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Eivind Aarset: Guitar Anti-Hero

By Published: July 5, 2012
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 ways—at least on the international stage—that'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 Molvaer
Nils Petter Molvaer
Nils Petter Molvaer
b.1960
trumpet
'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
Jon Hassell
Jon Hassell
b.1937
trumpet
, 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
Bugge Wesseltoft
Bugge Wesseltoft
b.1964
piano
emerged—after coming up in a variety of musical spaces that included playing on Norwegian saxophone icon Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
b.1947
sax, tenor
's outstanding I Took Up the Runes (ECM, 1990) and singer Sidsel Endresen
Sidsel Endresen
Sidsel Endresen

vocalist
'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
Supersilent
Supersilent

band/orchestra
's 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 1998) not only announced a new, fearless approach to electronic improv—making clear that noise and beauty could come together in the same thought—but kick-started the careers of four of Norway's more important movers and shakers on the scene, most notably trumpeter Arve Henriksen
Arve Henriksen
Arve Henriksen
b.1968
trumpet
, 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 wave—the 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
Arild Andersen
Arild Andersen
b.1945
bass, acoustic
, drummer Jon Christensen
Jon Christensen
Jon Christensen
b.1943
drums
and pianist Bobo Stenson
Bobo Stenson
Bobo Stenson
b.1944
piano
—Aarset has become vastly influential and respected—and not just in his own country. American vibraphonist Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
b.1938
vibraphone
, 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."



Chapter Index
  1. Early Days: Developing a Language
  2. Gun for Hire: Architecting Sound
  3. Nils Petter Molvær and Khmer
  4. From Electronique Noire to Sonic Codex
  5. Live Extracts
  6. Dhafer Youssef and Producing
  7. Present and Future Songs


Early Days: Developing a Language

Growing up, Aarset came to guitar the same way many youngsters did in the 1970s—through rock music. "Like most players of my generation, for me it was hearing Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
," 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 brother—he was some years older—brought home some jazz stuff, in particular Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' Agharta (Columbia, 1975); it became a big, big influence; [guitarist] Pete Cosey
Pete Cosey
Pete Cosey
1943 - 2012
guitar
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 well—and not just for the music. "[Guitarist] Terje Rypdal
Terje Rypdal
Terje Rypdal
b.1947
guitar
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
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
b.1947
sax, tenor
was really important also. I didn't know much about the international thing—that they were famous outside Norway—but 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 him—at 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
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
's] 'Giant Steps'—but at a very slow tempo," even though he proved he can play changes—standards, even, when he collaborated with Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
Mike Mainieri
b.1938
vibraphone
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 stiff—it 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 scales—or 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."

Gun for Hire: Architecting Sound

That something else took time to solidify in Aarset's mind---and fingers. Meanwhile, from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, Aarset emerged as one of Norway's busiest session guitarists, playing with popular national artists like vocalist Rebekka Bakken and Lynni Treekrem, as well as stars of greater international acclaim, like world music/synth pop group Bel Canto and singer Morten Harket, of A-Ha fame. Aarset even ended up playing on sessions by Cher and Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles
1930 - 2004
piano
. "With Cher's session [It's a Man's World (Warner Bros., 1996)], it was because I'd worked with Morten Harket (the guy from A-ha), who produced a lot of Norwegian artists," explains Aarset. "He'd done a solo record [Wild Seed (WEA, 1995)], and asked me to go to England to do some tracks with Cher. Ray's Strong Love Affair (Warner Bros, 1996) was produced by Kjetil Bjerkestrand; he arranged most of the album, so he asked me to join the session. It was a lot of fun."

Listening to some of Aarset's pop work, it's immediately striking just how much of a musical chameleon he can be, as he strutted some Steve Cropper
Steve Cropper
Steve Cropper
b.1941
guitar, electric
-like funk on one hand, metal-tinged Hendrixian power guitar on the other. Like most electric guitarists, Aarset began experimenting with sound processors to expand his textural palette at an early stage in his career. But even as far back as the mid-1980s, his approach began to deviate from the norm. "I had been working with a more traditional '80s guitar setup, with racks and that kind of stuff," Aarset explains." I started to use some pedals as well, and I found that I could use some of them—very simple guitar pedals—in a way that did something else; a textural thing that wasn't solo, wasn't rhythm. I found things that made sense to me and built from there.

