Oval. Intakt CD 122



Featuring Sten Sandell - on piano & voice, Johan Berthling on double-bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums & percussion. Sten Sandell is a most creative pianist who has worked with Mats Gustafsson in Gush, with Paal Nilssen-Love in various projects, as well as with Evan Parker and Simon Steensland. I am not very familiar with Johan Berthling, but he does play with the LSB Trio according to the fine liner notes by Ken Vandermark. Mr. Nilssen-Love is one of the most in-demand drummers in Europe, playing in the Scorch Trio, The Thing, as well as various projects with Mr. Vandermark.
'Oval' is a piano trio disc that sounds nothing like any other piano trio. Sten sounds as if he is muting the piano with his hand on "Ovala Takter I", his approach is most percussive at times and works perfectly with Paal's quick web of spinning sounds. The trio moves in waves together, up and down and flowing as one stream. Both Paal and bassist Johan are nimble players who weave their tapestry around Sten's magical, muted and occasionally spare plucked notes. Sten sounds as if he is playing a giant harp at times, spinning layers of notes that build into dense sections swelling and swirling and pulling us inside the currents. Each of the three long pieces moves organically and does a great job of taking us along for the journey to the stars. The music was recorded live at the Taklos Festival in June of 2005 and was captured with immense care so that the trio sounds as if they were connected together throughout. Another superb gem from the fine folks at Intakt.
Bruce Gallenter, Downtown Music Gallery , New York, February 2007

KazueYokoi, Jazztokyo, February 2007



What got me about Sten Sandell's piano playing was his audacity to play both the furious crescendos with Gush [who were one of the most phenomenal live acts of the 90's] as well as play straight new music, as he did on the outstanding "Music from a Waterhole" [Alice Musik]. In between, he came up and formed his own trio. Having a released a couple of records on the Norwegian Sofa label, they've now attracted interest of the Swiss powerhouse imprint Intakt. "Oval" sees them continuing on in a similar vein. While bassist Johan Berthling is heavily involved in poignant arco moments, Paal Nilssen-Love strikes up some interesting conversations with both the leader and the bass player. While Nilssen-Love is in love with his cymbals, playing it light and striking up perfect combinations of flurried discourse on the percussion, it's Sandell who belongs at the helm. Proceeding with individual dancing key strokes, through the furiously developed climactic wallops, all the way to the percussive poundings with his fists, this pianist is someone who is not keen to stick to any formulae. I wouldn't think Sandell is all that comfortable with a label either. Would you shuffle him into the Taylor camp just because he tends to have those percussive moments, where he's racing head-to-head with Nilsson-Love? Whenever a race comes about, there's no clear winner. These three are never racing to reach any conclusion to see who's in charge of the session. Rather, they're racing and twisting their own sets of skills for the sheer thrill of the race itself. It's the game that's most exciting. The resonance of each single keystroke that leaves the most lasting impression on this listener. Each piece is credited to all members of the trio and truly, this is improvised music as it should be - liberated with a grand message from the leader. Nothing is forced and certainly, it doesn't sound like any of this material was discussed prior to the recording session. Now that a major player in the improvised music community released this record, the future ahead is bright for Sandell. May this communicate a sign of even greater projects for the years ahead.
Tom Sekowski, Gaz-Eta, Poland, February 2007


