Different Shades of Hess: Nikolaj Hess & Spacelab
The exploration of sound is a natural part of Danish pianist Nikolaj Hess' music. Since graduating from the Rhythmic Conservatory in Copenhagen, he has worked in a wide range of contexts and played with artists as varied as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and singer Sissel Vera Pettersen. With Pettersen he made an enchanting duo album, By This River (Music For Dreams, 2006).
Hess is also part of a musical dynasty, which includes his brothers, the saxophonist Emil Hess and the drummer Mikkel Hess. Together they have become an institution in Danish jazz comparable to the famous Heath Brothers in the US.
Whether working as a sideman or as leader of his own groups, the hallmark of Hess' work has been his refusal to repeat the set patterns of the past. So it comes as no surprise to find him pursuing two radically different sound worlds that, nonetheless, are tied together by his choice of material and aesthetic sensibility.
Global Motion+ is the second release from the working unit of Hess, saxophonist Marc Mommaas, bassist John Hebert and drummer Tony Moreno . They already have one album under the their belt, Global Motion (Sunnyside, 2003), which was released with Mommaas billed as the leader. This time Hess gets leader status as the album features his own material.
As a composer, Hess has been influenced heavily by African music, which he has studied during stays in Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and South Africa. Titles like "African Trees" and "Lost In The Bush In A Broken Down Volkswagen In Nigeria" tell clearly of the origin of his inspiration; but Hess' own heritage as a European musician influenced by the American jazz tradition is not denied either. A composition such as "Bartok," with its multiple musical influences, is the perfect example of the diversity that makes up the album. Here, the classical folk lyricism of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), whose name is referenced in the title, is filtered through a tabla groove, modern piano voicings and Mommaas' sinous saxophone lines.
The inclusion of guest musicans, percussionist Jeff Ballard and guitarist Ben Monder, add extra spice to the proceedings. Monder, who is heard most frequently on an electric instrument, provides arabesque acoustic guitar accompaniment to "African Trees," while his trademark, reverb-drenched sound is featured on the lovely "C Sketch."
Throughout Global Motion+, Hess and his unit create a musical language of their own, one which combines the worlds of East and West, Europe and America into a dusty multicultural stew of bouncing rhythms and complex melodies.
Whereas Global Motion+ works with a wide scale, musically and geographically, Spacelab's The Champ is much more focused in terms of setup and sound. Behind the name are three of the usual suspects of the Danish jazz scene. Besides Hess, who switches from piano to organ for the occasion, and his brother, the drummer Mikkel Hess, the band is rounded out by the bassist Anders Christensen, who is known for his collaborations with the likes of drummer Paul Motian and trumpeter Tomasz Stanko.
The addition of a bassist in an organ trio opens the possibility of a deeper groove and, at the same time, gives ample opportunity for the organist to focus on the more finely ornamented figures. This is certainly the case here where Hess offers surprisingly funky versions of four of the tracks found on Global Motion+: "Hakuna," "Faeroe," "African Trees" and "Bartok," along with a handful of other tunes. The trio simply smokes and it's no coincidence that it had success as the late night house band at Copenhagen Jazzhouse, the former Jazzhouse Montmartre, during Copenhagen Jazz Festival 2009.
In terms of artistic quality it would be easy to dismiss the party-oriented sound of The Champ in favor of the more ambitous Global Motion+. Such a stance wouldn't be productive in the case of Hess, however, since he isn't the one to distinguish rigidly between high art and popular culture. Instead, he is interested in working with different textures: the infinite possibilities of sound and the two different versions of "African Trees" show how an epic world tune can be transformed into a sweaty booty shaker and still retain much of its melodic and rhythmic complexity.
No matter whether he is working to unite different musical worlds, or getting down on the anatomy of the groove, Hess' sound world is one that gathers many different aspects of tradition and culture. Global Motion+ and The Champ provide two pieces of the puzzle that makes up his many-faceted vision.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: African Trees; Faeroe; Bartok; Bridge; Lost In The Bush In A Broken Down Volkswagen In Nigeria; Global Slow Motion; The Village/Viva Semiparametric Statistics; C Sketch; Butterfly Chapters; Hakuna.
Personnel: Nikolaj Hess: piano; Marc Mommaas: sax; John Hebert: bass; Tony Moreno: drums; Ben Monder: electric & acoustic guitar (1, 2, 8); Jeff Ballard: percussion (3, 7).
Tracks: Playin'; Hakuna; Faeroe; Kalahari; ECM; African Trees; Adagio; Lullabye; Wind; Bartok.
Personnel: Nikolaj Hess: Hammond organ; Anders Christensen: bass; Mikkel Hess: drums.