Label Report: Slask Records

Steve Koenig

[April 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:5.]

Bo Stefan Lundquist started Slask a decade ago, in Styrsö, Sweden, originally calling it Varm Snö. Thinking the Swedish letter ö would be hard to reproduce outside of his country, he changed it to Slask. Slask means hot snow, or slush, or sink. It’s a label that offers, as we Americans say, the whole kitchen sink. “We’re Interested in music that other labels didn’t want,” Lundquist tells me. The music sent for review covers a wide range of styles.

Billed as a classical composer, Sven-Eric Johanson’s disc Rotas Tenet (Slask SLACDV01, 35:49, 1986/1994) is based, according to the liner notes, on an anagram of Pater Noster. It’s tonal, although based on a twelve-tone series, and played on an Emulator II sampling keyboard. The first movement, “Rotas I,” makes me long to hear the piece orchestrated for, er, orchestra. I hear a tympanic shuffle-rhythm, then a violin obbligato. Good old-fashioned eastern-Euro sound-clusters hover over this, as sound textures shift like clouds of various densities over a landscape.

The second movement offers electronic chunks, clinks, and vibes, chords and prefabricated rhythms. The third adds electronic vocal and bird twittering, and finally, “Rotas IV” offers fast-paced rhythm and a grand-organ-like finale, although “Tenet I-V” is apparently part of the full disc-long composition. “Tenet” begins with cute little cross-rhythms, eventually offering some interesting squeaks which made me think of tribbles. [No, we don’t know what they are. Ed.] The pieces finally fades to the electronic sound of organ with guitar or harp pluckings. This disc might be tasty to those who enjoy the ascetic Arvo Pärt school mixed with the prog-rock minimalism of David Borden’s “Continuing Story of Counterpoint.”

Peter Hanson composed Trajectories (Slask SLACD015, 68:51, 1996) for vibes and gongs. “Oktober,” for vibraphone, has some interesting sonorities, although compositionally it is nothing new. ” ’If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep,’ ” for vibes and Javanese gongs, is a strict double canon in six part, which goes nowhere. The title piece, “Trajectory No. 1,” is a fifty-five minute piece which, the composer says, is “furniture music” a la Satie’s concept, “which doesn’t demand a concentrated, focused listener.” Unfortunately, it was all too easy to oblige. I wandered around the house, cooking cleaning, and it made for better listening that way.

My favorite ambient disc is Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, with its repetitive melodies pleasing, yet moving when heard at a barely audible level. “Trajectories” is closer in sound, but not effect, to Morton Feldman’s work. The cover says, “Please note these pieces are all low dynamic.” I found setting the volume appropriately low to be more detrimental to the music than playing it loudly.

The packaging is strikingly handsome, in a gatefold all-cardboard pack with an inside slot for the booklet, facing a die-cut slot which holds the disc. The graphics are a beautiful close-up of perhaps white lace on beige, which at first glance appears to be abstract, or a piece of matzoh.

Composer Olov Franzén’s disc Beyond: Music for Winds and Piano (Slask SLACD003, 67:36, 1991) has all the right motives: he claims to compose for “positive life values…a deeper reality.” Luckily, you don’t need to belong to a cult to listen to the disk. It’s composed “classical” music, not new age meditational stuff. The title piece, for symphonic brass band, starts with wind-traditional forest twitterings, but there are slurs and noise to break the calm. The composer claims “beyond” is about passing boundaries. I hear this programmatically, but it breaks no boundaries musically, though it is a pleasant enough journey with sufficient diversion.

“It’s Getting Sunny (Det Dolnar)” is also for brass band, and much more exciting. The curmudgeon in me recoils from the title, but the piece is interesting, with Bernsteinian brass chords and pauses and clichés, so I guess I’ll stick to my idea that this is before the sun comes. There are allusions to Shostakovich symphonies: vibraphones and military drumbeat. I assume the chimes at the end symbolize hope, as the notes say the piece “alludes to the year 1988, which was a year of remarkable progress towards peace.”

