Look Around

Look Around

Soundtrack to a psychedelic love affair
Brian Roessler
Federico Ughi
Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan
Nathan Hanson
Fantastic Merlins
Brian Roessler
Federico Ughi
Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan
Nathan Hanson
Catalog Number: 

Saint Paul, MN

Release Date: 
Aug 14, 2007
Liner Notes: 
1 CD
Look AroundiTunes Artist's PageiTunes Album Page
Song TitleTimePrice
1.Look Around07:26$0.99
2.I Was Behind the Couch All the Time03:19$0.99
3.A Very Small Animal05:55$0.99
4.It Would Seem07:41$0.99
5.Letting Go05:31$0.99
6.Dance Partner04:05$0.99
7.Runoff Water04:37$0.99
10.Bright and Wide04:57$0.99
One Sheet: 

Intensely cinematic (though hardly any movie you would have seen), the rare beauty of the Fantastic Merlins begins with the group's unusual blend of tenor saxophone (Nathan Hanson), cello (Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan), bass (Brian Roessler), and drums (Federico Ughi).

What's been called their gift for the psychedelic is really more of an alchemical interplay. Like the bass-piano-clarinet dynamics of Jimmy Giuffre's Freefall, the group executes a sensual game of freeze-tag between figure and ground. At moments angular and aggressive, but rarely ever austere, the music's textural elements breathe exceptional warmth into elliptical spaces. Bass, cello, saxophone intertwine for a honey-rich choral effect, splinter with steely "abkratzen," and epitomize chamber music (both in the sense of containment and a subversive sense of surface attraction). It's the soundtrack of a strange and beautiful love affair.

Musically they are the spiritual kin of bass sorcerer Francois Rabbath; Albert Ayler's vibrational, gospel-tinged sonorities; Frisell's spacious, meteorological impulses; Sonny Rollins' hopscotch antics; Morricone's redolent lozenges of mood and memory; and 1980s shoot-from-the-hip, NYC-downtown avant-gardisms that ricochet between angular swing and curveball poetics. While not outwardly a JAZZ group (in the verse-chorus-bridge-solo-solo-solo sense), the Fantastic Merlins' approach to rhythm and space is firmly rooted in a freewheeling jazz sensibility.

Jean Cocteau once said, "The public does not like dangerous profundities; it prefers surfaces." The values of jazz and improvised music are typically an affront to the polite surface of life. Call it a left-handed form of human endeavor, but the Fantastic Merlins' subversive aesthetics are a threat to The Man. They embrace a daring velocity, a dissonant wail, a noir-ish sense of sensuality, intimacy, and risk, they embody freedom and possess, dare I say, a democratic appeal.



Today’s multi-stylistic jazz groups are often ignored not only by young music bloggers, but also by old-guard jazz fans reluctant to embrace anything outside traditional bebop. Creative musicians can’t win. But open-minded listeners can’t lose with the Fantastic Merlins. Cellist Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan and bassist Brian Roessler lay down an abundance of cinematic and spooky low-end grooves. Over that mix, saxophonist Nathan Hanson and percussionist Federico Ughi weave and moan. But throughout this smoldering set, instruments veer in and out of each other’s tonal range for a exploration that’s often solemn and organically psychedelic.

by Jim Meyer


Squidco staff pick for the month of July.


A band with vision that is literally part NYC, part Minneapolis, and spiritually part free jazz and part string quartet, the Merlins make magic with a power and precision that is at times awesome, at other times inspirational. Their blend of cello, bass, drums and sax is wide enough to give each member a chance to inhale the melody and take it to varying heights, but to always return to the heated center. Majestic and exhilarating, "I Was Behind The Couch All The Time" and "A Very Small Animal" are the key tracks, with "Runoff Water" also a standout gem. But this whole set is infused with the raw goals beyond of Ayler and Garzone, a "Bright and Wide" reaching for the sublime, as another of their songs imply. Confident and not afraid to risk failure, Fantastic Merlins rise above even their own high expectations on this mighty release.

