Karl Seglem - Fusing improvisation and tradition (Part 1)

"I feel that it’s my turn now - I’m eager to get on the road and prove my worth" says Norwegian saxophonist and composer Karl Seglem who recently released one of his most applauded albums to date; Femstein. In a two-part interview, the respected improviser and folk-music innovator talks on his background, present focus and future plans.

Karl Seglem 2004 (med horn) Foto: Ketil Jacobsen

Karl Seglem appears to be at the centre of a flurry of activity: Playing, composing and running his own renowned record label NORCD. He is equally respected as a composer and a performer on tenor saxophone or various wind instruments of his own creation such as the distinctive goat’s horns. Says an eager and confident Seglem, “I feel that it’s my turn now – I’m eager to get on the road and prove my worth.”

Seglem’s recording and performing career spans two decades, a long list of ensembles, countless tours, a number of standard-setting and acclaimed releases, several commissions and the establishment of one of the country’s most respected independent labels. When MIC hooked up with him, Seglem was as active as ever, gearing up for the release of his latest album Femstein (Five-stones), out on Long Distance this autumn.

A live show with one of Seglem’s bands, be it the Isglem duo with drummer/percussionist Terje Isungset, UTLA with Isungset and Hardanger-fiddle player Håkon Høgemo or his brand new band, is a showcase of wind-instrument experimentation and vibrant fusion of improv and traditional Norwegian folk-music influences. Seglem is equally adept at powerful improvisation or lyrical ornamentation on tenor sax as he is at producing wild sonic patterns with his trademark goat’s horns treated with distortion, overdrive and octaver effects. With a strong command over dynamics, interplay, use of effects and thorough understanding of traditional elements, Seglem and company conjure up wild new images on the stage that few, if any, other ensembles can match.

Seglem grew up in the small industrial town of Årdal in western Norway. Although the district has rich folk-music traditions, Seglem wasn’t exposed to traditional music until he reached a mature age. “I didn’t grow up listening to traditional Norwegian folk-music. My grandfather played traditional pieces but he passed away when I was born. I listened to Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd and The Stranglers – not fiddle music. I picked up my first instrument at the age of seven or eight and started out in the local marching band at nine. I was also fortunate to have a great music teacher at my school who would provide vital inspiration when I began playing the saxophone at the age of 11. I then went on to folk-high school (a Norwegian community college) and gradually began to listen more to jazz and folk music.” Seglem’s musical development continued while he was based in Bergen from 1982 to 1995. “I have been a full-time musician since 1985. In Bergen I worked with a wide variety of musicians such as (guitarist, composer) Kenneth Sivertsen and (drummer/percussionist) Terje Isungset and various big bands.” Since 1995, Seglem has been an active player on the Oslo circuit, performing in the club scene, at festivals or touring schools when employed by Riksonsertene (The Norwegian Concert Institute). In addition to a very active career as a performer and composer, Seglem has served as founder and managing director for one of Norwegian jazz and folk/world/crossover music’s most central record labels, NORCD. His record label has been a standard-setting institution since the early 90s, releasing a steady stream of high-quality outings ranging from traditional solo Hardanger fiddle to avant-garde free improv.

Femstein – new release & new band
When asked to describe his new release, Seglem highlights the strong links to traditional Norwegian folk-music. “Femstein has a clearly-defined, sonorous quality that has its base in Norwegian folk-music. Compared to earlier outings, the tunes on Femstein are more defined when seen in a folk-music context. The songs on Femstein have more beats and have a higher degree of rhythmic clarity.”

For the Femstein studio sessions, Seglem recruited a new rhythm section, including bassist Gjermund Silset and drummer/percussionist Helge Norbakken – previously best known for their work with central Sami vocalist Mari Boine. Seglem is enthusiastic when it comes to his new rhythm section. “I worked a lot in the studio this winter with Silset and Norbakken, who have a fantastic internal groove. Their interplay is truly special and they manage to come up with rhythmic solutions that no other bass/drums combo can.” The fourth member of the Femstein band is Seglem’s long-standing Hardanger fiddle-toting partner Håkon Høgemo. Seglem is visibly pleased when discussing his new quartet, saying, “Earlier on, I missed not playing with bass, and now I really enjoy playing live with the new and powerful quartet. Earlier this year we had a very successful tour with our new band which proved that we do great live performances.”

Femstein features only original material penned by Seglem and arranged with input from the band and producer Reidar Skår. “The material on Femstein is based solely on my own tunes. This time, we use the traditional Hardanger fiddle more as a sonorous instrument treated with effects and then manipulated electronically. Reidar Skår brings in a contemporary edge with touch of electronica. The new record is more cultivated, has more focus and many elements that used to be there have now been omitted. Compared to earlier releases, Femstein is much more cut to the bone.”

Ozella - Long Distance
For his new release, Seglem was signed to respected French world/ethnic/crossover label Long Distance. The label, well known for its Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan releases, will give high priority to Seglem’s release, in which they have strong faith. Femstein will be released by Long Distance initially in France and Germany, the Benelux countries, Italy and the U.K. The label’s releases are distributed by Harmonia Mundi, which also has a strong position in the world/crossover/folk scene. “The record company execs are very exited with the record and have lots of expectations,” says Seglem.

The Femstein band will also tour England, Scotland and Germany in support of the album.

Seglem’s previous international release, the retrospective compilation New North, has paved the way for his new album. New North is doing very well – especially in Germany – with rave reviews ticking in all the time. The German label that released the compilation, Ozella, is thrilled and reports that the interest is just growing and growing. We’ve got lots of very positive feedback, and I feel that New North has opened many doors for me in Germany and that there’s a strong basis now for my new album.”

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