"The most important pedal that I got around this time was—and still is—the Boss DD5 digital delay," Aarset continues. "You can't buy them anymore and the new versions don't work the same way. I was able to build feedback on the delay, and working with the delay time— pretty short, maybe one second—create all kinds of strange stuff." Nowadays, Aarset's rig is the antithesis of the clean, rack-driven setup most guitarists favor. Instead, it looks more like a mad scientist's laboratory, with pedals and cables everywhere—on the floor and on top of his guitar case, which Aarset uses as a table in performance. He also runs his guitar through a laptop computer, using different plugins to shape and loop the sound of his guitar. What's especially remarkable is that he can literally set everything up in a matter of minutes—and it all works.

But it's more than just gear. Aarset can take the subtlest sound—like tapping on the back of his neck or lightly slapping the body of his guitar—and turn it into something more. Playing behind the nut of the guitar is, for most guitarists, just a quick device; Aarset turns it into a sound not unlike the African mbira, or thumb piano.

Back to his formative years, along with more conventional rock and jazz markers, Aarset was listening to music that would become increasingly influential. "I had been listening to [trumpeter] Jon Hassell
Jon Hassell
Jon Hassell
b.1937
trumpet
for many years; it may have been Nils Petter [Molvær] who introduced me to him or it may have been before that, but that was a huge, huge, influence. I listened to a lot of his music, but I didn't really understand how it was being built because, for me at that time, it was so different from the other music I was listening to. I also liked a lot of Brian Eno's albums, but there was one that was especially important, called Nerve Net (Opal, 1992). It picks up, in so many ways, from Miles in the '70s but set in a very organized, electronic fashion. There's something very similar in some of its harmonic things and the way the chords sound."

It was during Aarset's "gun for hire" period that he first encountered Bugge Wessletoft and Nils Petter Molvær. "I met Bugge and Nils Petter as session musicians," Aarset says. "We worked on the same projects from time to time, and we hung out together listening to the same stuff. Nils Petter and I toured together for the first time in the mid-'80s—maybe '86 or '87. We were doing pop sessions, pop tours. But Nils Petter was much more into the jazz scene than I was [playing, at that time, with Masqualero, who recorded three albums for ECM including Band À Part (1986)], but he also did some pop gigs. And then we started in with [Danish percussionist] Marilyn Mazur
Marilyn Mazur
Marilyn Mazur
b.1955
percussion
, I joined her band [Future Song, which released the overlooked Small Labyrinths on ECM in 1997] because Nils Petter and [drummer] Audun [Kleive] recommended me.

During the 1990s, as Aarset continued to work busily as a session guitarist and in groups like Ab Und Zu, his own conception of sound was evolving...and crystallizing. Increasingly influenced by world music, house/drum 'n' bass/techno and contemporary electronic artists like Photek and Tricky, ambient music, and by improvising guitarists who were expanding the outer reaches of guitar as orchestra like David Torn
David Torn
David Torn
b.1953
guitar
and Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
b.1951
guitar
, a watershed moment came on a session with Wesseltoft. "He didn't want anything like rhythm; he didn't want any solos," Aarset says, laughing. "For me it was really helpful to find out what that could bring."

"I heard an interview on the radio with a Norwegian contemporary composer recently," Aarset continues, "who said that his main focus was the notes, the architecture of the music, so to speak. He didn´t care so much about the instruments that played it. For me it is totally the opposite. I care, first of all, about phrasing, and about the shaping and the color of sound—this is a sort of a sensual thing. And I like to build my sounds in the atmosphere that is in a room, where the actual physical qualities of the room play a role—but even more, the interaction between the musicians, and between the musicians and the audience."

Nils Petter Molvær and Khmer

Everything was leading, it seemed, to 1997 and the release of Khmer. A breakthrough record, if ever there was one, it's typical of the artists that make these records that they don't necessarily see the significance of their work at the time. "I think it was definitely a change," says Aarset, humbly. "I had been playing around with Bugge and Nils Petter, and we were into some sorts of things and playing some gigs, but I was not aware that this could be a breakthrough. I think some of the German people that promoted Khmer; they really believed in it and made it a huge success."

