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Fire! Orchestra
Enter Richard Rees Jones , July 17th, 2014 11:00

The big band has been part of jazz since the 1920s, but in the late 1960s a new kind of large ensemble began to emerge as part of the directions then taking hold in the music. These groups took a stand alongside other free and avant-garde jazz innovators of the time, their positions energised by the febrile socio-political atmosphere that gripped much of the USA and Europe. They outgrew traditional trio and quartet forms, in tacit acknowledgement that the most appropriate response to racism, oppression and the military-industrial complex was to organise along collective lines.

In 1968, trumpeter Michael Mantler's forty-strong Jazz Composer's Orchestra released a sprawling self-titled double album with contributions by Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Charlie Haden and Mantler's then wife Carla Bley. A year later, Haden's own Liberation Music Orchestra released their debut album, also self-titled, while at the turn of the decade South African pianist Chris McGregor's Brotherhood Of Breath counted British free improv luminaries Evan Parker and Paul Rutherford among its members. As the 1970s wore on, Parker and Rutherford went on to play in Barry Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra and Alexander von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra, both of which survive to this day.

With Enter, Fire! Orchestra extends its claim to form part of this illustrious lineage. Like its predecessors it has a strong musical personality as bandleader/conductor, in this case the Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. The ensemble began life as Fire!, the trio of Gustafsson, bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin, who released four albums of heady avant rock including collaborations with Jim O'Rourke and Oren Ambarchi. Consisting of the core trio, plus more than 20 fellow travellers from the vibrant Scandinavian avant/improv scenes, Fire! Orchestra made its vinyl debut last year with the live album Exit, and now, Enter is its first studio outing.

The result is four sides of blissed-out transcendence, galvanised by an immediacy that anchors the ensemble to soul and free jazz even as its joyous riffing takes it in the direction of psychedelic and progressive rock. Opening with a hypnotic Fender Rhodes motif, 'Part 1' sees vocalist Mariam Wallentin (Werliin's partner in Wildbirds & Peacedrums) set out the Orchestra's vision in deep, soulful cries of "Let us all go… let them all go… let it all go… feel it all go…" Metallic sheets of electric guitar are joined by the Mellotron, no less, its distinctive frosty tone harking back to the late '60s as surely as do Wallentin's ecstatic vocals. 'Part 2' kicks in with another '60s reference, as a deranged take on the Beatles' 'Tomorrow Never Knows' morphs into a livid collision between guitar and electronics before giving way to a hymnal section for horns and brass.

The album's episodic structure makes for a thrilling listen in which soloists and the full ensemble constantly reinforce and counterpoint each other. Gustafsson himself is a forceful presence, his tenor sax laying down some fearsome skronk over 'Part 3's infectious bass groove. Recalling his work with The Thing, the saxophonist alights with glee on a hook or phrase, gathers up his forces and transforms it into a juggernaut statement of intent. If there's a weakness to point out it's the voices of Sofia Jernberg and Simon Ohlsson, whose vocals lack the burning intensity of Wallentin's and occasionally descend into gimmicky abstraction and pompous rhapsodising respectively.

Despite the Orchestra's evident liking for full-on collective freakouts, there are hooks and melodies aplenty here that drive the group's mighty impulse to communicate. That delicious opening Fender motif returns in 'Part 4', building joyfully with brass and horns as the three singers declare "This is not a dream, this is an awakening… so I have experienced both life and death". It's a powerful appeal to transcendence, one that's at once emotionally draining and utterly inspiring.