KazueYokoi, Intoxicate, Japan, February 2007



Sten Sandell hat schon in den vergangenen Jahren mit diesem Trio auf verschiedenen Festivals im deutschsprachigen Raum für Aufsehen gesorgt. Der schwedische Pianist, zu dessen Repertoire neben der freien Improvisation auch immer die zeitgenössische Moderne von Cage bis Feldman, sowie die klassischen Musiktraditionen Japans, lndiens oder auch Nordafrikas gehören, arbeitet sich mit Johan Berthling, Bass, Paal Nilssen-Love, Schlagzeug, durch ein autonomes Tongebirge voll abenteuerlicher Herausforderungen. Ohne jemals den Kontakt untereinander zu verlieren und stets dem Moment der Interaktion verpflichtet, durchpflügen die standhaften Skandinavier in freier Tonalität die Klangmöglichkeiten eines Klaviertrios. Sie formulieren ein musikatisch autonomes Bekenntnis zur Unabhängigkeit von schlichten Trends und schnöden Moden und geben, so ganz nebenbei wie selbstverständlich, eine Lehrstunde in Sachen streitbarer Individualität. Das Lineare bekommt bei ihnen eine gravitätische Verschrobenheit und das Geheimnisvolle eine pulsierende Direktheit."Oval" hebt Gegensätze auf - um neue musikalische Fragen zu stellen.
Jörg Konrad, Jazzpodium, Deutschland, April 07



Bill Meyer, Downbeat, May 2007. 4 Stars


Bjarne Soltoft, Jazznytt, Norway, April-May 2007


Johannes Cornell, DN, Dagens Nyheter, Sweden, 31. Januari 2007


Enrico Bettinello, Blow up, Italia, 2/2007


Marc Medwin, Cadence, USA, May 2007



Sten Sandell formed his piano trio in 1999 with double bassist Johan Berthling and mighty drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Oval, their third CD, was recorded at Taktios Festival, Zurich in June 2005. Sandell's experience extends from electroacoustics to folk, and he's sensitive to oblique and enriching relationships between sounds. He approaches the piano as a projector of colour, texture, mass, movement, yet there's nothing murky or indefinite - indeed there's mineral clarity to his attack. It doesn't lack thrust, but this is ultimately non-linear improvisation, advancing and receding along other axes, deepening through concentration, taking shape, dissolving and reshaping in an expanded auditory field. Berthling and Nilssen-Love rise to that challenge, supplying weight and shade and motion with sustained inventiveness and without delimiting the field. A remarkable live performance.
Julian Cowley, The WIRE, London, April 2007



Busy Chicago multi-reed man Ken Vandermark suggests in his liner notes of Oval, the third release by the Sten Sandell Trio, that the Swedish pianist and composer may represent the future of the piano in contemporary and improvised music. Like other pianists of his generation, Sandell is influenced by the innovations of Cecil Taylor but brings many more ingredients to his music, such as the theories of John Cage and Morton Feldman, classical musical elements from India and Japan, folk music from Sweden, electronics, voice, and an idiosyncratic approach to the piano that often uses extended percussive timbral capabilities.
Sandell often works with free improvising ensembles, most notably with the Swedish trio Gush, (reed player Mats Gustafsson and drummer Raymond Strid) whom he has recorded and performed with since 1988, as well as other notable European improvisers such as Evan Parker and Barry Guy.
Oval was recorded beautifully at the Taktlos Festival in Switzerland in June, 2005, and featured Sandell with fellow Swedish bassist Johan Berthling and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. All three musicians demonstrate the same exemplary high level of communication and creativity that characterized their earlier releases, Standing Wave (Sofa, 2000) and Flat Iron (Sofa, 2002). Throughout this live set they supply a convincing answer to Vandermark's musing as to why one would choose to play non-commercial music in an inconsiderate climate. The trio explores so many fascinating sonic possibilities within this format that Vandermark's question becomes redundant.
The velocity and density of Sandell's playing at the beginning of the first piece, “Ovala Takter I,” is an obvious continuation of Taylor's legacy, but Sandell navigates this trio into newer territories, using varied and complex methods such as sustain, concentrated attacks, or adding light vocals. He manages to turn aural textures into deep meditations about the possibilities of the piano, more in common with the ethereal and almost transparent playing of the British free improvisation group AMM's John Tilbury, showing the imaginative interplay between members of the trio.
The trio keeps a contemplative dynamic at the beginning of “Ovala Takter II,” trying to find common threads in its timbral explorations, and reconstructing its fragile interplay. At times, Sandell's percussive piano triggers Nilssen-Love's wise use of the cymbals, creating a resonate sound between the two instruments. Berthling's low-end rumination on the bass opens “Oval Takter III,” while Nilssen-Love and Sandell color his sound with abstract and slowly forming textures that linger in memory. The short and concluding piece, “Oval Ballad,” suggests a gentler example
“I believe that this trio's playing gives us one more reason to live on this planet with optimism for the future,” concludes Vandermark; and indeed Oval is a remarkable recording.
By Eyal Hareuveni, All About Jazz, USA, Mai, 2007



