catering to a program director or a marketing department. And that play-what-you-feel-in-your-gut ethos is very much at work on this self-titled album by Fusk, a European avant-garde jazz quartet consisting of leader Kasper Tom Christiansen (who is from Denmark and writes most of the material) on drums, Berlin-born Philipp Gropper on sax, Denmark native Andreas Lang on upright bass and German-born Rudi Mahall on bass clarinet. Fusk’s material is greatly influenced by Ornette Coleman, and there are also direct or indirect influences ranging from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) to Thelonious Monk (who was very much a bebopper rather than an avant-garde artist but influenced a lot of people in jazz’ avant-garde). Fusk isn’t groundbreaking. No one who has spent a lot of time listening to avant-garde jazz will find this album to be terribly original. But Fusk’s performances are likable nonetheless, and there is no shortage of enthusiasm on this 2010 recording.
To understand why Fusk have been directly or indirectly affected by the AACM, one needs to understand what it was that the AACM brought to the table in the 1960’s and 70’s. Back then, members of the AACM (including Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams) became known for a type of avant-garde jazz that made extensive use of space and was quite a contrast to the harsh, claustrophobic, brutally dense approach that Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and post-1964 John Coltrane were known for. The AACM aesthetic was every bit cerebral and abstract, but reflective and pensive rather than blistering and confrontational. Fusk follows suit on this album, but never becomes overly abrasive. They don’t shy away from the complex and chaotic moments, but as free-spirited as they are, tracks like “Freunde der Guten Musik,” “Kamienna Wola,” “The Attack of the Überpea” and “Neun Zehn Schlafen Gehen” never engage in sensory assault for the sake of sensory assault. They are a long way from the scorching take-no-prisoners approach that one might associate with saxophonist Charles Gayle (a true free jazz firebrand) or with Coltrane on his merciless Om album.
“November” is a perfect example of Fusk’s use of the AACM aesthetic. Performed at a slow tempo, this moody and dusky piece has a jazz-noir sensibility and is perhaps the closest that this release gets to mainstream post-bop. Space is also used effectively on the mysterious “Chief,” the eerie “Kamienna Wola” and the bluesy “Berliner Bratwunder,” which sounds a bit like Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’.” These tracks are pensive and nuanced, not heavy-handed.
Saying that Fusk would rather reflect and contemplate than confront is not to say that this album is without passion. There are plenty of passionate moments here. But the thing is that when Fusk decides to blow off some steam at times, they will build up to it rather than giving the listener scorching chaos from start to finish. There are some chaotic moments on “Eins Zwei Polizei,” “Ein Kopf Kaffe, Bitte” and the quirky “The Attack of the Überpea,” but it isn’t the sort of nonstop chaos and relentless sensory assault that the more extreme artists in jazz’ avant-garde are known for. Nuance is not a mere afterthought on this album, but an integral part of what Fusk do. And it should also be noted that Christiansen, Gropper, Lang and Mahall have a strong sense of teamwork on this album. The four of them are very much in sync, and together, they achieve a genuine group sound; they give the impression that they went into the studio with a sense of purpose.
Fusk’s self-titled release is thoughtful. Outright bedlam is something that they avoid. And while this isn’t an exceptional album, it is certainly a decent, if derivative, outing from this part-Scandinavian, part-German quartet.
Review by Alex Henderson
Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)