Jasper Hoiby, doublebass – Fellow Creatures – Edition EDN1075, 55:11 (7/15/16) *****:

(Jasper Hoiby – bass, composer/ Mark Lockheart – saxophones/ Laura Jurd – trumpet/ Will Barry – piano/ Corrie Dick – drums)

Vital new music from a Danish bassist and composer that features group interaction at the highest level.

As I look out the window at the mud and the rain on what seems like an especially cruel and dark November day, I can’t say that I’m in the mood for an up rendition of “Autumn Leaves.” Nor does the doctor recommend any nerve-flaying aggression. Likewise, I politely decline musical narcotics and soporifics, accepting the condition of being fully awake in the world.  What is called for is a new music which will affirm the old verities: Intelligent composition, comradely interaction, and hard swinging. If it can conjure up a world that is friendly to man and beast, all the better.

We first meet Jasper Hoiby standing on a dock in Denmark. He looks like a thoughtful Viking, who, having surveyed the blue horizon, has decided to do some work on the land. [I thought he was just thinking “Why are you taking a photo of me?”…Ed.]  The title “Fellow Creatures” and the liner notes suggest an ecological subtext to the recording. We are all ears as we audition this Anglo-Dane ensemble of five unknown musicians.

On The first track “Folk Song,” the bass steps forth and makes a declaration as if laying out an agenda. Front line unison ensues.  Then the ensemble congregates in earnest contemplation of minor chords. Some spacious free-playing polyphony gathers itself into a query as if asking something serious like Kierkegaard’s  “How shall we then live?” or perhaps nothing more than “What should we play, boys?” The unlikely answer comes as a gentle folk song. The simplicity seems hard-won, its beauty chiseled out of hardship.  As a composition, the piece succeeds brilliantly.

The second piece, “Fellow Creatures,” clocks in at 7:29 but has little in the way of conventional soloing. Rather, a marvelous group polyphony weaves through a medium-tempo groove, the bass prominent in a dialogue with the drums while the melody instruments mostly stick together. Next, “World Of Contradictions” presents a metrical puzzles aplenty, but the group stays on track on another composition

On “Little Song For Humanity” the theme is shaped into upward-inflected questions. There is a feeling of suspension and unresolved business, as if humanity still has a chance but the odds are long. Another way to look at the piece is as a concerto for drums. Corrie Dick is everywhere on his kit, peppering the discourse with optimism that flies in the face of the sober front-line.

“Song For the Bees” is a nimble dance based on a groovy bass rift.  It’s all call and response after the bridge.  Mark Lockheart likes the lower register of his saxophone and reminds one of Marty Ehrlich in his tone and economy. Laura Jurd plays here, as does everyone on the record, with expressive range and tremendous rapport.

Collective Spaces” begins with the bass stepping out carefully with a simple dotted figure. Soprano and trumpet pick up the theme and initiate some dazzling phase playing, one instrument shadowing the other. Bass and drums join the exacting antiphony, and the piece ends without anyone’s soloing; a breathtaking miniature.

There is no slackening of the pace on “Suddenly, Everyone,” on which, first, the trumpet shines, then a bass solo seems to instruct the group about dynamics.  By now, we are so happy about these compositions and the ensemble playing that we ask ourselves why this sort of swinging chamber-jazz approach hasn’t been essayed more often.

Before” is a curious sax and bass duo played in unison, with a wonky, folk-music feel.  Good luck transcribing this meter, musicians.  Not a note is wasted; it seems to be a short contemplation of something carefully made, like the very nice dock on the cover photo.

There is some laughing and growling in the studio on the final “Plastic Island,” which feels like the last stop on a pub-crawl. We are outside a Copenhagen bar, and it’s rather late, but no one wants to go home.  Bass and drums hold down a dark groove, cluster chords, add some menace. The sax squawks while the trumpet adds a note of mariachi warble to her tone. But even in this frothy atmosphere, sophisticated ensemble interaction and shifts in dynamics and meter add to the theater.

This is a particularly sympathetic group of musicians working with an original jazz concept. Fellow Creatures may turn out to be my favorite releases of the year.  Jasper Hoiby and his fellows have raised a brilliant banner in honor of fellowship and creativity. It is a grand achievement!

TrackList: Folk Song; Fellow Creatures; World of Contradictions; Little Song For Mankind; Song For The Bees; Tangible; Collective Spaces; Suddenly, Everyone; Before; Plastic Island;

—Fritz Balwit