The snowball effect - part 2

In this second instalment in a series of three, UK-based journalist Michael Tucker presents his Rough guide to (New) Norwegian Music. This excellent article, which was first published in respected Avant Magazine, gives the reader a comprehensive look into four decades of Norwegian jazz and contemporary music.

Jan Garbarek

What Karin Krog and the often-thus-titled “Big Four” of Garbarek (pictured), Rypdal, Andersen and Christensen did was to create a second “golden age” of Norwegian jazz, this time with the accent very much on cross-genre experimentation, but with plenty of room also for that “songbird lyricism” (the phrase is Steve Lake’s) that would in years to come become increasingly characteristic of the music of Garbarek in particular. As is well known today, apart from the musicians themselves, two figures were crucial to this second golden age. One was the American George Russell, who lived in Oslo in the mid-1960s and whose ideas concerning both pan-tonal and pan-rhythmic music fuelled the early - and meteoric – development of the so-called “Big Four”. The other was German producer Manfred Eicher, whose early ECM recordings with Norwegian engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug in Oslo did so much to alert the wider world to the quality of not just Norwegian contemporary jazz, but Nordic jazz as a whole. Featuring Garbarek and Christensen together with Keith Jarrett and Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson, recordings like the 1974 Belonging and 1977 My Song have justly entered jazz legend as some of the finest music of the past quarter of a century.

The Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg once suggested to me that Oslo was the perfect place for Manfred Eicher to produce not only such recordings but also the earlier, more rock-inflected work of Terje Rypdal and such later cross-genre projects as the 1979 Descendre, which featured Rypdal, Mikkelborg and Christensen. Mikkelborg’s point was that, although there had indeed been some fine modern mainstream players in Norway, the bebop tradition had never taken root there with anything like the force that it did elsewhere in Scandinavia. So, Oslo was open ground for a producer – and musicians – with open ears.

The Norwegian musicians whom Manfred Eicher has recorded for ECM are (mostly) known world-wide today. And the (disciplined) openness of attitude that has characterised so many ECM productions with these musicians has continued right up to today, as evinced by such a diverse group of (largely Norwegian) ECM records as the 1993 Water Stories by pianist Kjetil Bjørnstad, the 1994 Nordic Quartet recording by Karin Krog, John Surman, Terje Rypdal and Vigleik Storaas, the 1996 Visible World by Jan Grabarek and Hyperborean by Arild Andersen, 1997 Khmer by trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvær, 1999 Serenity by the Bobo Steson Trio (with Swedish bassist Anders Jormin and Jon Christensen) and the 1998-99 Different Rivers suite by Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim (a superb trans-energised Birh of the Cool felling to it, and which I was fortunate enough to hear live at the Molde Jazz festival last year). Before investigating how that openness of attitude is also characteristic of other, Norwegian-based labels today – such as Erik Hillestad’s Kirkelig Kulturverksted, Karl Seglem’s NOR and Bugge Wesseltofts’s Jazzland – it is worth pointing out that, exemplary as ECM has been in its documenting of Norwegian jazz, plenty of other musicians who have not been recorded by ECM made a significant contribution to that second “goden age” of Norwegian jazz which began in the mid-to-late 1960s and continued throughout the 1970s.

Four of the most beautiful of all Norwegian jazz records were released in the latter half of the 1970s: the 1975 Soturnudi by the Guttorm Guttormsen Quartet, with Guttormsen (saxes), Brynjulf Blix (piano), Carl Morten Iversen (bass) and Espen Rud (drums); the 1978 Til Jorden (To the Earth), which featured poet Rolf Jacobsen reading his work to music composed by pianist Egil Kapstad, with bassist Bjørn Alterhaug and saxophonist Bjørn Johansen together with Karin Krog in the accompanying ensemble; Moments, also of 1978, which found various musicians, including ex-Jan Garbarek Group pianist Terje Bjørklund and saxophonist John Pål Inderberg in a largish ensemble (including another excellent pianist Per Husby) interpreting eleven lyrically-charged compositions by bassist Alterhaug, and the 1979 Albufeira, with alto and soprano saxophonist Guttorm Guttormsen leading a quartet with bassist Iversen again present, but with Rune Klakegg now on piano and Jørgen Næss on drums.

Produced by labels sadly long extinct – respectively MAI (a label strongly political in nature, much involved with anti-EEC matters, and which also recorded the folk-rinsed 1975 Østerdalsmusikk on which Garbarek appears), ZAREPTA, Arctic Records and Octave – these four recordings exemplify the breadth and depth of poetic expression achieved by Norwegian musicians in the 1970s. Together with Karin Krog, Egil Kapstad had been one of the first Norwegian musicians to be invited to play abroad, at the 1964 Antibes Jazz Festival; today, the Bill Evans-inspired pianist may be found playing in female tenorist Bodil Niska’s fine quartet, or working with Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold in a swinging mellow yet often provocative context. Drummer Espen Rud’s credentials stretch back to the late 1960s and his work with one of the most innovative groups of that or any other decade: the Svein Finnerud Trio. The 1998 Gemini release Rudlende, where leader Rud is joined by Frode Nymo and Tore Bungorg on saxes, Vigleik Storaaso on piano and Treje Gewelt on bass, supplies rounded and diverse evidence of the compositional maturity of a drummer who has led some of the most interesting groups in recent Norwegian jazz, such as the 1978-83 Krabol.