“Relaxation,” for piano clarinet and piano, toys with minimalism and I have minimal patience with being toyed with. “H-Musik” for wind quartet does a bunch of things and then it’s over in ten minutes. “A Voce Basso” is for low-voiced solo piano, and much more interesting. Franzén notes that although the piece is slight, it has an appeal that rises above the seemingly random piano runs. I concur; it’s my favorite piece here, holding my interest through its dozen minutes. “Enlivenment,” for four woodwinds and piano, closes the disc, setting up intrigue with a wandering film-noire piano line, with the winds adding a mood of impending events. The program notes speak of the evolution and death of a seed, but to me, it’s a nice little piece of abstract story-telling.

Three of Slask’s jazz improv discs include percussionist Peeter Uuskyla. His solo disc is Calling Everything Drawings (Slask SLACD017, 55:27, 1997). The booklet is striking; no text, but eight panels of multimedia collage on canvas. There are no notes in the booklet, and eight untitled tracks. Not one of them makes me think, smile, or sway, which is strange, because his two-minute solo which leads off the Biggi Vinkeloe Trio disc Claq (Slask SLACD016, 55:34, 1996), while doing nothing fancy, has panache. It’s a perfect introduction to Vinkeloe’s Evan Parkerish squiggles on alto sax which start this series of nineteen short tracks, “composed and structured” by the leader.

I’m not sure what he means by structured, but the tracks are sequenced for maximum cumulative effect through flow, variety, and wit. There are solos, duos, trios, fast and slow. Vinkeloe sometimes plays flute. Peter Friis Nielsen completes the trio on electric bass, although he doesn’t appear until track seven. His sound is interesting, the tone reminding me of Ron Carter’s piccolo bass. He doesn’t keep time; his style is that of the free guitar players. With a unity of spirit, and excellent programming, Claq is a keeper.

Vinkeloe has another trio disc, One Way Out (Slask SLACD018, 65:04, 1998), this time with the great Barre Phillips on acoustic bass, and the group is billed Vinkeloe-Phillips-Uuskyla. Here is a different mood from the start, with all three musicians playing throughout the disc. Phillips provides an anchor for his mates, at least in terms of his playing. He is the strongest of the trio, but doesn’t show off; he creates cohesion. Phillips is an asset to every disc I’ve heard him on, even solo. Here, all three musicians get equal writing credit. Most of the tracks are between two and six minutes, except for “One Way Out,” clocking in at twenty-two, the only one which meanders.

I first heard One Way Out playing at my favorite record store. I bought it after hearing the first few tracks. Then I contacted Bo Stefan Lundqvist to see what else his label had to offer. The Slask roster boasts two sets of “brothers,” the Jack Brothers and the Karl Brothers. Nope, these are not country-Svensk sangern, both groups jazz-rockers, but with different, immediately identifiable styles and sounds.

The Karl Brothers’ disc Air Change (Slask SLACD009, 69:38, 1994) opens with brother Jörgen Adolfsson and Tommy Adolfsson doing a chattering free improv on soprano sax and trumpet. This segues into a beautiful piece for conch shell: a pulse from a conch loop slowly propels beautiful trumpet-like solos from three different-sized conch shells. Those who’ve never heard conch shells and suspect them to be a gimmick are urged to listen to Steve Turre’s beautiful and exciting Sanctified Shells (Antilles 314 514 186-2), as well as the pieces on this disc.

What delights me about Air Change is the variety of sonorities provided by the varied instrumentation: plastic tube flute, wooden cornet, contrabass clarinet, Tibetan horn, and oh no, midi guitar connected to a Casio CZ-101. If I merely read this line-up, I’d say, all right, the kids are just trying to show off. Listening gives an altogether different story; the thirteen tracks all use different sounds, moods, textures, yet there is a unity. Nothing is used gratuitously, and nothing is overplayed.

This is a long disc, yet I never feel the need for a breather. To be all things to all people, one usually must dilute one’s core, yet Air Change never does. I believe the Karl Brothers would appeal equally, strange as it sounds, to those who like Evan Parker free-jazz, ECM style landscapes, noise and drone freaks, and computer music lovers. To clarify: this is not new age music; this is not for meditation and stupor.

Apparently, Alice Coltrane and Blue Note/EMI each got into an overprotective tizzy when The Jack Brothers decided to hijack John’s compositions and give ’em a good time on Coltrane King (Slask SLACD108, 59:24, 1998 remastering). Shame on them; these guys breathe life into Coltrane’s tunes, and make you regret those purchases you’ve made of mummified ’Trane tribs. If all this band had was style, they’d be another Martin, Medeski, Wood (who are excellent musicians, to my taste, except when together).