by Mike Wood


Fantastic Merlins don't consider themselves a jazz group, exactly, but it's hard not to hear them as such, mostly due to the cumulative effect of tenor saxophone, upright bass and drums. That Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan's cello often blends almost seamlessly with the sonority of Nathan Hanson's sax doesn't help, nor does the fact that they're brilliant, loose-limbed improvisers who respond to each other's musical suggestions with all the grace and fluidity of seasoned dancers. But that's where it starts to get interesting, because it's not just Ferrier-Ultan and Hanson who are spontaneously generating musical ideas- the entire band ebbs and flows together. For instance, bowed upright bass makes occasional cameo appearances in traditional jazz, but it often makes for an ill fit. Here, however, when Brian Roessler begins to draw sustained notes from his instrument, Ferrier-Ultan is there to respond in kind, and so the sound of opener "Look Around" is not "jazz with strings," but something more formless and almost Middle Eastern. The cello serves as a bridge between the sax and the bass, with the tone of the sax, but the attack of the bowed bass. The instruments drop in and out of focus, creating a lush and drowsy haze full of languorous and unresolved melodic fragments. As the album progresses, patterns emerge. The sharp right angles and abstractions of "Dance Partner" are followed by the meditative strains of "Runoff Water," which is in turn followed by the swagger of "Lenny," The standout track from their debut live EP, "Lenny" is still their most accessible tune, a groove that could soundtrack a lazy, late-night shot of a slow-rolling Cadillac winding its way through a black and white city. And thusly the album proceeds: for every barbed and boisterous stab, there's a slowly building and gospel-tinged lament. So no, you can't throw it on at a cocktail party and look classy, and you could try to nod along and snap your fingers, but you're more likely going to just sit and soak it in. The compositions sprawl out organically from simple starting points, as on standout "It Would Seem," which was recorded live at the Clown Lounge in Saint Paul. Hanson repeats a simple motif, then stretches and comments on it, the rest of the group percolating in the background. Hanson disappears, then resurfaces just as the fabric of the track is about to rip, drummer Federico Ughi dropping in powerfully and driving the melody back to the front with straight-ahead urgency. It's the album's most chameleonic and furthest-ranging track, and also its most compelling. Even if they're not "jazz" in the traditional sense, Fantastic Merlins make music imbued with one of jazz's greatest strengths: a complex but naturally woven and interdependent improvisational spirit.

by Steve McPherson


Featuring Nathan Hanson on tenor sax & electronics, Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan on cello & electronics, Brian Roessler on bass and Federico Ughi on drums. Over the past couple of years the Minnesota-based Innova label has sent me thirty-plus promos. That is pretty prolific for a small label that specializes in more experimental, modern classical and electronic music. I try to listen to each disc they send, but I am a bit overwhelmed at times. In the past few months, they seem to have hit their stride with a half dozen great discs from Henry Brant, Virgil Moorefield, Mary Ellen Childs and the truly Fantastic Merlins. Although the Fantastic Merlins are mostly based in Minnesota, they do include former downtown saxist, Nathan Hanson, and current downtown drum wiz & label-head Federico Ughi. Although I am not familiar with the other two members of this quartet, each time I've played this disc, I've been blown away, as have the half dozen customers who have grabbed copies in the store. What is so fantastic about them?!? This is not just another swell improv disc, you can tell that a good deal of preparation and writing has gone into this gem. Commencing with the title track, Jacqueline's majestic cello sounds grand and rich with some superb cymbal-work from Federico, haunting tenor from Nathan and eerie bowed bass as well. "I Was Behind the Couch All the Time" sounds like early Curlew, who had similar instrumentation with cello and tenor sax in the frontline. The cello and sax both solo around one another as the rhythm team play some inspired jazz/rock grooves underneath. Nathan's tenor and Jacqueline's cello sound superb together as they play rich, warm, wooden harmonies on many of these pieces. I dig the way they start spaciously on "It Would Seem", before they erupt into a great rockin' groove, starting and stopping and then dropping back into bowed string space again. Both strings often sound marvelous and magical when they are bowing together and creating incredible harmonies with the sax. They is certainly the best Curlew disc we've heard in a long while, although this band is not actually called...

by Bruce Gallanter


A whisper of brushed snares, two metallic taps, a snatch of the faintest human voice, and then strings open onto a vast plain of reverberant sound and slowly evolving drone. The opening moments of Look Around evoke multiple landscapes, layers of sonic possibility that are then realized throughout this superb and surprisingly adventurous disc. How many groups claim use of electronics only to disappoint? Here, they shape perspective, providing subtlety and adding delicate shades, never trumpeting their existence as anything but symbiotic. Even when obvious, as in the transition between “Line” and “Bright and Wide,” or at the opening of “It Would Seem,” the loops only enhance, or reassert, saxophonist Nathan Hanson’s seductively pithy motives. Usually though, the group aesthetic, “free jazz” with a “rock” edge, is rendered refreshingly cinematic with electronic aid. “It Would Seem” finds cellist Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan and bassist Brian Roessler in frenzied dialogue, increasing reverb giving the impression that Ferrier-Ultan is gradually leaving the jazz-inflected environment for some distant place. Only when Hanson swoops in does the jump-cut transformation reveal itself in full, Federico Ughis’s drumming sealing the rhetorical deal with hard-edged funk precision. Likewise, “A Very Small Animal”’s mysterious opening sounds anything but diminutive as vast reverberant chasms are sculpted and traversed in gorgeous counterpoint, the texture slowly building to Ughi’s increasingly dense but translucent interjections. Ughi really shows astonishing versatility here, able to match any group gesture with well-placed support or a gentle nudge in another direction. The others are no less inventive, transcending post-modern superficiality to create a convincing stylistic blend. Innova is the perfect label for the Merlins, who bring just a touch of Musique Concret to the core of this fine production, yet another layer of reference adding equal interest. It will be fascinating to see down which avenue of discovery the quartet chooses to lope, jump or run.

