Large ensemble improv can go in a number of ways, ranging from sparse to chaotic. Mats Gustafsson’s NU Ensemble has been around in one form or another for 25 years. Members come and go, always changing. On this newly-released recording from 2016, we have Anna Högberg on sax, Gustafsson on sax and conduction, Susana Santos Silva on trumpet, Per-Åke Holmlander on tuba, Hedvig Mollestad on guitar, Dieb13 on turntables. Christof Kurzmann on lloopp and voice, Massimo Pupillo on bass, Gert-Jan Prins on drums and electronics, and Ivar Loe Bjørnstad on drums.
Not unlike the constituency of the group, the music is also amoeba-like – without strict boundaries and constantly changing. Over two long tracks, Gustafsson leads his colleagues through dense guided improvisations, not completely free-formed but incorporating numerous open-ended passages. This is coupled with a thick sound, as horns and reeds lay down primary themes while the pair of drummers work around these.
To that point, the first track begins with a quiet, textural intro that evolves into a cymbal-laden interlude, and then breaks out into a main melody. But even when Gustafsson imposes structure, there is room for individual musician autonomy. The core of this melody is not particularly involved, but the players use it as a base for further exploration. As more and more layers come in, this piece takes on a more hefty nature, with deep tones and an urgent feel. But before this approach wears out its welcome, a quieter free section emerges with spurts of noises from the saxes and tuba. Polyphonic lines ensue with effects from the turntable and lloopp software, resulting in a pleasantly frenzied mass of sounds. Then there is a reprise of the main theme with wailing guitar from Mollestad.
The second track follows in a similar manner, mixing composition and improvisation. It begins with massive full-group walls of sound, Kurzmann has a lengthy yet unobtrusive spoken-word passage, Mollestad again contributes heavily, with jagged riffs, and the sax and brass sections provide angular leads.