CD review: Adam Baldych & The Baltic Gang

Imaginary Room
(ACT 9532-2)
Reviewed by JJ Wheeler

Straight away I have to declare my slight pessimism when it comes to jazz violin. I really try not to be prejudiced towards any instrument, style or even specific musicians, but past experiences have left me disappointed time and time again when it comes to the instrument. In an ensemble role, in other styles or in the classic Stephane Grappelli role I have no qualms, but come the “violinist as soloist/bandleader” I’ve always struggled.

Enter Adam Baldych. Apparently a child prodigy in Poland, then scholarship recipient to Berklee College, Boston (although it seems every other jazz musician in the States right now has the same claim – where is all this scholarship money coming from?), Baldych is supposedly resident of the Big Apple. Mind you, check his schedule and you’ll find him almost exclusively in Europe for the foreseeable future. Still, it is encouraging to see a musician who goes to Berklee, then New York, return to European musicians to record and release what has to be seen as his “break-through” record; his first on the ACT label.

Adam Baldych and band

And what a band it is. But it turns out the compositions easily justify the personnel. It’s dark, moody at times with hints of the energy of New York, where the leader penned all 12 compositions through 2011. There are also the contemplative European moments synonymous with Scandinavian tones (much like you’d find on an ECM record) and melodies deeply rooted in Eastern European folk. The music is clever, rich and deeply emotional all played with incredible intelligence and maturity by a virtuosic group. Pianist Jacob Karlzon seems to hold everything together with grace whilst Morten Lund chooses the perfect moments in which to step the band up a gear. Bassist Lars Danielsson is his usual brilliant self and there are even a couple appearances from the album’s co-producer Nils Landgren on trombone.

But, for the most part, the front line duties are shared between Baldych , trumpeter Verneri Pohjola and the new sax idol, Marius Neset, who again shows his versatility with unbelievable panache. And still Baldych is never outclassed by his co-frontliners. His leadership of the group is outstanding, and his soloing even better. I always thought that my issues with violin in a contemporary jazz context could lie in the timbre, but here this notion is completely dispelled. Baldych’s lines are fantastic, more akin to those of a woodwind or brass instrument. All of the little fiddles, quirks and habits of a violinist seem to be banished, or when they do rarely appear only add to the music.

Add to this tight arrangements with varying contexts on which solos occur, never more than a few choruses, and you have a superb set of tunes which never drag yet allow just enough window of opportunity for each musician to succinctly get their point across and pass on the baton. The result is a record of which you never tire of listening, each moment packed with meaning, every corner bringing something new and exciting – a constant wave after wave of joy.

And with this, Adam Baldych has successfully re-written the rules of contemporary Jazz violin and alongside it abolished my fear of the instrument! May future violinists follow his lead for generations to come.

Categories: CD review

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