Søren Nissen: Departures
Soren Nissen

Departures, the debut album by acoustic bassist Søren Nissen, includes two lengthy ‘thank you' lists, one of which acknowledges family, friends, and musical mentors and the other largely showing a long list of Indian names. It's a telling detail, as it not only accentuates how profound an impact Nissen's five-month journey through the country had on him but the multi-dimensional character of the album itself. In addition to three jazz quartet performances, four add tabla player Agneya Chikte to the mix, an inspired move that lends the group's performances a distinctive extra flavour.

Originally from Saskatoon, Nissen is now comfortably ensconced in Toronto and regarded as one of its top freelance bassists. Before that, he graduated from Humber College's prestigious music program in 2012 where he studied with Neil Swainson, Mike Downes, and others and performed with visiting faculty such as Terence Blanchard and Dave Holland; others with whom Nissen's studied include Vijay Iyer, Esperanza Spalding, and Ravi Coltrane. On Departures, recorded in Toronto earlier this year, the bassist's joined by tenor saxist Jeff LaRochelle, drummer Ian Wright, the aforementioned Chikte, and James Hill on piano, Rhodes, and Juno (Nissen's also credited with synths and Rhodes on a track apiece). Much like Holland, Nissen leads his own outfit with unerring note choices and tasteful restraint.

Accompanied by Chikte's tamboura-like drone, Nissen opens “Departures” with a bass solo, but generally speaking the album's an ensemble recording as opposed to one emphasizing the leader and relegating everyone else to the background. Following that two-minute intro, the full band enters, the energized music delivered at a brisk tempo and all fully engaged. As often happens on the set, LaRochelle takes the lead, his robust sax voicing the singing melodies and the others locking firmly into place alongside him. In the opening and closing tracks, Nissen threads voice samples of empowerment by Jiddu Krishnamurti (“You yourself are the teacher, the pupil, you're the master, you are the guru, you are the leader, ...”) into the arrangements to deepen the material's Indian connection, the move a further reflection of the impact the sojourn had on the bassist.

As memorable as the performances with Chikte are, the quartet settings are just as strong, a testament not only to the musicians' distinguished playing but the high calibre of Nissen's writing. A piece such as “Universal Exchanges,” for example, achieves liftoff precisely because of the rich compositional material the bassist gives the band to work with. LaRochelle's smooth and rather Shorter-esque turn at the tune's center impresses, but so too does the supple support he receives from the pianist, bassist, and drummer, all of them very much attuned to one another's playing. On an album marked by fine writing, the ballad “Mantra” stands out, with Nissen again giving LaRochelle a gorgeous theme to play, this one deliciously wistful and etched gracefully by the saxophonist.

Whereas “Departures” is high-powered, “Eyes of Riya” blossoms slowly, its gentle, measured pace suggestive of a sundazed procession across the desert. With tabla, bass, and drums the foundation and Nissen adding subtle synth colourations, the tune's aromatic vibe's boosted by unison sax and piano patterns and also features an extended solo turn by Chikte. The album comes full circle when “Beyond Truth” revisits the slightly darker tonalities of the opening cut, though the mood grows progressively more uplifting and rousing as the tune advances. It's a solid end to an album that impresses as a remarkably assured collection of contemporary jazz and one rendered even more impressive by its status as Nissen's maiden voyage.

November 2017