Eivind Aarset: Guitar Anti-Hero
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 waysat least on the international stagethat'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 Molvær'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, 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 emergedafter coming up in a variety of musical spaces that included playing on Norwegian saxophone icon Jan Garbarek's outstanding I Took Up the Runes (ECM, 1990) and singer Sidsel Endresen'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's 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 1998) not only announced a new, fearless approach to electronic improvmaking clear that noise and beauty could come together in the same thoughtbut kick-started the careers of four of Norway's more important movers and shakers on the scene, most notably trumpeter Arve Henriksen, 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 wavethe 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, drummer Jon Christensen and pianist Bobo StensonAarset has become vastly influential and respectedand not just in his own country. American vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, 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."
- Early Days: Developing a Language
- Gun for Hire: Architecting Sound
- Nils Petter Molvær and Khmer
- From Electronique Noire to Sonic Codex
- Live Extracts
- Dhafer Youssef and Producing
- Present and Future Songs
- Gun for Hire: Architecting Sound
Growing up, Aarset came to guitar the same way many youngsters did in the 1970sthrough rock music. "Like most players of my generation, for me it was hearing Jimi Hendrix," 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 brotherhe was some years olderbrought home some jazz stuff, in particular Miles Davis' Agharta (Columbia, 1975); it became a big, big influence; [guitarist] Pete Cosey 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 welland not just for the music. "[Guitarist] Terje [Rypdal] 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 was really important also. I didn't know much about the international thingthat they were famous outside Norwaybut 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 himat 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's] 'Giant Steps'but at a very slow tempo," even though he proved he can play changesstandards, even, when he collaborated with Mike Mainieri 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 stiffit 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 scalesor 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."