Arve Henriksen Cartography, from left: Eivind Aarset, Helge Norbakken Arve Henriksen (missing: Jan Bang)

Aarset continued to work heavily with Molvær for the next decade, making the decision, in 2009, to take a break from the trumpeter's intense touring schedule and spend more time on his own work and his family (wife/singer Anne Marie Giortz and their two children). Molvær's touring group evolved into a quintet which, in addition to Aarset, also featured live sampler Jan Bang, turntablist Pål "DJ Strangefruit" Nyhus and drummer Rune Arnesen; a group that explored the nexus of form and freedom in a completely new context, where creating texture was as much a part of the improvisational equation as melody and harmonic movement. "Nils Petter gave me so much space to develop things," Aarset enthuses. "He has always been really open to what the musicians could bring; he knows what he likes and what he doesn't like, but he's very open-minded. He is also very encouraging of new ideas. So that has been very important. I've learned so much, especially the first years, because we were playing so much—almost every day."

Molvær wasn't the only artist to encourage Aarset. "Bugge [Wesseltoft] also believed in it [Khmer], and he had this vision of a record company, which was really important," Aarset says.

That label was Jazzland, and it was there that Aarset finally found a home for his own work. But Electronique Noire—his first for the label and his overdue debut as a leader—was the confluence of two important events. "I'd been playing a lot at Mai Jazz [in Stavanger, Norway] and so the festival thought it would be nice to give me my own thing," Aarset says. I was asked more than half a year before the concert, so I had plenty of time to write it. It was very healthy for me to do, but I was incredibly nervous. Then Bugge asked me to do an album for him; those two things happened at the same time, and so it was perfect timing."

From Electronique Noire to Sonic Codex

Electronique Noire was released to critical acclaim in 1998, and one of the most telling reviews compared the album to Miles Davis' '70s-era electric music; no small praise considering Aarset's interest in the late trumpeter's music from that period. As much as it was about texture and groove, the album did feature some uncharacteristically outgoing solo work from Aarset, most notably on "Superstring," where he channels Terje Rypdal's icy fire through Allan Holdsworth
Allan Holdsworth
Allan Holdsworth
b.1948
guitar
's legato lyricism. But more than any single guitaristic contribution, Electronique Noire was about sound, about emotion, and about instrumental selflessness, even as it featured some outstanding contributions from Molvær, Wesseltoft and bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr, of Terje Rypdal's Chasers trio. "At the time I made Electronique Noire, I really wanted to get away from shredding, because I had spent so much time doing it."

Aarset would continue to play a decidedly melodic foil with artists like Arild Andersen, on the bassist's Norwegian folk music-meets improvisation album Arv (Kirkelig, 1999) and the more well-known Electra (ECM, 2005). The guitarist also recorded and toured with Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjornstad, whose ECM albums including The Sea (1995), with Rypdal, would break new ground in the area of poetic neoclassicism with an unexpectedly sharp edge. Aarset's work with Bjørnstad, in particular on the introspective Before the Light (Universal Norway, 2002), demonstrates just how much farther he'd gone past ideas originating with Rypdal, Frisell and Torn. But with his own work, he not only increasingly left behind any semblance of guitar convention, he stepped away from tonal orthodoxy, opting instead—much like Norwegian collaborators present and future including Molvær and Arve Henriksen—for sounds that simply had not been heard before on his instrument. There's no shortage of melodic content on an Aarset record, but it rarely sounds like it's coming from a guitar, like over the sensual groove of "Wolf Extract" from Light Extracts (Jazzland, 2001), where, accompanied by his working trio of bassist Marius Reksjø and drummer Wetle Holte, Aarset's serpentine, EBowed guitar resembles a low-register ney.

Aarset further consolidated his direction on Light Extracts (Jazzland, 2001) and Connected (Jazzland, 2004), though on Sonic Codex (Jazzland, 2007) he began to reintroduce some more overtly guitaristic sounds amidst all his expansive aural landscapes. While Aarset has worked with samples on record—notably and increasingly with Jan Bang, who has created a massively successful meeting place/musical laboratory for the Norwegian second wave at his annual Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway, and who has expanded it with his own concept of Live Remix—the guitarist eschews them in performance. "I don't trigger samples live, I make all the sounds I'm working with in real time," says Aarset. "I often feel that if there's too much prerecorded stuff then there's a tendency for it to limit the live performance; it becomes harder to shape the sound in the room."

In fact, Aarset views the creation of soundscapes as an improvisational context as much as creating melodies or changes in the moment. "I am trying to create environments, musically, where I feel comfortable, where I can function and where the music works for me. I don't use preset sounds; for me, they are limiting because I like to go from one place to another sound-wise—morphing different sounds into each other. It's like having a totally new package, every time you change the sound. I'm really happy if I discover something completely new; I think that playing concerts, working in a room, it becomes very physical, how the sound works."

