Thomas Stronen, a prolific young Norwegian jazz drummer, lets the cat out of the bag, style-wise, early on his debut solo LP, Pohlitz. To illustrate what I mean: I’m imagining a minimal Scandinavian room, all brushed steel and functional black leather furniture. There’s a wall of windows looking out over a frozen lake. In the soft aftermath of an ice storm, rivulets of ice crack and crinkle in the wind. There is nobody about. So, bare, barren ice-fields or mathematical formulae, then: if you’re hoping for harmony or melody, this isn’t the disc for you.
Stronen’s in a number of bands that I haven’t heard before—Humcru, a theatrical/krautrock/techno/free jazz assimilation of keyboards and drums; Food, an electronic jazz duo with saxophone; Parish, a fuller jazz quartet with piano, bass, drums and saxophone/clarinet; and other projects—and has racked up 29 separate CD appearances in his career so far. Pohlitz is his debut solo release, though, and it’s definitively a solo project: the album was recorded in real time, without pre-programming or overdubs. Add that to the fact that this is a percussion album made without any real drums (just electronic clicks and clacks, and various “beatable items”) and you have an interesting concept indeed.
From the first, Stronen’s enthusiasm for the music he’s making is palpable: a clattering glockenspiel-like sound tinkles confidently on the opening “Heterogeneous Substances”, till the rhythms gently bump against each other in the looped way of Indonesian gamelan music. “E… quilibrium” opens with an ice-pick of tapped out Morse Code. “Dispatches” is more mathematical, and more intricate; the electronic elements highlighted, a cacophony of bell-sounds briefly flares up and disappears. The final, near nine-minute epic, “Natural History of Creation”, predictably builds from a simple theme to greater and greater levels of complexity; a fitting close to the disc.
The live recording lends the music an air of improvisation (though many elements here are so complex that the framework of the compositions, at least, must have been composed beforehand). In fact, you can hear Stronen’s breathing in the microphone while he records “Mutti”. The effect is charming, and injects an unexpectedly human rhythm: amid these mathematical beats, the human breath strains to establish a different, organic rhythm. But not every improvisation is pulled off. A high-cymbal crash anchors the circular “Ingenious Pursuits”, as the tinkle of electronic clicks and clacks runs around and around; the injection of a ringtone-wail, or the wobble of a synth that sounds like R2D2 is startling, and feels a little out of place.
Despite all the hitting and beating, Pohlitz is a fairly quiet disc. Sharing more with Steve Reich’s minimal works than with anything bombastically percussive or overtly jazzy, the compositions exist in their own quiet universe. The tree falling alone in the forest, perhaps, these compositions are so self-sufficient it’s almost as if they don’t care whether you hear them or not. So then, Stronen’s spare, sparse compositions won’t be for everyone. But these clusters of percussive, repetitive tones and complex acoustic drum-beats are interesting, and challenging; a welcome if not fully comprehended addition to my library. It’s all a bit cerebral for this hour of the morning.