Recorded at a Swiss music festival, the music performed by this estimable trio must have given the audience its money’s worth, while offering the mind’s eye a hodgepodge of slanted perspectives. Pianist Sten Sandell and his rhythm section largely, reside in an analogous musical plane here.
On the opener titled “Ovala Takter I,” the pianist works within the lower register atop drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s pumping and asymmetrical metrics. With finicky voicings and swirling contrasts, the improvisational aspect adheres to the highest form of intuitiveness. In a sense, the band instills a sense of the unknown via Sandell’s often-haunting phraseology. Bassist John Berthling is an accelerator, where the unit delves into sequences of rapidly flowing harmonic developments (and oddities). Throughout these four pieces they dig deep from within amid seamlessly integrated storylines that evolve and refresh.
Complete with dynamic flurries engineered upon crashing cadenzas and cascading progressions, the trio surges forward with a rumbling, free-form gait that seems uncannily structured. At times they wind matters down into a minimalist framework that creates a semblance of desolate environs. Since its recent release, this album has become a critic’s favorite. Count me among those who assert that “Oval,” is among the finest new-jazz type programs of 2007.
Glenn Astarita, Jazzreview, USA, Mai 2007


Recorded at the annual Taktlos Festival in Zürich, the music birthed on Oval is barely a year old. It’s that sort of attention to exigency that distinguishes the Intakt label’s commitment to its artists. Pianist Sten Sandell no doubt appreciates the patronage, as the performance captured is one of his finest on recent record. Divided into three comparably sized parts, the title suite covers a lot of ground in the span of three-quarters of an hour. A percussive emphasis conjures superficial comparisons to Cecil, but Sandell’s approach is markedly apart. His digits deal in dynamics and repetition, his left hand sketching out rumbling pedal-weighted chords that are more charcoal than pencil point while the right perforates with stabbing single notes. He’ll hammer a staggered progression to the point of bruising near-tedium, pulling back in the nick of time and darting off in a different direction. Occasional forays under the hood also vary the action, with strings strummed, dampened and plucked like the tightly wound strands of a massive Aeolian zither.
Sandell’s partners meet him every step of the way. Bassist Johan Berthling is similarly texture conscious; submerging in the roiling improvisatory sea to create distorted surface-bound ripples or skating the cresting whitecaps with sharply contoured harmonics. Paal Nilssen-Love is accustomed to this sort of setting too, his percussive swells and cascading polyrhythms adding to the aqueous mutability of the music. Despite several displays of solitary expression solos are of secondary importance. Great slabs of shared sound develop gradually, almost compulsively, with interplay subsuming individual virtuosity. Periodic breaks in the tempest deliver only partial respite from the prevailing mood of brooding sobriety and Sandell’s sounds just as possessed during these segments of relative calm. A sense of perpetual motion underscores the set, one that mirrors the unbroken shape named in the album’s title, though the overarching effect is more of grayscale shades than vibrant colors and serrated edges instead of soft contours. Even the delicate ballad fragment that serves as signoff to the set sprouts spines. As a whole, it’s a thrilling and edifying performance, but one that might have benefited from a bit of levity and humor.
Derek Taylor, Bagatellen, mai 2007


