It seems to be in the nature of Norwegian musicians to collaborate far and wide. Maybe it’s coming from such a sparsely populated country or perhaps it’s just that they are better at sharing ideas than most. This is true of the country’s foremost groove crafter Bugge Wesseltoft and it’s even more so with percussionist and electronic musician Thomas Strønen. In a career spanning just over twenty years he has made albums with well over twenty different musicians. Most, like Strønen, are not terribly well known outside of jazz circles but the less obscure include Iain Ballamy with whom he plays as Food, pianist Bobo Stenson, trumpet player Nils Petter Molvaer and the aforementioned Mr Wesseltoft.
For this his third solo album Strønen has gathered most but not all of the musicians that joined him for 2015’s Time is a Blind Guide, this being the name of his all acoustic, instrumental band. For Lucus he’s joined by pianist Ayumi Tanaka who apparently reached out to the percussionist from Japan. The rest of the quintet are a string trio of sorts with Häkon Aase on violin, British cellist Lucy Railton and Ole Morten Vågan on double bass. It’s not a conventional line up and the music they make is no less unusual, instead it’s full of ideas and interactions that make it a fascinating listen. Lucus also sounds superb, you know when you have to turn up the volume to hear the quiet bits that there is potential for real dynamic range and so it proves in the long run.
Strønen is careful to avoid being the dominant force in the 11 improvised tunes but you can tell by the credits that he was directing the course of events on all but one of them. Yet the mix doesn’t give any single musician more exposure than the rest, the emphasis is always on the collective sound, the exception being the occasions where only one person is playing, but that rarely lasts for long. The recording is full of space and natural sounding reverb that highlights the fabulous timbre of the stringed instruments in particular. It should be pointed out that these are not played in a style that could be mistaken for a string section, there are a couple of occasions when two play the same notes together but the sound they make is raw and gutty rather than silky.
The album starts out beautifully with a tranquil piece that sounds like waves gently lapping on the shore yet gradually building in intensity, but by the second piece, Friday, things are a little darker and have a stronger but not emphatic rhythmic drive thanks to plucked double bass. There are one or two places where a couple of musicians provide a relatively straight rhythm while the rest of the band play with shadows and light but for the most part this is free form music that avoids sounding like jazz. The strings help here, especially when they are plucked and scraped, and this is a lot more appealing that it might sound, Strønen has clearly set out not to jar but to coerce the listener’s imagination. It’s hard to categorise the music on Lucus but not so difficult to let its inventiveness spirit you away.