Graded on a Curve:
Four from El Paraiso Records

Operated by Jonas Munk & Jakob Skøtt, El Paraiso is a Danish label that began back in 2011 as an outlet for the psych-stoner-space rock sounds of Causa Sui, but has since expanded beyond that objective, all while maintaining a focused stylistic vision, expansive yet often heavy, that is well-encapsulated by their most recent releases, The Discipline of Ascent by the Martin Rude & Jakob Skøtt Duo, San Diego Sessions by the Ellis/Munk Ensemble, Aak’Ab by Justin Pinkerton, and Feat. The Legendary Emil Nikolaisen by Fra Det Onde. The first three are out now and the last is available October 2, but please don’t delay in purchasing, as they are all limited on vinyl and are sure to sell out their first pressing.

While none of these new offerings from El Paraiso are accurately categorized as stoner rock in nature, all four can be correctly tagged as creatively searching, if not necessarily psychedelic in comportment. Due to Skøtt and Munk being members of Causa Sui, one might expect the records they play on here to be nearer in sound to that of El Paraiso’s flagship band, but The Discipline of Ascent throws that supposition right out the window.

For the album, Skøtt plays drums, keyboards and contributes effects, while Martin Rude (who teamed with Skøtt in an earlier El Paraiso duo outfit, Sun River, cutting one album back in 2012) handles double bass and guitar, both acoustic and baritone. Given the number of individuals and the amount of instrumentation, it would be fair to assume some overdubbing took place, but the results flow like a live session; Skøtt seems to be doing double duty on the drums and effects, while Rude alternates between bass and guitar.

El Paraiso’s description of the album explains it as an homage to Miles and Coltrane, and especially their drummers Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, and Elvin Jones, though bass titan Mingus is also mentioned, which is fitting, as the sheer heaviness of Rude’s playing in the second track “A New Arrival” reminded me of Mingus’ wild string pulling on Money Jungle. Elsewhere, I thought of Richard Davis, Reggie Workman, and Cecil McBee, and that’s sweet. The infrequent sound of vibraphone had me thinking of Bobby Hutcherson, but in the context of Bitches Brew.

Overall, The Discipline of Ascent’s jazz thrust lands between robust fusion and the Chicago brand of post-rock, but with a more intense kick. However, when Rude switches to guitar, the sound can become far more raga-like, as John Fahey and Sandy Bull are cited models for this aspect of their sound, though just as often there is a blend of glide and heftiness that can suggest Osees (aka The Oh Sees), but more impacted by Popol Vuh than Can, perhaps. That the record’s nine tracks were edited down by Skøtt from hours of tapes led me to think of Teo Macero, which brings us back to around to fusion.

San Diego Sessions documents Munk traveling with his guitar to the city of the title to join forces with keyboardist Brian Ellis (Astra, Psicomagia, Silver Sunshine, etc.) and a few others from the same locale, including drummer Paul Marrone. What they came up with is the closest to Causa Sui of the four records featured here, but with numerous points of departure.

This applies to Ellis’ jazz background, which isn’t especially overt across the record, although a few hints of electric Miles can be heard here and there. More common is a harkening back to organ-driven hard-rock for long stretches that’re reminiscent of early ’70s Deep Purple if they’d carried forth a thread of psychedelia from Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge. Now, that might sound toxic, but the execution is likeably lithe (there’s no plodding, here), with a few spots substantiating the comparison to Can. Which means this one is heavy and tasteful, a fine combo.

Of the album’s spotlighted here, Justin Pinkerton’s Aak’Ab is the one that’s the most immediately unlike the others, as it delivers a generous serving of modular synth in a decidedly post-kosmische style, though the use of effects and keyboards on the above two records does help to establish an undercurrent of stylistic unity.

I’m mainly familiar with Pinkerton as the drummer of San Francisco’s Golden Void, who have released a pair of quality records on the Thrill Jockey label, but this set is also a considerable departure from that scenario. The promo text emphasizes how Aak’Ab is not an exercise in New Age or ambient, which is indeed borne out by the contents, though there is still plenty of drifting involved (as stated, kosmische).

Along with a lack of unnecessary polish, there is variety, as the closing melodic repetition strikes me as a little similar to Fripp & Eno’s Evening Star. With this said, there is an increasing amount of likeminded mod synth stuff on the scene these days; Aak’Ab hangs amongst it quite nicely, but without hitting the upper echelon, though to be fair this is Pinkerton’s first solo effort. Stay tuned, is what I’m saying.

Unless I’m missing evidence to the contrary, Fra Det Onde, who consist of drummer Olaf Olsen, bassist Rune Nergaard, and trumpeter Erik Kimestad Pedersen, are debuting as a unit with this set on El Paraiso, which captures them in collaboration with “elusive noise-guru” Emil Nikolaisen (he of Serena Maneesh) at the mixing desk.

Nikolaisen’s involvement is likened by the label to Teo Macero, which wraps us back around rather nicely to The Discipline of Ascent, except that the producer’s hand is far more discernible on Fra Det Onde’s outing, though this shouldn’t suggest that the band isn’t formidable in their own right, as the six track cohere into a hearty and noisy slice of jazz-rock.

The addition of trumpet may lead to further thoughts of Miles, but Pedersen’s playing hits me more like Freddie Hubbard (which is to say, robust and lyrical) as Olsen and Nergaard get beautifully heavy and cyclical. In summation, fans of aggressive contempo jazz exploration should investigate the Martin Rude & Jakob Skøtt Duo and Fra Det Onde discs first, and again, without delay; those also into expressiveness via synthesizer and classic but inspired rock moves ought to check out the whole bunch.

Martin Rude & Jakob Skøtt Duo,
The Discipline of Ascent

A-

Ellis/Munk Ensemble,
San Diego Sessions

B+

Justin Pinkerton,
Aak’Ab

B+

Fra Det Onde,
Feat. The Legendary Emil Nikolaisen

A-

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