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Elsa Nilsson Trio shakes up norms of typical jazz shows

At INC restaurant on Wednesday night, Elsa Nilsson played a bass flute, an instrument with a 180-degree curve in the head joint. Her solo involved every member of her trio, and the night started off with a forewarning: This was not a usual night with The New Brunswick Jazz Project.

Long notes filled the air, where everything is cool and soaked in a beautiful tone. The music is slow in the beginning, but it’s far from boring.

Bassist Alex Minier played long sustained notes. At first it felt like things were off — it didn’t feel like the typical walking bass line or ballad-like playing that is so common in bar jazz. It was a wonderfully woeful and wobbly odd time.

Once I collected that this was not a going to be a typical bar jazz show, I leaned back, closed my eyes and absorbed everything that was happening.

Minier laid down long notes like railroad tracks, connecting each part of the song together like stations. Guitarist Jeff McLaughlin did not just play chords like a standard guitarist — he played in textures that would be more easily found in a dream pop record than in a jazz song.

The bassline set the course for the music, and the guitar was a first-class train riding the rails from station to station with efficiency, flavor and style. The conductor was no one other than Elsa Nilsson, herself. She took the melodies on each song and brought the songs through their routes.

In synthesis, the trio were set for a great trip with stops you might not typically expect.

Don’t be fooled, the songs are beautiful and well played, but they are not meant to comfort you. While looking around the crowded bar and restaurant, I saw people who seemed absorbed in their dinner conversations turn their heads to see what was happening. And it happened every time the band changed things up.

It’s difficult for any artist to captivate an audience that isn’t there solely to see the performance, but that didn’t seem to be a problem last Wednesday night.

Every time part of the music changed, people turned and listened. It seemed that the only constant in the Elsa Nilsson Trio’s music was that everything was bound to change. It was a constant improvisational goldmine, with ears and eyes captivated like a miners eyes on silver.

There was one song that stuck out to me more than any other. The very rhythm of the song is best described as the sensation of a record skipping. It sounded as if it was some sort of auditory mistake —a scratch in the record or where chunks had been removed. It forced your ears to listen.

The song was fast and the melody whizzed by like a freight train, which is a comparison that typically isn’t associated with flutes. The trio went through sharp turns where the guitarist doubled the melody and harmonized with it, but all while going through the wild little ride where the beat wasn't where it was expected to be.

From the perspective of a musician, you can easily see how listening to a fast song with odd rhythms and complicated melodies is kind of like watching this locomotive going down a track that’s shaped like a lightning bolt. You expect crashing or mess or at least to some, a less than peaceful ride.

But Elsa Nilsson and her trio did not play that way that night. It was a solidly tantalizing, sensational, captivating experience that I definitely encourage others to hear.

Elsa Nilsson and her band will be releasing a new album called Salt Wind on March 26. There also will be videos of selected songs released with the album available on Nilsson's YouTube channel. Pre-orders are available now.

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