Jacob Young: Lyricism and Elasticity
In '02 Young received a call from Norwegian vocal legend, Karin Krog, to work on a project of mainly standards, in a stripped down duo context. "She had heard something I'd done on Norwegian radio from one of my records," Young explains, "maybe from Pieces of Time , and she liked it, called the radio and asked who it was playing, and they gave her my name. Coincidentally we'd met in a store and just said hello to each other, but then, later, she called me. She'd been thinking about doing something with a guitarist for a long time and she called and suggested we do a radio show together, for Norwegian Public Radio. And I was thrilled; in Norwegian jazz she's a big figure, hers was the first group that Jan Garbarek played in and she was the door-opener for Norwegian jazz musicians before ECM, and also for that ECM generation.
"It was very hard," continues Young, "very challenging, and in a way it was great because I hadn't really been working with standards since coming back to Norway. We spent a lot of time trying to find the material. And I had to dig into that kind of area that I had been taught a bit at school and more in the jazz scene in New York; it was a big challenge to make a whole album with basically just guitar and voice. In some ways it was terrifying but it was fun too, because I got to do all the arrangements and I could spend time working out chord substitutions. And what I tried to do most was not think so much as a guitarist, because it can be so limiting, it can limit your sound somehow. My idea was to try and imagine in my head that I was a pianist. As if I was one of those stride piano players that would play the bass, but of course pianists can play the bass on every beat and impose chords and melodies; that is, of course, impossible on guitar. So you have to play only so much of the bass and then come in with some chords and some counterpoint, and then go back to the bass so that you superimpose it, so the listener will hear what's not been played, they'll hear the missing bass notes. We rehearsed a lot before we did that album."
Where Flamingos Fly , on the Grappa label, was produced by Krog's long-time partner, British reed player John Surman. "John would listen," explains Young, "he would intensively listen to what we were doing. He would occasionally come up with suggestions about the tempo, or try to get us to relax more. He's a great musician, and a great guy, he can be hilarious, he's really good at putting people at ease. But he was strict too - he would have to kick me in the ass sometimes. I'd be struggling with something and he'd say, 'you have to get it together for tomorrow!' So he had a mix of being very friendly and humorous, and also making sure I knew he was depending on me. It was very comforting to have someone that I trusted. When you're in the studio it's always difficult because you've just been performing and it's hard to say if it's any good. I mean sometimes you can instantly feel it's not a good take, and then two months later it turns out it was a good take. So that's why it's good to have a producer."
Throughout '02 and '03 Young toured the world with Krog. "We toured the year the album came out," Young explains, " all of last year we also toured a lot. Around the world - Japan, India, Poland, Austria, the US and other places. It was a concept that was easy to travel with, just the two of us. And I learned a lot performing with her, because in the same way that Jim Hall taught me about melody and trying to be clear in my statements, she would be an exponent for the same kind of way of delivering. I think she really delivers a song and a message; and her interpretations, even though English is not her native language, give me no reason to doubt her."
Young came to the attention of ECM label-owner and producer, Manfred Eicher, in '01. Eicher was in Oslo doing the mix for Trygve Seim's album, Different Rivers , and showed up at Young's CD release concert for Glow. "He came to the release concert that I had for my album Glow ," says Young, "we had a concert at a well-known jazz club in Oslo, and he was there for the whole show. He had been mixing with Trygve at Rainbow Studio, which isn't far from the club, so Trygve invited him and he showed up, liked what he heard and asked for my record. He told Trygve that he liked the show, although I had given him a CD of the master before it was released, with hopes of him maybe releasing it on ECM or wanting to do work with it, mix it again or something, and he just never got around to listening to it. Oskar, who gets all the demos for ECM, also told me that he had listened to it and told Manfred about it, saying, 'Check out this guitarist from Norway, nice music,' and then Manfred said 'Yeah, I know it, I'm going to work with him in the future,' so I guess there are different stories leading to the same place.
"At that time I had a trio with Jon Christensen and Mats Eilertsen," continues Young, "and we applied for some money to make an album, and we got some from the Norwegian Cultural Fund. We were discussing what to do with that and Jon called Manfred and asked if he was interested in releasing something with us. Manfred was kind of hesitant about recording a guitar trio album, because that's a tough format; it's a tough thing to pull off, to make an interesting guitar trio album. So then Jon said that we also had a quintet with bass clarinet and trumpet and Manfred said, 'Yeah, let's do it.'"
By the time Young came to record Evening Falls in December of '02, the group had been together for nearly two years, including Christensen and Eilertsen, bass clarinetist Vidar Johansen and young trumpet player, Mathias Eick. "Mathias," says Young, "he's just a tremendous talent. The first time I heard him he was twelve years old, sitting in with a group that Trygve and I had in high school, and he would play on quite difficult standards, making a solid impression, just playing by ear. The first rehearsal he came to with my group, he was the first guy there and he was playing piano, and playing through songs from one of my albums, and I picked up the guitar trying to jam with him, and he was playing in a different key than they were written in. So I said, 'Mathias, you know this song but I think the key is wrong.' And he said, 'Oh, it's in a different key,' and he changed keys instantly. He has a remarkable ear and he's very dedicated and very serious, yet also very humble about his talent. He's a scary young player, there's no limit to what he can do if he really focuses. And he's also been a good catalyst for the older musicians, to me but also to Jon and Vidar, because he makes them notice that there are these young guys who can really play in the group, and they had better get their shit together too! He's definitely someone who is well on his way to getting a very strong voice on the trumpet."
Working with Christensen has been a liberating experience for Young. It has allowed him to stretch the conception of time, making it looser and more implied. "First of all," Young explains, "let me say that I think Jon is one of the geniuses of modern music. It's a big honour to have the opportunity to play with him, and I've been playing with him off and on, since '96, from that same Young Market gig I was telling you about. There was no money in it, it was just a bunch of young musicians who would get together, and we had an audience and we had a venue and the guy wasn't too nasty about beer prices, so we would play every Thursday and Jon would come and sit in sometimes, so I asked him once if he wanted to be on the gig, and he said, 'Sure.' At that time I was unsure whether I was going to go back to New York or stay in Norway, as I had some offers in New York that I had turned down because I was moving back. I think I could have stayed in New York, although I don't know what would have happened; I would have struggled, probably more than I've done here, but Jon was one of the guys who said, 'You don't have to go back to New York, it's not where you are that's important, it's what you do.' I mean he's never lived in New York, you just don't have to. It's more a state of mind thing. He encouraged me to stay, and he's been very supportive."
Christensen's contribution to the success of Evening Falls cannot be underestimated. "I think his playing is what makes the album," says Young. "Even though I think there are some nice songs and nice playing, I think what makes that album special, makes it stand out a little bit from other quintet albums, is that when Jon is playing, he's really making his own time, and he's pushing the music in a very open rhythmic landscape. It's very hard to play like that; there are so many guys who try, but not always successfully. He's really a master at that.
"So for Evening Falls ," Young continues, "I think there's been one producer, one composer, and one director. If you call Manfred the producer, I'm the composer and Jon is the director. He's more of a director than a drummer in a traditional sense, at least the way he plays now. I mean he can push the music in any direction he wants, and he can make a tune that's maybe not that interesting to begin with interesting in the way he colours it, and the way he makes tension and release."