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Eivind Aarset: Guitar Anti-Hero

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In a time when the interactive video game Guitar Hero is selling in the millions, Eivind Aarset is, in many ways, the Guitar Anti-Hero. Despite making music that could easily lend itself to the kind of guitar pyrotechnics that are so often the litmus test of a good player, Aarset's emphasis is on texture, on melody, on groove, and on a kind of collective improvisation that's been reshaping and redefining what jazz can be since he released his first album as a leader, Electronique Noire (Jazzland) in 1998. Live Extracts (Jazzland, 2010), featuring various incarnations of his expanded Sonic Codex Orchestra, is culled from a number of live dates in Europe, largely revisiting earlier material from albums including Connected (Jazzland, 2004) and Sonic Codex (Jazzland, 2007), but with paradoxically even greater energy and subtlety; music that moves from a whisper to a roar in a matter of seconds.



New developments in music don't emerge from a vacuum, though in many ways—at least on the international stage—that's just how it appeared in the late 1990s, when a seemingly massive wave of new music emerged from Norway, Aarset's home. Trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer
Nils Petter Molvaer
Nils Petter Molvaer
b.1960
trumpet
's Khmer (ECM, 1997), in particular, announced a new kind of improvised music where contemporary beats mixed with the curiously sensual world music influences of Jon Hassell
Jon Hassell
Jon Hassell
b.1937
trumpet
, the ambient colorations of Brian Eno, a new approach to collective spontaneity where texture was as important as melody and pulse, and the intrepid dispensing of convention as Molvær's studied embouchure and electronic processing made his instrument often sound like anything but a trumpet. Aarset was a key performer on that disc, adding ambient soundscapes, raw edges and, at times, an altered tone that, played with an EBow, sounded more like the Middle Eastern, double-reeded ney than anything resembling a guitar.

Khmer wasn't the only album out of Norway to shake the foundations of jazz and improvised music at the time. Keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft
Bugge Wesseltoft
Bugge Wesseltoft
b.1964
piano
emerged—after coming up in a variety of musical spaces that included playing on Norwegian saxophone icon Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
b.1947
sax, tenor
's outstanding I Took Up the Runes (ECM, 1990) and singer Sidsel Endresen
Sidsel Endresen
Sidsel Endresen

vocalist
's subtle Exile (ECM, 1994)—with the first in his aptly titled New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 1997) series, with a decidedly more dance floor-friendly approach. Supersilent
Supersilent
Supersilent

band/orchestra
's 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 1998) not only announced a new, fearless approach to electronic improv—making clear that noise and beauty could come together in the same thought—but kick-started the careers of four of Norway's more important movers and shakers on the scene, most notably trumpeter Arve Henriksen
Arve Henriksen
Arve Henriksen
b.1968
trumpet
, whose distinctly non-trumpet approach to his instrument mirrored Molvær's without sounding anything like it.

In the midst of all this music, Aarset could be found as an increasingly visible player, and in the years since this Norwegian second wave—the first was in the early 1970s, when the German ECM label brought international attention to a group of Scandinavian artists including Garbarek, bassist Arild Andersen
Arild Andersen
Arild Andersen
b.1945
bass, acoustic
, drummer Jon Christensen
Jon Christensen
Jon Christensen
b.1943
drums
and pianist Bobo Stenson
Bobo Stenson
Bobo Stenson
b.1944
piano
—Aarset has become vastly influential and respected—and not just in his own country. American vibraphonist Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
b.1938
vibraphone
, who recruited a group of high profile Norwegians, including Aarset, Molvær and Wesseltoft, for his remarkable Northern Lights (NYC Records, 2006), simply had this to say about the guitarist in a 2010 AAJ interview: "I love him, he's a genius."



Chapter Index
  1. Early Days: Developing a Language
  2. Gun for Hire: Architecting Sound
  3. Nils Petter Molvær and Khmer
  4. From Electronique Noire to Sonic Codex
  5. Live Extracts
  6. Dhafer Youssef and Producing
  7. Present and Future Songs


Early Days: Developing a Language

Growing up, Aarset came to guitar the same way many youngsters did in the 1970s—through rock music. "Like most players of my generation, for me it was hearing Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
," says Eivind. "I remember I was 11 years old and I bought Hendrix in the West (Reprise, 1972), a live album. I couldn't understand what was going on or how to make a guitar sound like that. From there it was on to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Santana was also big. Then, my brother—he was some years older—brought home some jazz stuff, in particular Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' Agharta (Columbia, 1975); it became a big, big influence; [guitarist] Pete Cosey
Pete Cosey
Pete Cosey
1943 - 2012
guitar
is really great."

While Agharta's dense, otherworldly landscapes became a touchstone for the aspiring guitarist, musicians from his own country were showing up on Aarset's radar as well—and not just for the music. "[Guitarist] Terje Rypdal
Terje Rypdal
Terje Rypdal
b.1947
guitar
was really big when I was a teenager," Aarset explains. "I think he was really a big star among the people I hung out with because he had more of a rock touch to his music, which I could relate to. But [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
b.1947
sax, tenor
was really important also. I didn't know much about the international thing—that they were famous outside Norway—but that is something I've thought a lot about later, that they opened up the possibility for other musicians to believe in their own sound and their own identity."

Studies brought Aarset into the jazz sphere, though he decided, quickly enough, that the stricter convention of the jazz tradition wasn't for him—at least, no t directly, as is immediately evident listening to his own music, like Electronique Noire's lyrical chillout, "Lost and Found," where it's clear that he's conversant with its more sophisticated vernacular. "I definitely know this harmony [jazz], but what I do is a mixture of the intuitive and the theoretical," Aarset says, "I really like music theory and enjoy working with scales. I think I'm more interested in modal things than in changes." Still, he admits with a chuckle, "I can play [John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
's] 'Giant Steps'—but at a very slow tempo," even though he proved he can play changes—standards, even, when he collaborated with Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
b.1938
vibraphone
on Northern Lights, where, in addition to original writing and collective improvisations, the vibraphonist and his "Norwegian posse" performed a stunningly beautiful, atmospheric take of the enduring jazz standard, "Nature Boy."

"I think there are two ways of looking at it," Aarset continues. "I checked out a lot of jazz, and the heavy chord changes, but when I play it, it's stiff, it's stiff—it doesn't flow. I think it's great that people are playing that sort of stuff, but it's not for me. I think it's a misunderstanding that you have to do all these things in order to create music. The reason for doing it, in my opinion, should not be as some sort of gymnastics or exam; rather it should be a tool for helping you to express yourself, to reach that point of musical expression and tell the story which is behind chords and scales—or behind guitars, fuzz boxes and cables for that matter. Whatever harmony, whatever composition you use, at the core it should be to help the music, the emotions. If it's just a big fence standing between you and the performance then it's better to do something else."

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