Nils Petter Molvær: Alone in Space

One of the photos on the cover of Nils Petter Molvær’s first solo CD, Khmer, shows only a silhouette of the trumpeter. This suits his musical ideals. Since the trumpet has the same range as the human voice, the instrumentalist can easily be intrusive. A good trumpeter economises and makes use of the pauses. When he is finally allowed to play, he must not produce insignificancies; the music he creates must be powerful, able to stand alone surrounded by space. Nils Petter Molvær is a powerful trumpeter.

Nils Petter Molvær

For the first time, the ECM recording company has used the word “sexy”. This is necessary to describe the music on Khmer, which is also both ephemeral and rhythmical, flowing and focused, or simply conducive to slogans like “ECM goes techno”. Among other things. Of course, the reason for this is that Molvær (36) is a veteran jazz trumpeter with a background that covers all the genres, so labels are not very important because you hear the quality anyway.

In the ECM catalogue alone, he has featured on a variety of productions, such as those with new music percussionist Robyn Schulowsky, the Norwegian big band Oslo 13, the reticent singer-songwriter Sidsel Endresen and the Masqualero jazz quintet, before finally appearing as soloist, conductor and composer on Khmer. The music is in many ways typical ECM, but it has absorbed contemporary sounds and rhythms from drum’n’bass, jungle, techno, ambient/dub, Massive Attack, Bill Laswell’s productions and industrial rock to non-western tribal sounds. The DJ group, Herbaliser, has re-mixed and featured on British club lists with the melody Platonic Years in a format unknown to ECM – 12-inch vinyl. The trumpeter feels relaxed about the transformation. “The DJ is the jazz musician of our time. All musical forms become empty and die if they don’t have a new source of energy. That is what the DJ does. But the whole thing is a matter of aesthetics, timing and daring.”

This trend seems logical to Molvær, who never allowed himself to be inspired by standard jazz but, as a 16-year-old, was fascinated by the electric Miles Davis anno Witches Brew. Improvisation has never been essential to him in any of its forms. He has played with Elvin Jones, George Russell and Gary Peacock, and when he invaded the clubs with his own orchestra in the 1980s, the similarity to dansante Joe Bowie and Defunkt was obvious. His own music has had the opportunity to mature, not due to a luxurious excess of time but because your own projects usually have to take a back seat when you are a sought-after studio musician.

Perhaps Molvær is fascinated by the DJ encroaching on the producer’s role because he sees similarities with his own function: the fact that the improvising musician becomes composer, the fact that the exchange of energy when all the forces are working in the same direction is sometimes called improvisation, at other times art. According to the national and international critics, Khmer corresponds to composer and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær’s ideal: it stands alone surrounded by space.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.6 - 1998 No. 1
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