The third album by Swedish pianist Sten Sandell with his regular trio -- drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Johan Berthling -- is a roiling blast of free improvisation. Tensions between the players constantly shift, and the motion of the music as a whole swings from static and suspenseful to blisteringly hard driving. Sandell, perhaps best known as Mats Gustafsson's bandmate in Gush, is particularly interested in microtones -- an odd obsession for a guy who plays a tempered instrument. In the past he's added organ or harmonium and taught himself to throat sing, all in an attempt to create the illusion that he's playing between the notes, and on Oval he uses several techniques in combination to create a similar effect: whanging on the keys in an all-out physical attack, manipulating the foot pedals, damping strings or otherwise tinkering inside the piano, and playing odd harmonies with Berthling. Sandell favors low-end rumbling, and the rest of the trio shares his love for bass -- which makes his right-hand figures leap out like the flash of a razor.
Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader, Mai 18, 2007


Jürg Solothurnmann, Jazz'n'more, Zürich, Oktober/November 2007


Dans le déploiement des forces, dans ces clusters sans âges, l'on pense à Cecil Taylor. Dans cette opposition entre extrêmes graves et extrêmes aigus, l'on pense à Cordon Nancarrow. Dans l'écoute et la bienveillance à l'autre, on pense à Irène Schweizer. Une fois ces balises repérées, le jazzkritic peut, à loisir, reprendre l'écoute d'un trio qui n'a pas la langue dam sa poche.

Ce qui frappe dans cette musique, c'est cette niasse unifiée; sphère se chargeant et se serrant d'intensités diverses et variées, et s'écoulant avec fracas jusqu'à la rupture. On ne badine pas ici, on entre dans le vif des sujets. Ici, il y a des débordements à entretenir, des archets rauques et fuyants qui ne demandent qu'à s'accomplir, des tracées percussives aux gestes sûrs et de peu de balivernes. Ici, l'on ose car l'on est. Avec cette infinie possibilité d'agrandir plus encore les cercles, de détailler la masse. Encore et toujours : unifier les proximités. jamais, ces trois-là ne se quittent, ne s'échappent, ne se contredisent ou ne fissurent les liens qui les unissent. Plus tard peut-être quand (presque) tout aura été abordé, défriché. Ici, ils découvrent le bonheur des unités, la lucidité des confiances. A suivre avec le plus vif intérêt.
Luc Bouquet, Improjazz, France, September 2007


Pianist Sten Sandell and his trio have excelled themselves on record in 2007, and listeners accordingly owe a debt of gratitude to both Intakt and Cleanfeed labels, whose “Strokes” documented the trio in the company of saxophonist John Butcher for a program of music that exemplifies in-the-moment creativity of an uncommon order.
In comparison, Oval thus has a lot to live up to, but the trio’s flagrant disregard for precedents and regard for the values of individual and collective identity somehow render the comparison irrelevant. This is a working unit of the highest order and that’s abundantly obvious on “Ovala Takter I,” the opening passage of which finds Standell working with the piano strings and in conjunction with bassist Johan Berthling, evoking a dry, arid soundscape pulsing with life. As the piece evolves the energy level rises, but these players are so closely in tune with their craft that they stay clear of Cecil Taylor’s looming shadow. Theirs is arguably music more alert to nuance as well, so that the ebb and flow of the piece, whilst profoundly the consequence of spontaneous form, is subject also to the musicians’ whims in the best sense of the term.
If the point needs to be reiterated that this is a group marking out its own distinctive territory, then “Ovala Takter II” is the place where it happens. Standell is clearly alert to and aware of every possibility the piano has to offer as a producer of sound. The degree to which he subverts the idea of the keyboard virtuoso is admirable, even whilst it suggests nothing other than the fact that he’s a virtuoso himself. There are greater ends than the mere showing off that virtuosity can imply and some of them are obvious here.
“Ovala Takter III,” in turn, puts that message across in a way that almost turns the program into a manifesto. For a while, the dialogue between Standell and Berthling is strong enough to suggest that drummer Paal Nillssen-Love is somehow superfluous, but as the piece progresses it becomes obvious this is down to the latter’s acutely sensitive listening.
This is a piano trio working well outside the norm, and consequently it’s very much on whatever the cutting edge amounts to these days. The music it makes is rich and profoundly rewarding.
Nic Jones, All About Jazz USA, December 2007


Kazue Yokoi Jazz Hohyo, Japan, Piano Trio 2007-2008 Special


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