‘Inside Looking Out’ is simply a lesson in writing for an Octet in a creative and imaginative way, while at the same time creating a stimulating environment in which the solos can flourish.

Prophone Records PCD315

Håkan Nyqvist (French horn); Eva-Tea Lundberg (French horn); Sven Berggren (trombone);
Örjan Hultén (soprano, tenor saxophone); Erik Palmberg (trumpet, flugelhorn); Torbjörn Gulz (piano); Filip Augustson (double bass); Peter Danemo (drums)

Recorded 28 & 29 October 2021 and 2 February 2022

This is a remarkable ensemble, and one with a unique sound. While the French horn is not unheard of in jazz, it is hardly a regular occurrence and an immediate choice for a frontline horn. To be fair, that is not exactly the role the instrument takes on with Horncraft either.

The leader, composer, and arranger, Håkan Nyqvist, was more interested in how the instrument can color a group, and he has integrated the French horn’s distinctive sound into his musical vision with great taste and subtlety.

Nyqvist himself has had a distinguished career as a trumpet player in addition to his work on the French horn. He has, in the course of a long career, played in The Swedish Radio Jazz Group, and through them, got to work with such luminaries as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, and perhaps more importantly, George Russell, Gil Evans, and Kenny Wheeler.

To these ears, the influence of the latter two informs his writing for the ensemble he calls Horncraft. I say this as, listening carefully to the writing, one is able to discern Gil Evans’ meticulous attention to detail and the careful placement and weight of each note, and Wheeler’s touch in the interesting shape of the compositions, never being quite as they seem.

The group has a very different sound from many brass-dominant ensembles. It’s not unusual to have a rhythm section with a trumpet doubling the flugelhorn, trombone, and saxophone, but what makes Horncraft so unique is the sound of not just one, but two French horns.

For the most part, Håkan Nyqvist and Eva-Tea Lundberg are content to remain as ensemble voices, and what voices they are too. Such is the skill of Nyqvist’s arrangements that the French horns do not immediately jump out of the group but tug at the listener’s ear, as if hearing this unfamiliar voice in the brass section.

So subtle is the blending of the instrument with the trumpet or flugel and trombone that their presence is felt as much as heard, and yet they would leave a gaping hole in the sound if they were to be removed.

The opening track, ‘New View,’ gets the album off to an impressive start, with that ensemble sound and blending of the horns immediately grabbing the attention. Trumpeter Erik Palmberg solos first, and it is a gem of an improvisation, with a beautiful and crystal-clear tone.

The rhythm section comes into its own on ‘Passwords,’ with a clearly defined groove in the theme that is perfectly executed and sets up the whole composition. There is a fine solo from bassist Filip Augustson and the trombone of Sven Berggren, and Torbjörn Gulz gets in an imaginative solo too, relishing the solid backdrop laid down by bass and drums.

The quality of the writing again stands out on the title track, and Nyqvist shows his understanding of others’ compositions in an exquisite arrangement of John Coltrane’s ‘Naima.’ Beautifully and sympathetically arranged for Örjan Hultén’s soprano saxophone, there is nothing overly clever or overdone, with Nyqvist simply retaining the integrity and lyricism of Coltrane’s ballad.

The same can be said of ‘I’ve Seen’ by Lars Gullin, in which the ensemble states the melody with grandeur, and the ensemble writing allows Palmberg to deliver another fine solo.

This is followed by another equally fine improvisation, this time from the French horn of Eva-Tea Lundberg, whose lovely solo is placed with a disarming sense of time and place for each phrase and note.

The only other French horn solo comes from Nyqvist himself, on his own composition, ‘Episodes,’ which emerges from a repetitive piano figure from Gulz before the ensemble, making use of lower-pitched brass against Palmberg’s trumpet, allows the soloists to step forth.

Firstly, with Nyqvist’s French horn in a short statement before Palmberg’s trumpet picks up the thread with some lovely phrases. The French horn again enters for a brief commentary, resulting in a dialogue between Nyqvist and Palmberg that is a delight to listen to, again and again.

‘Inside Looking Out’ is simply a lesson in writing for an Octet in a creative and imaginative way, while at the same time creating a stimulating environment in which the solos can flourish. The original compositions are all interesting, and the French horns bring a sound to the ensemble that benefits greatly from their presence.