Avant-jazz Atomic is adept at finding form on the fly

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      One of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever heard could easily have been a disaster—but instead it turned into a choice lesson on what to do when life hands you a big basket of bitter lemons.

      The place? Gabriola Island. The time? Almost exactly a decade ago. And the lemons? Well, that particular night, the sour citrus showed up in the shape of a derelict piano. It was supposed to have been tuned and ready for Håvard Wiik to play; his Scandinavian band Atomic had been booked into the oceanside Surf Lodge by jazz entrepreneur Cem Zafir, then a Gabriola resident. Come sound check time, however, it was discovered that several of the old upright’s keys were sticky and that it was as out of tune as the Portsmouth Sinfonia—and the best available replacement was an almost equally beat-up (but relatively well-tuned) Fender Rhodes electric piano.

      Not exactly what you’d usually want to offer Wiik, who has as nuanced a touch as any pianist alive. But the Norwegian musician and his bandmates rose to the occasion, delivering a fierce and at times downright funky set, with Wiik apparently revelling in the limitations of his unlikely instrument.

      After the show, my date—not exactly an avant-jazz fan—described it as “like being scrubbed all over with steel wool, but in a good way”. So if sonic exfoliation is your thing, take note that Atomic is playing a free Granville Island show this weekend, as part of the annual Winter Jazz festival. Don’t miss it.

      In a Skype call from Chicago, Wiik says he remembers that Gabriola show well. And he has some advice for jazz neophytes who might want to take advantage of Saturday night’s freebie.

      “If you’ve never heard jazz or improvised music before,” he suggests, “I would say, ‘Try not to understand too much, but just enjoy.’ ”

      Few bands make that easier. Although trumpeter Magnus Broo, saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, drummer Hans Hulbækmo, and Wiik are all ferociously inventive players, their intensity is balanced by a love of melody, which can sometimes turn up in surprising form. Consider, for instance, the horn chorale that emerges, briefly, in “Stuck in Stockholm”, from the band’s latest release, Six Easy Pieces. But don’t take the album’s title too literally. It’s a riff on Wiik’s tune “Five Easy Pieces”, itself inspired by Jack Nicholson’s 1970 feature film, and a witty nod to the complexity of the band’s music.

      “They [the new tunes] are kind of hard to play,” the pianist says, laughing. “So for us it was a kind of a pun.”

      Wiik adds, however, that it’s best not to mistake Atomic’s episodic, ever-shifting music as the result of too much compositional heavy lifting. More important, he says, is that with only one change of personnel since they came together in 1999, Atomic’s members have become adept at finding form on the fly.

      “When you’ve been working with people for 18 years, you start to get to know each other a lot. So I think what’s being perceived as composition sometimes is just interplay—and vice versa,” he explains. “We know each other so well that it’s easier to predict or follow the others in a way that I think some people see as composition. But, again, it’s not a thing that is discussed; it just comes naturally to us.”

      Atomic plays a free show at Performance Works on Saturday (February 24), as part of Winter Jazz.