There's something quintessentially Norwegian about Aarset's music, although trying to use any single descriptor would diminish its unmistakably personal sound. Certainly there's a dark aspect to some of the guitarist's work that seems endemic to the region. And, more than his musical compatriots, Aarset's music can rock hard, with even a little head-banging tinges from his early, metal-centric days. Nowhere is this more evident than on Live Extracts (Jazzland, 2010), his latest album and first live recording.

Live Extracts

Featuring his expanded but somewhat shifting Sonic Codex Orchestra, the album is culled from a series of festival performances, with a core group that, for the most part, includes two drummers (Holte and Erland Dahlen), a second guitarist who doubles on pedal steel (Bjørn Charles Dreyer), a trumpeter/synth player (Gunnar Hale) and a bassist (Audun Erlien, also heard recently on trumpeter Mathias Eick
Mathias Eick
Mathias Eick
b.1979
trumpet
's exceptional ECM debut, The Door (2008)). The disc also features guest spots by Shining drummer Torsten Lofthus and ex-Wibutee saxophonist Hakon Kornstad
Hakon Kornstad
Hakon Kornstad
b.1977
saxophone
, whose own Dwell Time (Jazzland, 2009), was one of the year's best and one more example of a certain Norwegian fearlessness at finding new ways to expand a single instrument's potential by seamlessly—and organically—meshing unconventional technique with modern technology.



Live Extracts may be comprised largely of material from earlier albums, but there's an inherent energy, and excitement, about these in-the-moment live performances, which are presented, for the most part, warts and all. "Most of the work in putting Live Extracts together," Aarset explains, "was choosing which performances I should to use [Aarset recorded a number of tours, and so had hours and hours to sift through]. I took out some bars here and there, but there are no overdubs, and no editing other than on two of the tracks, where I combined two versions; I think it came out really well."

The two tracks that are composites of two performances are Sonic Codex's "Still Changing," which begins in ethereal territory before turning into an almost anthemic song with an eminently singable melody, and the foreboding "Drøbok Saray," also originally from Sonic Codex. "The first part of 'Still Changing' is from a two-track recording made in Germany—the quartet with Wetle [Holte], Håkon Kornstad, Audun [Erlen] and me," says Aarset. "The ending is a nice multi-track recording from Austrian radio, with two drummers [with Erland Dahlen]. Both 'Still Changing and 'Drøbok Saray' have a point where the sound changes anyway, because the playing is very different; so it suits them and I think it works really well."

Work well they do. Given both tunes shift from dark atmospherics to more thematic, rhythm-driven second sections, the transitions are remarkably seamless, especially given the challenge of combining two-track and multi-track recordings. "While working on this live CD, picking out the right versions of tunes, I have been thinking a lot about improvisation versus arrangement. I tried to keep the arrangement part as simple as possible, to let the actual performance be the main focus, I wanted the composed parts to assist the performance instead of being the main focus of the concerts, I find some times when playing live, that arrangements can be obstacles to the musical flow."

Aarset's approach to composition can be heard, to great effect, on Connected, where the same idea resulted in two tunes—the brighter "Electro Magnetic in E," and greasier, down-tempo "Blues in E." "Once it's 'Electro Magnetic in E,' the original that I recorded at home and then overdubbed in the studio," Aarset explains, "and 'Blue in E,' where I brought the tune to the band and we played on it. It came out like a jam session, and we did a lot of editing and cutting after the session. My writing often comes from a sound or a scale, and on this particular tune, 'Electromagnetic in E,' it started as one chord which had some atmosphere to me; from there came a very simple melody line.

"When I worked on the original version," Aarset continues, "there was a lot of arrangement around it; after performing it for awhile I began to enjoy the song because it has a lot of openings—it can go wherever you want it to. Now, all that's left from the original is this simple melody; the rest is about what we [the group] want to do on the day. For the version that's on Live Codex, I brought in some more of the chords that were left out of the original 'Electromagnetic in E' but were included on 'Blue in E'; they're in, and then the rest is free."

