The record has transformed our experience of music from a physical one to a conceptual one. In the comfort of our living room or car, we more often get only the aural nature of music, rather than the intimately visceral impact of watching a performer’s physical exertion. Swedish pianist Per Henrik Wallin, and the challenge he has overcome, reminds us that music is still a process, a dialogue between the body and the instrument.
One Knife is Enough, a collection of sixteen solo piano pieces, straddles two distinct periods in the pianist’s life. After his army officer father turned him on to jazz in the late '50s, Wallin began to delve into the music of Charlie Parker and Fats Waller. After forming his own trio in the '70s, he began in the '80s to compose for larger ensembles. In 1988, his creative life received a major blow. A car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, unable to walk or use the pedals again. A sabbatical from music followed, until in 1995 he began playing again. Drawn from sessions in 1982 and 2003, this album documents both periods of his life.
Wallin combines rhythmic boldness, intricate melodic invention and dense chords to devastating effect. From bar to bar one hears jazz’s evolution as Wallin stitches his influences together into compact phrases. From the ’82 session, his reworking of “You Took Advantage of Me” shifts imperceptibly from the unbreakable left-hand stride of Art Tatum to the chiseled accents of Monk and flowing runs of Bud Powell, without ever losing cohesion. On two versions of “April in Paris,” one from each session, he pushes the boundaries of harmony with great blocks of chords, darting passing phrases and a booming bass that maps out where Monk and Cecil Taylor intersect.
Except for a dramatic version of Jule Styne’s “People,” full of dynamic peaks and valleys, the rest of the compositions are Wallin’s. “Receptet” switches between solid blocks of sound and punctual fragments. “Fånerier Nr 8” is built on a cycle of harmonic entropy, moving from consonant to dissonant, the energy of his phrase exhausted and continually renewed. “Rats of Wisdom” blurs by as Wallin mutates lengthy clusters of tones into brief passages of lyrical lightness.
Given Wallin’s history and the nature of the album, one compares the two sessions for stylistic shifts. The 1982 pieces juxtapose busy cascades of notes, both loud and soft, with brief respites of silence. The 2003 pieces ring with a dense clash of harmony, every space filled to overflowing with pulsing overtones or meticulous upper register fragments.
Maybe Wallin’s accident forced his subtle shift, or more likely it is just natural artistic evolution. With the close recording, one almost crawls in the piano, where Wallin’s cavernous tone and massive, disorienting shifts in volume overwhelm. It is not Wallin’s handicap that reminds us of music’s physicality, but his precise articulation and heavy attack. Even on record, one experiences Wallin in the room, his creative struggle made tactile.