Listening to……Hilmar Jensson

There’s a well-known Mothers of Invention bootleg  from 1967 where the Mothers deliver one of their excruciating  doo-wop titles like ‘Sharleena‘ or suchlike – I won’t call them parodies, because I have this lurking suspicion that Zappa and his crew had no intention to mock this stuff and often actually preferred playing it to some of Zappa’s more taxing compositions.

Which brings me on to ‘Some ballet music’, the 20-minute long suite that comes next on the tape.  In the interval between the two pieces, Zappa mock-lectures the crowd about how the preceding doo-wop had catered to their base teenage lusts and how the forthcoming ‘Some ballet music’ would appeal to a higher sensibility and how, whilst they would undoubtedly find it challenging, they would inevitably appreciate that it was ‘far better for them in the long run.’ 

The band then launch into ‘Some ballet music ‘ – a piece  never officially released at the time, but one that mixes up sections of 4/4 guitar solos with what sound like excerpts from modern classical wind quintets,  atonal sections in outrageous time signatures, wailing free jazz saxophones  and massed vocal ululations from the band.  In point of fact, we know that Zappa was, even then, carving up tapes of Mothers’ live shows and using chunks of them on his albums, so bits of ‘Some ballet music’ probably sneaked out under another name at some point or another.  For anyone who hasn’t heard ‘Some ballet music’, but is familiar with the band’s ‘official’ catalogue from that era, ‘Little house I used to live in’ from 1970’s ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ would probably be a useful point of reference. 

All of which brings me – finally- to Hilmar Jensson.   I’ve been listening to Hilmar Jensson for a few years now as he is the regular guitar player in Jim Black’s alasnoaxis (no capitals, seemingly).  I was also aware that Jensson had his own band – Tyft – with Black and reeds player Andrew D’Angelo.  Both the aforementioned appear on the album I’ve been listening to, 1995’s ‘Dofinn’, along with Tim Berne and alasnoaxis bass-player and fellow Icelander, Skuli Sverrison.   All of these guys – Jensson & Black in particular – seem to have met up when they were studying at the Berklee College of Music.

Black’s alasnoaxis are probably a useful point of reference for this early solo effort and there are inevitable similarities given the personnel. Like Black’s band, ‘Dofinn’ uses the same loud/soft strategies, Jensson’s guitar squawks and scratches as often as it soars or zooms, the horns play hymn-like ensemble passages as well as dissolving into bubbling solo passages of furious intensity, the sonic palette coalesces then dissolves, beginnings and endings often seem arbitrary, though I’m sure Hilmar would disagree vehemently.  Is this free jazz, post-jazz or just not jazz at all?

jensson 3

Hilmar Jensson – we’re not talking Bert Weedon here….

Going back to Zappa, I have always taken the view that given enough time and the right mood, today’s unlistenable cacophony is tomorrow’s personal favourite.  In other words, listening to this stuff is going to be better for me in the long run than any number of George Benson or Kenny G. albums.    Not that ‘Dofinn‘ is by any means unlistenable to my ears, but for some people it probably would be.

 Jazz is – and probably always has been – a music that lends itself to snobbery – an appreciation of Coltrane’s style somehow implies some specialised radar that enables jazz fans to see beyond the ‘sheets of sound’ to some deeper truth.  What’s more, this is frequently a judgement made by people (like myself) who have no specialised musical knowledge and wouldn’t know a ‘flatted fifth’ if one fell on their heads.  So on what do we base these judgement calls that define whether we like this or that album by this or that performer?  I think mood is often part of it; sometimes a piece or a gig or an album will make a big impact on us but when we return to it a few days or weeks later, we do not connect with the music in quite the same way.

In such a fashion do we define the boundaries of our own ‘taste’.  For example, I know that whilst I can appreciate a lot of what Ornette Coleman does, I’m never going to be a regular listener.  Having said that, I can still remember the first time I heard ‘Free Jazz’ and ‘Ornette plays Tenor’ and the impact they had on me.  I also know that Albert Ayler is and always has been a bridge too far for me.  Sorry, Frank, it might be better for me in the long run but I don’t want to listen to it any more than I want to listen to Anthony Braxton or any of those whose music is really ‘out there’.

By the same token and at the other end of the spectrum, I can’t listen to Kenny G or Jamie Cullum or Norah Jones or Diana Krall – music I would describe with customary jazz sniffiness – as ‘jazz lite’.  I find most bebop totally unlistenable – the only Charlie Parker album I own is the one he did with strings and , for some reason, I have a ‘blind spot’ where Sonny Rollins is concerned.  No idea why.  Sorry Sonny, because you seem like a top bloke in every respect. 

As for ‘Dofinn’, it sits comfortably alongside Jensson’s other work with alasnoaxis and despite an occasional drift towards anarchy, retains enough of a foothold within the parameters of my taste for me to feel challenged yet safe in the knowledge that this is ‘better for me in the long run’ than listening to that ‘Bird & the Bee’ album again…thanks again Frank; nice to know you always had my best interests at heart.


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