Featuring pianist Finnerud, bassist Bjørnar andresen (who appeared on Terje Rypdal’s debut, eponymous ECM album in 1971) and Rud, the Svein Finnerud Trio began life in 1967; a later, early 1990s version of the trio would feature Svein Christiansen on drums. With its mixture of Paul Bley like pensiveness, Cecil Taylor-ish energy and general cross-rhythmic intensity, this is a group which deserves to be much better known than it is outside Norway. Sadly, leader Finnerud died in June 2000 from a brain tumour. While his death leaves a great gap in Norwegian music, the pianist was able to make two last recordings that are eloquent testimony to the complete integrity of vision that he sustained throughout his life as a working musician.

Following the 1993-94 Travel Pillow session which was issued by Prisma Records of the Henie-Onstad Art Centre, in 1999 bassist Terje Gewelt (ex. Tommy Smith’s Forward Motion) produced Sounds and Sights for Finnerud and released it on Resonant Music. Featuring twelve reproductions of Finnerud’s accomplished abstract paintings, the record finds Finnerud exploring a spacious and painterly variety of poetically distilled instrumental combinations with Jon Eberson (guitar), Nils Petter Molvær (trumpet), Terje Gewelt (bass) and Svein Christiansen (drums). The same year saw the recording of Egne Hoder (Own Heads), a very different album of expansive high-energy duets and trios with bassist (and long-time friend) Andresen and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. As I have suggested already, the last is surely one of the most remarkable talents to emerge from Norwegian jazz in recent years: when Pat Metheny concluded one of his sets with Love and bassist Arild Andersen at last year’s Molde Festival, he suggested to the audience - with forgivable ignorance of the details of the Norwegian political system – that the drummer should immediately be made “President of Norway!”

One of the busiest musicians in Norway today, Paal Nilssen-Love typifies the focussed literacy that informs the creativity of so many young Norwegian musicians now. His (English) father Terry used to run a jazz club in Stavanger, the west-coast Norwegian oil town: perhaps it was that environment that first stimulated the young drummer to listen as hard as he obviously has done to so many of the greats of drumming history, and still come up with his own conception. You can hear touches of Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Elvin Jones, Sunny Murray and Milford Graves in Love, plus a filtered touch or two of Jon Christensen, the doyen of contemporary Norwegian drummers. However, all this is transformed into something that is Love’s own: an intensely focused, dynamically vibrant conception which is as rhythmically forceful as it is poetically wide-ranging, delivered by a pair of some of the most sensitive and well-educated hands you’re ever likely to hear play the drums.

A contemporary sample of Love on record might include his recent solo release. Sticks & Stones of SOFA as well as his contribution to parts of Trygve Seim’s Different Rivers; his work in the Coltrane-inflected Element and Atomic groups, the South-Africa-meets-Norway SAN quintet and the Don Cherry tribute The Thing which he made a couple of years ago on Crazy Wisdom, with Swedish improvising saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, or his work with Bjørnar Andresen and guitarist Jon Eberson on the expansive shape-shifting work Curling Legs trio album Mind the Gap. Place Love next to the very different but equally excellent Norwegian drummer Terje Isungset, whose Taoist-like sensitivity to natural sound, materials and music was profiled last Autumn in issue no 20 of Avant, and you have ample evidence of what a rich seam of creativity it was that Jon Christensen first prised open for further exploration all those years ago.

Most of the Isungset that I’ve heard, such as his own mythically touched four-part Reise (Journey) with trumpeters Arve Heriksen, Per Jørgensen and Nils Petter Molvær – has been recorded on NOR, the label that saxophonist Karl Seglem started over a decade ago. Although domiciled in Oslo, Seglem – a fine tenor saxophonist, also known to play ram’s horns – reveals much feeling in his work for the fjords and the folk-songs, the mountains and the melodies of the West coast of Norway. Records such as Spir (Spire), Rit (Ritual) and Tya have an identity very much their own, integrating eg. the haunting folk song of a singer such as Berit Opheim with the keyboard treatments of Reidar Skår, the Hardanger fiddle of Håkon Høgemo and the sound-texture percussion of Terje Isungset. Like Bendik Hofseth, another excellent contemporary saxophonist, Seglem makes music which is undeniably close in spirit to that of Garbarek. However, just as Hofseth’s philosophically inclined and well-delivered vocals on a release like the 1993 Amuse Yourself (including a moving tribute to the spirit of swing in Swing City) are his alone, so do Seglem’s various projects establish their own value. In particular, Tya – multi-layered musical narrative concerning growing up on the West coast of Norway, in an area where the sublimity of the presence of water in the landscape has been mediated by the processes of industrial technology –is both a beautiful and challenging record, integrating the ancient and the contemporary, music and poetry to musically rewarding and soulful effect.

“Integrating”, “challenging”, “rewarding” and “soulful” are probably the four words which I find most appropriate trying to indicate something of the richness of Norwegian music today. Whether it be the contemporary composition profiled on a compilation release like the 1995 Norwegian Contemporary Music, the quietly but powerfully unfolding electro-acoustic soundscapes of Thomas Widerberg’s Visual Landscapes, Ketil Bjørnstad’s jazz- and rock-inflected settings of the words of Ecvard Much on the Kirkelig Kulturverksted label, or the cavernous, overdriven and unclassifiable sound-eruptions of electric guitarist Tore Elgarøy on the 2001 Rune Grammofon recording The Sound of The Sun, all such Norwegian music is characterised by a highly sophisticated approach to matters of sound-texture and dynamics, and the relation of melody to rhythm. The sort of debates that attended the work of Tveitt and Sæverud now seem simply unnecessary, such is the combination of “Norwegianness” (by which one might today mean, a sensitivity to space and a related capacity for unaffected albeit diversely conceived and telling lyricism) and internationalism in this music. It is as if George Russell’s ideas concerning pan-tonality and -rhythm have been absorbed with the morning milk (or evening beer).

The next and last installment will follow next week.

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