by Marc Medwin


This is a group that seems to be growing with each new step. My second encounter with the quartet, "Look around" doesn't want to assail the senses with futile rage or drooling melancholy, neither is strictly classifiable in a category. It obviously shows jazz roots, but possesses the qualities of an enviable stylistic maturity explicated through the soundtrack-like features of several of the tracks. Curiously enough, cellist Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan, probably the most prominent voice of the ensemble, is also the only member who didn't author a piece (except being credited in the final improvisation). Yet her heartfelt lines are the ones blurring the border between harmonic consciousness and desire to evade the canonic aspects of composition. Drummer Federico Ughi and bassist Brian Roessler don't strive to capture a place in the sun, focusing instead on their capacities of generating the right tonalities for the music to evolve, while Nathan Hanson's tenor sax is the "complementary alternative" to Ferrier-Ultan in the band's choice of thematic delivery. Atmospheres are quite differentiated from a section to another, with predilection for a gradually opening staticity revealing a multitude of facets that the ears welcome as a reminiscence of situations that we used to enjoy, and that now are no more. There's even a riff-based, pseudo funk song ("Lenny") that demonstrates Fantastic Merlins' versatility and will to change the cards on the table throughout the game. Forget all the names and comparisons (hey, did anyone realize that Bill Frisell hasn't been playing something meaningful for a decade?) which render no justice to this ensemble's determination in finding a unique language. They're doing pretty good in that respect.

by Massimo Ricci


Fantastic Merlins is the four piece group consisting of Nathan Hanson (tenor saxophone), Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan (cello), Brian Roessler (bass), and Federico Ughi (drums). Together, these four individuals play unpredictable improvisational instrumental music that incorporates elements of jazz, modern classical, and modern mood music. The seven-plus minute opening track ("Look Around") is a rather wild way to begin an album. The piece is heady and meandering...often relying more on sounds than on melodies and the percussion that is present is rather random and spontaneous. But just when you think the band is heading too far into the deep end, they snap back with a slightly more conventional modern jazz piece ("I Was Behind the Couch All the Time"). The third track ("A Very Small Animal") is odd and strangely spooky and confusing. These folks' ability to alternative between atmospheric mood music and esoteric modern jazz is impressive indeed. Other standout tracks include "Dance Partner," "Lenny," "Line," and "Bright and Wide." The playing is precise and determined and the sound quality is exceptional. The folks in Fantastic Merlins teeter in and out of experimental territory...while retaining enough familiar elements to hold their listeners' attention. Excellent.

by lmnop


Make no mistake about it: The Fantastic Merlins' Look Around is a fantastic album that stands aside from the pack in almost every way. It is infused with a gorgeous milieu tempered by chamber sounds although it is not chamber music, and it is often thrilling, and worthy of making at least some "top ten" lists for 07 releases. Produced by tenor saxophonist Nathan Hanson, the Fantastic Merlins is an unusual group. In addition to Hanson on tenor sax, it is comprised of Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan on cello, Brian Roessler on bass, and Federico Ughi on drums, with Hanson and Ferrier-Ultan doubling on electronics. ...the group seems much larger than it is, and it offers a plethora of pleasures. Hanson is an extraordinary performer on sax, with a beautiful tone and concept. He has a full, rich sound that is highlighted on "It Would Seem". But it is the interrelationship of the sax, cello, acoustic bass, and drums that produces such a special sound. This is clearly a group effort, with collective improvisation the norm. The results are not chaotic but appear carefully orchestrated with extraordinary blowing. Federico Ughi is characteristically splendid, his drums serving as much more than a rhythmic undercurrent, as he participates as a full member of the quartet. Swirling interconnectedness, lush carpet-like sonorities, and heavy emphasis on the strings combine to create continual moments of incendiary momentum. Tim Duroche's detailed liner notes add to the understanding of the music. (example: "the elegiac sea-to shining-sea momentum and narrative quality is worthy of classic Morricone.") This is one for the record books.

by Steven Loewy


A thick texture of low strings punctuated by percussion with a saxophone woven into the sonic cloud. Fantastic Merlins paint a moving picture of sound composed of long shots that need no resolution. As beautiful and taut as these compositions are, the Fantastic Merlins are at their best in the live tracks on Look Around. The unseen crowd of St. Paul's Clown Lounge adding an immediacy and tension to the soundscape. There's a jazz vibrancy coming out of Minnesota in this new century that rivals the honky tonks of Kansas City and St. Louis of the swing era. Look Around is an invitation to explore this mid-western phenomenon that rewards the ears with a richly rewarding sound.

by Devin Hurd