The Culmination of Drummer Gard Nilssen’s Dreams

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​Gard Nilssen performs with his Accoustic Unity ensemble during the 2019 jazzahead! conference in Bremen, Germany.

(Photo: Jens Schlenker)

More than a few bands in the past have featured two drummers: The J.B.’s, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and The Melvins, among others. Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz had both Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins; and John Coltrane recorded with Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali on Meditations. Having three drummers, though, is a bit less common. But that’s what Norway’s Gard Nilssen has done with his ensemble, the Supersonic Orchestra.

Nilssen is one of the busiest drummers in European jazz, not just leading his own band, the skronky but melodic Acoustic Unity, but also performing in the powerhouse jazz-rock trio Bushman’s Revenge, as well as the free-jazz quartet Cortex. He also regularly works with Polish saxophonist Maciej Obara and Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør.

The Supersonic Orchestra, though, is the culmination of a very particular dream that sprouted from the drummer’s post as artist-in-residence at the 2019 Molde Jazz Festival.

“They gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted,” Nilssen, 36, said via FaceTime from Oslo.

The group he assembled included members of Acoustic Unity, Cortex, Atomic, Motif and more: 16 players in all. He described it as “a big gathering of friends that I had been working with before—an all-star lineup in my world, with friends and musicians that I really enjoy playing with and hanging with. I gave it a lot of thought and came up with this three drums, three basses and 10 horns combination, which turned out to be beyond my expectations.”

The band’s first concert was in July 2019 at Teatret Vårt during the Molde festival. “Amazingly enough, we managed to get everyone together in June,” Nilssen said. The sole exception was saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, who was on tour in the States and rehearsed with Nilssen when she got back. Then they reconvened for a long soundcheck in Molde, and played the concert, releasing a slightly edited recording of the performance as If You Listen Carefully The Music Is Yours (Odin).

The six compositions mostly are short fanfares for the entire ensemble, allowing soloists to go as far afield as they choose. “If you’re in a large ensemble, sometimes it’s easy to get tempted to write too much music and arrange the music until there’s no time to improvise; you just focus on the sheets and everything,” Nilssen explained. “I felt like we succeeded in making just enough music and keeping it open for 90 percent of the concert. And I knew those musicians would feel at home in that kind of task.”

The pieces have a ferocious energy, churning like a vast engine that continually throws off sparks—and frequently emits jets of blue flame. The saxophonists in particular are given plenty of room, but are well supported by their bandmates.

Nilssen worked closely with saxophonist André Roligheten to work up the music, and a few tracks—“Bøtteknott Elastic Circle,” and “Jack”—are re-arranged versions of Acoustic Unity pieces. “It was a very interesting process,” Roligheten said in an email. “We either wrote bits together or I was arranging/orchestrating Gard’s ideas. It was a very spontaneous way of writing, almost like improvising together.”

“I think the most important thing with this concept was not the written music, because it’s not very challenging—there’s a lot of riffs and grooves and odd signatures, just difficult enough that we needed those two days, and easy enough that everyone could feel free in it after rehearsing,” Nilssen said. “I just wanted to be as open as possible, so the musicians shouldn’t think too much about the arrangements, because it was the big picture that was important for me, the set list.”

He conceived the concert not as a collection of tunes, but as a single massive work with movements.

“The whole form of the concert was imagined and set from an early point, and then we were composing material we needed at the different sections in the timeline of the concert,” Roligheten said. “We wanted to explore and use the endless possibilities of combinations, in terms of orchestration and groups within the group. For example, there are three different bass/drums pairs (or actually nine), and so many musical colors in all the horns.”

The triple rhythm section is something almost unprecedented, particularly in free-jazz. Nilssen said it allowed him greater freedom as a drummer, since he didn’t have to worry about being the primary timekeeper. “Sometimes when you’re playing in a large ensemble, you have to keep the train going. To be honest, most musicians think that’s the drummer’s task and responsibility. ... ut the musicians in these bands that I play with, I don’t feel that responsibility. And with three drummers, you can be even more open. The other two guys created a lot of interesting combinations and improv if I [kept] the beat, and the other way around.”

The orchestra performed three more concerts in February 2020, in Trondheim, Bergen and Oslo; that final performance also was recorded for a potential release in the future. “We played the same music, but it developed more and more and it got freer—and longer,” the drummer said.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down live performances, Nilssen had a busy touring schedule; his website listed future gigs with at least three groups. The last shows he played, though, were with the Swedish band Tonbruket, subbing for its founding drummer, Andreas Werliin, who was on paternity leave. “I just became a father in September—I had a son—and Andreas had a son in December. He couldn’t do those shows this [past] spring and winter, and for me it was OK to start touring again,” said Nilssen. “We drove past his house on the tour, on the way from Oslo to Gothenburg, and he had some barbecue for us, and we met his daughter. It was great.” DB