From the experiments of the Sun Ra Arkestra and Alex von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity outfit in the ’60s through Charlie Haden’s long-running Liberation Music Orchestra and Mike Westbrook’s Marching Song band to Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers, serious attempts to integrate the extended techniques and strategies of free jazz within the format of a large ensemble have always been worth following. Fifty years ago, Keith Tippett’s short-lived 50-strong Centipede was a spectacular example; now we have a new album from the almost as populous Fire! Orchestra, founded in Sweden 14 years ago as an outgrowth of the trio comprising the saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, the bassist Johan Berthling and the drummer Andreas Werliin.
I saw a version of Fire! Orchestra in London a few years ago and was impressed more by the energy and diversity on display than by the subtlety of their music. In that respect, and others, they reminded me then of Centipede. Their new album, a 2CD or triple vinyl set, finds their membership up to 43 — still seven short of Tippett’s aggregation — but now capable of a much greater range of gesture, texture and attack from their four singers, four strings, eight brass, and 15 reeds and woodwind, plus a panoply of keyboards, electronics, guitar and percussion.
The album’s title, Echoes, is the name for a work in 14 parts involving various composers, mostly Gustafsson, Berthling and Werliin but also the violinist Josefin Runsteen (who also provides arrangements for the two violins and two cellos) and guest saxophonist and singer Joe McPhee, plus one cover: “Cala Boca Menino” by the late Brazilian songwriter Dorival Caymmi. The horn arrangements are by Mats Äleklint, one of the band’s trombonists. The whole thing is beautifully mixed by the much-travelled Jim O’Rourke, a sometime member of Sonic Youth who also mixed Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Joanna Newsom’s Ys.
I won’t attempt a linear description of getting on for two hours of music; for one thing, the individual soloists aren’t identified, so I can’t tell you which of the baritone saxophonists plays the impassioned but beautifully balanced solo against hovering strings on the opening “I See Your Eye, Part 1” (which you can hear on this page from their label’s website) or which bassist contributes the insisted strumming above the atmospheric electronics and chattering woodwind on “Not Yet Born, the Blind Courage of Life”. But although that’s the kind of thing I usually care about, in this case it doesn’t really matter. As with Centipede, it’s the totality of the thing that counts: not just the weight and momentum of the riff passages but the fine detail (for example, the contrast of douss’ngouni and bass introducing “Forest Without Shadows”, or the exquisite tapestry of sound behind the beautiful lone female voice on “To Gather It All. Once.”) discernible even amid the mass.
If there are some familiar devices, such as the use of slow-moving written lines for horns and strings against busy percussion, there’s no sense of cliché. And what you won’t find is much in the way of the collective freak-outs familiar from the early years of such ventures. For all the musicians’ fervour, both explicit and implicit, this is music in which the free play of ensemble and individual imagination is tempered by an intelligent degree of control. When an explosion does come along (and there are a couple), it’s a shock and is either brief or carefully resolved: an example of the sort of tactical astuteness characteristic of what will undoubtedly be one of the albums of the year.
* Fire! Orchestra’s Echoes is on the Rune Grammofon label. The band photograph is by Johan Bergmark.