Stuart Broomer on Bengt “Frippe” Norström vinyl box

The New York City Jazz Record, October 2023

Outside Scandinavian improvised music circles and devoted advocates, saxophonist Bengt “Frippe” Nordström is little known. He is perhaps most familiar as the first person to record Albert Ayler, with Swedish musicians in Stockholm, for 1962’s Something Different!!!!!! (Bird Notes). Nordström also appears on a few commercial releases under his own name or with Don Cherry or Sunny Murray. That’s a situation that’s changing with the release of Vinyl Box, a remarkably detailed and inviting compilation of Nordström’s self-released solo saxophone recordings, assembled and documented with great devotion by his distinguished friends, saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and writer Thomas Millroth.
Nordström (who passed away 23 years ago this month) was born July 13, 1936 (the same day as Ayler) into an affluent Stockholm family. His mother died when he was six, his father when he was eleven. So he moved in with two aunts. He discovered jazz at 14, began studying clarinet and was soon devoted to the music in all available forms, from traditional to bop, later embracing free jazz with the arrival of Ornette Coleman. As his interest developed, his inheritance meant he could do things out of the reach of most young musicians. He had professional recording equipment and a record lathe in his apartment, and started recording in 1958, sometimes cutting only single copies of records, often just ten, including radio broadcasts of Miles Davis and, in 1962, the extraordinary novelty of two 45s that consisted of him playing alto four different times over a segment of Ornette Coleman’s recording of “When Will the Blues Leave?” To give a sense of the completeness of Vinyl Box, these are separately documented on a floppy disc included in this set.
While one might note Nordström’s eccentricity first (he would sometimes join bands on stage without invitation or simply play from the audience), it’s his music here that counts, and it’s substantial. He might have been the first saxophonist to be influenced by Ayler, but he was also among the first saxophonists to focus intensely on developing and documenting extended solo improvisations. The heart of Vinyl Box is four LPs of mostly solos, variously recorded between 1964 and 1968 and including pieces on alto (an English-made plastic Grafton, the same model used by Coleman), tenor and soprano. Given the range of dates and instruments, there are certain stylistic differences, but they’re alike in Nordström’s skill in developing extended works and generating thematic materials. The characteristic form of these recordings is a single side-long piece, though often with pauses.
The first LP reproduces Nordström’s Natural Music (“Total Improvisation!!!! Creative Spirit!!!! Spontaneous Composing!!!!” declares the subtitle), recorded in 1967 and 1968. Side One is devoted to an intermittent duet with bassist Sven Hessle called “Bird Notes and Folk Tunes”, with Nordström playing his Grafton alto. At the outset, Nordström’s phrasing involves something of Ayler’s lyric form – the keening wail, the sweetness, the broad vibrato – but Nordström is generating melodic materials and inserting fragments rather than playing a melody, something that’s generally true of his work here. He’s highly inventive, sometimes making continuous music from minimal materials, at other times touching on folk melodies, with Hessle following him closely and effectively. Nordström ends with a continuous imitation of laughter. “Spontaneous Creation”, a tenor solo, has the quality of reverie, a lyrical continuity apparent even in lengthy pauses, sometimes sounding like remembered melodies rather than improvisations. He seems to allow the music to come to him, intervening silences having their own weight, revealing a special recognition on his part that reflection privileges player and listener alike. There’s a stateliness here as well, at times a kind of throwback to certain popular forms of the early 20th century. One feels Sidney Bechet’s influence at times as well as Coleman and Ayler.
Drastic Plastic, from 1964, is the earliest material here. Side One presents three short works, “Corsica 1”, “2” and “3”, ranging from four to eleven minutes. Each balances harsh fragments with longer, gentler phrases, from complaint to blues, with a gathering sense of raw emotion matched to an innate structural sense. “Drastic Plastic”, the side-long title work balancing similar materials with intense split tones, helps date Nordström’s significant originality both in his materials and the development of a coherent solo language, emotional force welding form and intuition.
These characteristics are all apparent in Discs Three and Four, the 1968 soprano saxophone recordings of Någonting (translatable as “anything” or “something”) and the 1965 and 1968 tenor recordings of Reality. Nordström’s initial exposure to earlier jazz forms becomes fully integrated, with models in Bechet and Coleman Hawkins as apparent as Coleman and Ayler. Similarly, emotion and invention are indivisible: in a sense, this music is both nakedly human and formally perfect, with nothing to detract from, or to distinguish, form and content. Those silences are absolutely telling as invitations to reflection and regathering, opening up critical space to the appreciative listener.
The set contains numerous supplements, including Gustafsson’s detailed discography of Nordström’s Bird Notes label and a 40-page book with period documents and Thomas Millroth’s detailed, moving memoir and appreciation of Nordström’s life and work. His significance is further documented on a 10” LP of solo homages by reed players of different generations who match his focused emotional intensity on several brief pieces, including four by Isak Hedtjärn, two by Jörgen Adolfsson and three each by Dror Feiler and Anna Högberg. Sven-Åke Johansson, a Nordström collaborator, plays drums and sings an old pop song, “Flickorna I Småland”, a Nordström signature, following the saxophonist’s own recording. Mats Gustafsson’s “RRRHHMMMMMMMMRRRRRRRHHHHMMMMM!” is a delicate piece played on a Grafton alto saxophone. Often at the level of a whimper or a gasp, with pad clicks as loud as articulated notes, it has a sense of reflection, continuity and mystery. Where once there was one, there are now many. These contemporary recordings resonate profoundly as parts of this inquiry into, and celebration of, Nordström’s distinctive and enduring music.