Vertavo Live in Concert

Jon Larsen / Vertavo String Quartet

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Vertavo Live in Concert Review

by James Manheim

This unusual Norwegian release is essentially a jazz album despite the presence of a string quartet and a set of largely notated original compositions. The stylistic referent, as the "Hot Club of Norvege" title implies, is the so-called gypsy jazz of guitarist Django Reinhardt and his comrades at the Hot Club de France in the 1930s, and the project is the brainchild of guitarist Jon Larsen. He writes in the booklet that he is attempting to transfer the familiar big band configuration of written ensemble arrangements with improvising soloists to the medium of gypsy jazz with string quartet, making no greater claim than that the live concert recorded here "is an attempt to try it out." In reality his ambitions are a bit greater than the comments would imply. There is a good deal of interpenetration between the lines of the Vertavo String Quartet and those of the small jazz ensemble of two guitars, harmonica, and bass. A violin sometimes replaces the harmonica in the jazz ensemble, creating a subtle effect in which a member of the quartet seems to take off and go his or her own way even though this is not actually what is happening. Subtle is a watchword for the music in general, all of which is original (the final piece, "Oblivion," has nothing to do with Astor Piazzolla's composition of the same name). Many of the pieces have a shimmering texture, and Larsen's guitar is more likely to bind the music together than to take off on hot solos. His role is almost like that of Duke Ellington's piano in his orchestra -- not spectacular, but indefinably very important, and the album as a whole suggests what might have happened if the Duke had become infatuated with gypsy jazz while immersed in one of his more classical-oriented phases. The foot-tapping rhythms of Reinhardt's jazz are present only in attenuated form, which may disappoint listeners attracted by the "hot club" claim, but taken on its own terms the music is absorbing. There are new ideas here for crossover string quartets and their listeners looking for the next set of innovations.

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