Jan Gunnar Hoff: Magma (2008)
Group. Guitarist Mike Stern might appear to be a ringer, but he's no stranger, having toured with Kleive as a leader and as part of vibraphonist Mike Mainieri's Steps Ahead. Here he delivers some of his best playing in years; perhaps being outside the comfort zone of his own writing, he's pushed into new areas that eliminate some of his inherent predictability. Certainly, on the atmospheric title track, he sounds both like him and unlike anything he's done before. Hoff's melancholic melody, doubled by Stern and Eick, creates a haunting set-opener that acts almost like an overture of what's to come.
A compelling blend of Nordic lyricism, fusion energy, and a hint of Latin, Hoff's recruitment of Portuguese singer Maria Joãoparadoxically fragile and avant-tinged makes compositions like "Earth Song" reminiscent of early-1990s Pat Metheny
-esque synth soloa modal excursion over a visceral pedal point that ratchets up even further when he kicks in a dissonant harmonizer, delivering some of Magma's hottest moments. Stern matches Eick's economic melodism, delivering some of his most poignant playing in years on Hoff's gospel-tinged ballad, "Journey Home."
But the following track, "Life," quickly distances itself from any suggestion of Nordic cool; a bright, funky tune that provides a shifting harmonic context for powerful solos from Eick and Sternbolstered by Hoff's overdriven electric pianothat demonstrate their individual approaches to weaving through and around changes. Hoff closes the tune with an even fierier, Jan Hammer
guests on a handful of tracks, playing far more guitaristically than on his own albums, like the sonically expansive Sonic Codex (Jazzland, 2007). Hoff's solo builds with inevitability on "Earth Song," supported by some very Cuong Vu-like atmospherics from Eick, but Aarset then changes the complexion entirely with a heavily distorted, whammy bar-driven solo that's true to his Rydal roots, yet demonstrates a harmonic sophistication less overtly heard in the context of his own more textural work.
Norwegian guitar wizard Eivind Aarset
Throughout, Hoff's writing and playing possesses an almost pop-like clarity and concision, but with a far richer vernacular. Released on the Norwegian Grappa label, Magma's lack of international distribution is the only thing preventing this vividly appealing album of attention-grabbing writing and even more convincing playing from attaining Hoff the broader audience he clearly deserves.
Track Listing: Magma; Life; Journey Home; Stone; Maria's Intro; Winds; Earth Song; Time; Light Years; Karingana; Ghiculo.
Personnel: Jan Gunnar Hoff: piano, keyboards; Mike Stern: guitar; Maria João: vocals; Audun Kleive: drums; Mathias Eick: trumpet; Bjørn Kjellemyr: bass: Eivind Aarset: guitar (6, 7, 10, 11); Helge Norbakken: percussion (5-7, 10, 11).
Record Label: Grappa
Style: Fusion/Progressive Rock