If I drift away from contemporary jazz over the next few months, it will mostly be the fault of these European jazz releases that keep finding their way to my mailbox. For example: Teis Semey is a jazz guitarist, composer and arranger from Denmark who, through his quintet, triggers the same illumination to musical structures that can only be noticed from a new perspective molded by faraway cultures. His new album, Mean Mean Machine, took me by surprise because it is simply about itself and not some pre-determined history. All of this jazz from Switzerland and Russia and other parts of the world have shown me to the edge of the frontier, and I want to keep walking in this direction.
This Teis Semey Quintet–trumpeter Alistair Payne, alto sax player Jose Soares. bassist Jort Terwijn and drummer Sun Mi Hong–aren’t playing by the same rules foisted upon the world by traditionalists. Mean Mean Machine is five musicians picking up their instruments and just finding a niche that’s way out there, but far from outcast. This is music steeped in jazz, but often played like math rock with rigid tempos and challenging time signatures. The entire time, they all play the same song, they all fit perfectly.
Teis Semey is certainly an innovative and versatile guitarist–just listen to the angry staccato of fuzz and distortion that propels the album opener, “Sun Song.” Each member of the quintet, however steps forward and release tremendous amounts of pure energy. Trumpet blasts that come out of nowhere and get your heart racing, an expressive and meaty bass slides in and changes your mind about everything, and a stunning performance by up-and-comer Hong just flies along from beginning to end.
But I’ll always think of Teis Semey and Mean Mean Machine as a transitional step, something to lead me away from an umpteenth crack at the Great American Songbook and down a road that reminds me what it was like when I was young and I’d find a strange new musical genre to obsess over for the next few years. It’s jazz, but the lens is incredibly intriguing in the way it constantly shifts your expectations.