Niklas Barnö, Joel Grip & Didier Lasserre - Snus

Phil Freeman, Burning Ambulance

Snus is the debut, and probably sole, recording by two Swedes (trumpeter Niklas Barnö and bassist Joel Grip) and a Frenchman (drummer Didier Lasserre). Taped in June 2009 in Paris, it’s a seven-track set of raw, skronking free jazz. Barnö is a ferocious, unfettered player; his performances on the first two tracks, “E 1520” and “Tobacco,” put him somewhere in between Lester Bowie (at his wildest) and Donald Ayler. Behind him, Grip and Lasserre go at the bass and drums like maniacs, keeping the energy level well into the red. On the subsequent “Water” and “Aroma,” though, he and his bandmates demonstrate that subtlety’s not beyond them. The trumpeter begins playing a series of small squeals and rumbles in a Bill Dixon-ish vein, as the bassist assaults the strings in a more abstract, less riff-generating way and the drummer bows his cymbals, occasionally tapping them or brushing the skins. Three minutes or so in, “Aroma” becomes more convulsive and conventional, but it winds down quietly, and there’s a long silence before the equally diffident “Salt,” easily the disc’s shortest track at under four minutes, kicks in. Grip is the most aggressive player this time; the other two mostly squeal and rustle, even when things get slightly riled up toward the end. On the 10-minute “Smoking Flavour,” Barnö’s muted tone is almost Miles Davis-ish, as the bassist keeps it ultra-simple, plucking out solitary throbbing notes, and Lasserre sticks to brushes. The album comes to a conclusion with “E 500,” which starts out spacious and Dixonian before erupting into assaults on the drum kit, frantic bowed outbursts on the bass, and squealing trumpet runs.

Snus documents nearly an hour of music that barely seems contained by the recording process. While it’s not totally wild—all three players are clearly listening to one another and responding with a great deal of sensitivity and intuition, even during the loudest stretches—it’s got a visceral impact a lot of free jazz lacks. You can really feel your guts clench when these guys get up to full roar, and the quieter passages have a tension worthy of a well-done thriller. The unusually long silences between tracks only serve to amplify the impact of the notes that follow. This isn’t a record you can play every day, or in mixed company (i.e. jazz fans and non-jazz fans), but at the right moment it’ll change your whole day. Walk around with it on headphones if you like, but don’t be surprised to find yourself in an alley, kicking a stranger unconscious.

And now, the two questions and answers that will accompany every review this month:
1. Do I foresee myself listening to this record again? Yes.
2. Should you buy this record? Yes.