The Jacks play tunes which, let’s face it, are tunes. Indeed, these are standards: “Naima,” “Blue Train,” “India,” “Mr P. C.” (for bassist Paul Chambers, kiddies; this was before the term “politically correct”). “Africa” appropriates Garry Glitter’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Part 2,” and adds a text by William Blake, sung Tom Waits-style. It is clever, but it still works after the third or tenth listening. Sometimes the rhythm is skiffle, sometimes balladic with free-improv underplay, sometimes true funk. They add vocals, Phil Minton-like (I missed Minton’s February 28th concert at Merkin Hall, but all reports are positive raves), and Hendrixy-guitar, and sometimes texts.

When I started to dance to the Jack Brothers’ “A Love Supreme: Acknowledgement,” I knew somebody did something right. They add a Kwakiutl poem about being a man, and conclude with the chant, “A Love Supreme,” as in the original. Sacrilegious, I know, but Coltrane’s own A Love Supreme doesn’t move me, though I transcend every time I hear Coltrane’s sensory-overload masterpiece Ascension. A ten-minute “Blue Minor” closes Coltrane King, the only trite performance, especially as it is followed by a hidden six-minutes of silence. (The piece is listed as being sixteen minutes.) What’s the best thing a tribute can do? Make you hear things afresh: love the tribute, go back to the source, and hold both close to your heart. This does that.

The Jack Brothers have an eponymous prior disc (Slask SLACD 007, 54:37, 1994), which is a honking, bar-hopping blues disc with a strong jazz aspect. The horns in the above disc feature a Trane-ish tenor as a strong component of the overall sound. Here, they are of the gruff Illinois Jacquet-Arnett Cobb variety, covering many standards, such as “You Gotta Help Me” and “St James Infirmary,” interspersed with a handful of Swedish folk tunes. If you like this style, this disc is much better than the average soul-less blues releases from Alligator or Pointblank.

Anitas Livs is a Swedish trio, led by singer Anita Livstrand. Are they pop or world music? One record store I frequent puts anything with a vaguely foreign name in their world music section, where I have been able to get some great Japanese free-jazz imports for a fin. World Wide Web (Slask SLACD014, 47:17, 1995) tries to grab everything in its net: trad Sweden, India, Tibet, Sam Cooke, Billie, and even the Glimmer Twins. If your collection contains lots of Rounder and Ryko world music, you can safely add this Anita Livs disc to your collection.

Sunday Tea Ensemble is typical of some of the aspects of Slask which keep it from getting wider distribution, through no fault of its own. It does a variety of things well and on Echo of A City (SlaskSLACD011, 1995), a unique blend of Arabic music and songs, relates a story, by director Stefano Musitano, about a girl named Ritza (the title track, sung in Arabic) who runs off to the city. All kinds of Khalil Gibran-like poesie gets recited, in Arabic, as is fit, and in Swedish and English. The sound nods to the modern traditional Arab orchestra.

Unfortunately the lyrics in English cause one to cringe. I can’t vouch for the Swedish lyrics. Think of the prog-rock band Renaissance, and you’ll get a sense of the triviality of the words, though the ensemble’s musical sense is strong. The lyrics undermine it: “I’ll spend a lifetime in search for you,” “love bears a cross, is a force of yin and yang” (very mixed religious metaphors!) and the worst, declaimed hip-hop wannabe style: “girl friend jiggling in her low cut dress…my Guccis baby ate chillin’ chic…the ghettos got the def soccer teams.” Now I understand why my Uncle Les refuses to read the titles at the Met Opera. Oh for an instrumental version of the Arabic-based music sections of this otherwise charming disc. World music fans who have tolerance for Euro lyrics might get pleasure from Echo of a City.

Slask jazz titles are carried by North Country Distribution <>. For other discs and information, contact executive producer Bo Stefan Lundquist of Slask Records, Box 27, S-430 84, Styrsö, Sweden. Phone: 46 (0) 3114 8745, Fax: 46 (0) 3197 2417.