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Review: Tur an improvisational showcase that demands focus

"I don’t find two sips of wine more delicious than one," a fictional assassin tells his nemesis, who's uncomfortable with his host's relative sobriety at a dinner where they sample many bottles. It's a mentality listeners of a new album by a collection of northern Norway musicians should adopt as its improvisational energy is expressed in a multitude of ways that's anything but comfortable.

"Tur" by the Tromsø Kunstforsyning, led by longtime Norwegian trombonist Øystein Blix and cellist Bernt Simen Lund, soothes with classical strings one minute, agitates the next with harsh-timbre freeform interplay and marches to the beat of drums from around the world. Although generally mellow, this is music for those seeking an intellectual exercise instead of a background aphrodisiac for a dinner date.

"Trying to do something else while listening to this music is hard," Blix agreed in an interview. "You really don't know what is coming next, so you have to be all ears. You can relax and listen, but you can't wash dishes."

The album, released March 9, is promoted as "an idea of what improvised music can sound like at 70° north in 2009." The performances are somewhat dated, consisting of studio material from a 2000 session and a live performance in 2005. New electronics added to the mix during the past year help convey a contemporary presence. There's no audience noise or significant audio differences that distinguish the live and studio recordings.

Tromsø Kunstforsyning was formed in 1999 based on concepts Blix learned at the Trondheim Music Conservatory, getting musicians from a range of genres to improvise together. Blix said the Tromsø ensemble goes beyond music, working with dancers, artists, and theater actors, which is one of the reasons the recordings haven't been released before.

"The CD has not been the top priority," he said. "The top priority has been working with other people improvising in many senses."

A CD can't convey the ensemble's full concept, Blix said, so "the next project in three, four or five years will definitely have to be a DVD."

An album release concert is scheduled at 8 p.m. April 14 at the Rådstua Teaterhus in Tromsø. Among the performers is Japanese vocalist Sizzle Ohtaka, who appears on Tur's live tracks. Blix said that appearance was an improvisation in itself after she learned about Tromsø's annual Northern Lights Festival.

"She sent a note and asked if she could come, and then the director of the festival was thinking about me and the Tromsø Kunstforsyning because he couldn't think of anybody else to work with that kind of music on such short notice," he said.

Tur's compositions are solid and the spontaneous dialogue intelligent, in contrast to far too many modern improvisational albums possessing the discipline of a political panel shoutfest on cable TV. Density is on the sparse side, an enormous plus since it gives listeners space to interpret individual performances instead of trying to "relate" to conceptual clutter too distorted to be heard clearly.

The opening six-minute "Mother Nature" sets a deceptively smooth mood with some minimalist New Age instrumentation serving as a non-obtrusive delivery vehicle for Ohtaka's lightly wistful verses. Her light touch is appreciable in the context of the entire project, but listeners auditioning the track at the store may come away thinking the album is too tame.
Those who linger can hear the diversity and strength of Tur on the subsequent "Valse Vi," a shifting instrumental march cadence with three times the interaction and variety of "Mother Nature" in less than a third of the time.

The title track is an intriguing mix of frenetic African/early fusion drums, intense clipped lyrics from Ohtaka, and growled embellishments by Blix. Like the opening track it doesn't develop extensively, but the intensity makes it a superior listen.

Development isn't a problem on another extended track, "Fools Rush In," a Middle Eastern composition which Blix introduces with a progression of coarse narratives. Ohtaka and Blix then trade interactive and solo improvisations as the rhythm section of Nasra Ali Omar (percussion and electronics), Håvard Graff (piano) and Trond Sverre Hansen (drums) lay a foundation variable enough to maintain interest without distracting.

Subtle interactions of vocals, trombone and electronics reward the careful listener on the oddly named "Sizzle" (even if it is for the singer). Similarly quiet pieces are the best way to appreciate Lund's cello, including "To Fine Ii" and "Karikari," the latter closing the album on a harmoniously quaint classical/ambient note.

Tur's navigation between intellectual orchestration and eclectic world freeform makes it an album with limited audience appeal. Within those boundaries it delivers solidly with few disappointments and few revelational moments. It certainly has the potential to whet the appetite for experiencing the ensemble with visual artists performing at their full potential.

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