A beautiful album that confounds expectations and delights in equal measures.

Selmabird Records

Nicole Johänntgen (alto & soprano saxophone, voice); Jon Hansen (tuba); David Stauffacher (percussion); special guest Victor Hege (sousaphone)

With saxophonist Nicole Johänntgen, you can never be quite sure about what you are about to hear. One thing for sure is that you will be surprised that music of quite this nature can be delivered with such focus, concentration, and originality.

Johänntgen is not given to taking the easy route and, in recent years, has chosen to work in small ensembles. Her long-standing group, Henry, is just a quartet featuring the unusual instrumentation of saxophone, trombone, sousaphone, and drums; and has played in a duo with guitarist Jack DeSalvo on the excellent “Lumens” album.

Not afraid of a challenging situation, and indeed challenging herself, Nicole has also released two solo albums.

Continuing that journey of self-discovery, the saxophonist has again come up with a unique ensemble of saxophone, tuba, and percussion, and the addition of sousaphone on two tracks in a program of original compositions that are ever-changing.

What is interesting too, is that in working with ensembles with sparse and unusual instrumentation, it is difficult to pin down any discernible influences, and Johänntgen uses this to her advantage.

Her jazz credentials are unmistakable, as can be clearly heard in “Straight Blues, Baby, Straight Blues,” and she is a canny improviser with some fresh and interesting lines that work with or against the rhythmic impetus of brass bass, and percussion.

One thread that is present in all of her work is her innate sense of melody, and to this end, the saxophonist never loses herself in long solos but is intent on ensuring that what she plays fits in with the composition and the requirements of her colleagues.

“Simplicity, Curiosity” is a splendid three-way dialogue working off a simple bass figure from the tuba from which the trio spins out some exciting melodic and rhythmic ideas, tossing phrases and motifs back and forth; while “Get Up and Dance” will have most up on their feet.

The lyrical side of Nicole’s playing, and where we get to hear her full and luminous alto sound, is on “In Gedanken,” which has one of those gentle, lilting melodies that exude an irresistible charm as does “Good Night, My Dear.”

Within the parameters of the music presented on “Labyrinth,” which are already quite varied and distinctive with a character of their own, Nicole is constantly looking to bring new elements to the music with the introduction of a new voice, her own.

This is something that she has hinted at briefly on her “Solo II” recording and tentatively brings her wordless singing to blend with the ensemble sound. Her brief vocalizing interspersed with her saxophone playing is heard on the title track to fine effect, and again, her lovely voice is on “Canyon Wind,” albeit briefly, and works wonderfully well against a backdrop of congas and her alto.

This fascinating album comes to a close with Nicole picking up the soprano for “Little Song for Nenel,” in which she features more of her vocals for which she has written lyrics to this tender nursery rhyme, and the instrumental trio piece “Song For Nenel.”

A beautiful album that confounds expectations and delights in equal measures.