I first heard of Thomas Strønen via his work with Food on the Rune Grammofon label in 2004. The CD was called (wait for it!) Last Supper. Food’s core was always Thomas and saxophonist Iain Ballamy but each release expanded with new personnel. At the time I’d found very few percussionist-led groups very satisfying. But Food was different, largely because it was really a duo and though Strønen appears to be the predominant force, it wouldn’t fly without Ballamy’s ability to dovetail and flesh out the arrangements with reeds and electronics. Together they are almost a more urgent variant on the John Surman/Jack DeJohnette sax, electronics and percussion duo model.
I usually expect a sax/percussion duo to be very spare and possibly too reliant on extended technique. Not so with Food. Alternately delicate and forceful, Food packs a tasteful complexity and registers Thomas as an immediately identifiable personality, which, to my mind, is the ultimate goal in music making. Adding a degree of lyricism and humour they approach perfection. Subsequent releases went from strength to strength. The label shift to ECM brought us Quiet Inlet and Mercurial Balm which included contributions from Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz, and Eivind Aarset and Nils Petter Molvaer, two long time favourites of mine from the Norwegian hybrid jazz/electronic scene.
In January of 2014 I nearly missed Food at Ironworks. Coastal Jazz had brought them to town and I just caught the listing online at the last minute, cancelled whatever I had planned and headed to the venue post haste. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’d seen there. The funny part was that Alex Varty, writing in the Georgia Straight, referered to them as a “Euro Jazz Supergroup”! No. Just two guys with a telepathic connection and a traveling kitbag packed with explosive talent! I spoke to Iain and Thomas briefly afterwards and we promised to stay in touch for the next visit. That opportunity came not as a Food concert but with Thomas playing with Mats Eilertsen (also a Food alumnus) at Ironworks in June as part of Coastal Jazz’s always excellent Innovations series. This time we had loads of time for some portraits and chat.
The new release from Thomas (leading a larger group) is called Time is a Blind Guide and it represents a high water mark for both the artist and the ECM label. I don’t want to be in the business of reviewing CDs (if you’re reading something on this blog, just assume I love it!) so here’s The Guardian’s take on it https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/05/thomas-stronen-time-is-a-blind-guide-review-crossover-jazz
It’s also notable for having one of the nicer cover images in keeping with the “late period” ECM “house style”!