Dhafer Youssef and Producing

Aarset also made his first, very big leap into producing other artists when he met up with Tunisian-born, now Austrian-based oudist/vocalist Dhafer Youssef—another intrepid musician who, through use of loops and other effects, is expanding his Middle Eastern-tinged music into other spaces. The guitarist met Youssef while touring with Molvær. "Dhafer and I hooked up for the first time when I was on tour with Nils Petter; he's a really open and friendly man, and he met us at a concert and said, 'Hello, I like what you're doing,' and gave me an album. Then Nils Petter invited him to do a concert together with Bill Laswell
Bill Laswell
Bill Laswell
b.1955
bass
, Rune [Arnesen] and myself, we became really good friends. He invited Rune and me to do some concerts with him, which led to the first record of his I was on, Digital Prophecy (Jazzland, 2003).

"We had a good time touring with it later on," Aarset continues, "and then he asked me to produce his next album, Divine Shadows (Jazzland, 2006). It was really nice to do it and I'm very happy with the album. When I am playing the music myself, it's sometimes very hard to know how to get a total view of the music, which is what you need do to be a good producer. We ultimately spent too much time and money on it—it was very expensive for Dhafer—but he likes the way the album came out in the end."

Divine Shadows combines Aarset's textural guitar with Youssef's oud, vocals and complex writing, but expands the landscape with arrangements for string quartet, as well as guest appearances by Arve Henriksen, Marilyn Mazur, Jan Bang, and others. Some producers are little more than clock-watchers and bean-counters, but not surprisingly, Aarset was far more hands-on, and not just with respect to his own performance contribution. "Dhafer and I talked about what the record would be like," says Aarset. "We didn't want to make an electronic album, it was supposed to sound acoustic. I also wanted it to be clear, that the forms should somehow be clear, so that the improvising parts would be a part of the tunes. So we had to work quite a bit to get this clear, and there was a lot of editing.

"Dhafer also brought in a string quartet," Aarset continues, "which was a very wise move, a great color to add to the album. Kjetil Bjerkestrand—the same guy who introduced me to Ray Charles—did the string arrangements. He also hooked up with Dhafer to work with his melody lines, because Dhafer works with really strange meters, and had some ideas about how the strings should be."

Present and Future Songs

The past couple years have been increasingly busy for Aarset, despite clearing his schedule of touring with Molvær. He has been collaborating with Arve Henriksen, and was a key part of the trumpeter's debut for ECM, Cartography (2008), an album that's been met with considerable critical and popular acclaim. In performance, Aarset's contributions are often incredibly subtle, his slower approach to sound evolution works extremely well with Henriksen and Jan Bang's sometimes more rapid transitioning of Henriksen's hauntingly beautiful music. "Live, Jan and Arve move much more quickly than I do [laughs]. Not in terms of fast playing, but in terms of moving from one atmosphere to another. I'm trying to figure out the tonalities of the different tunes, since Jan is playing a lot of prerecorded samples, so there is some structure there. I really like to play in this setting, but it's also a big challenge because Jan and Arve have played a lot of this material as a duo, and it doesn't seem to need a lot more. I really have to play and avoid destroying what's already there. I was very happy with the Kristiansand gig."



For the past couple years, Aarset has also achieved something that few musicians can: the opportunity to play with a major influence. Since 2008, Aarset has been touring and recording with Jon Hassell
Jon Hassell
Jon Hassell
b.1937
trumpet
's Maarifa Street group, and hearing the trumpeter's return to ECM, Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (2009) and in performance, it's no surprise, as Aarset's own approach to atmospherics dovetails wonderfully with the trumpeter's personal nexus where the intellect meets the physical. "For me, it's a really big thing to do," Aarset enthuses, "and I'm still finding that I'm learning new things—how I should approach the music mentally for the gigs, and about his timing—that's really so slow, yet it works really well. I have to relax in this atmosphere, and when that happens it feels great to play with him."

There has been some talk about a follow-up to Last night the moon..., but at this point nothing concrete. And while Aarset has ceased touring with Molvær's regular trio after the release Hamada (Sula, 2009)—one of the trumpeter's best albums in recent years—he will be doing some duet gigs that will turn down the volume, a good thing because in the last few years Aarset has developed tinnitus, a hearing problem where loud music can cause sometimes unbearable ringing in the ears. That Molvær's trio with drummer Audun Kleive (and now, Stian Westerhus replacing Aarset with an almost diametrically opposed approach to the guitar) can be a problem for Aarset's condition, when playing with his own groups—equally loud—is less problematic might seem curious on the surface. "There are two things," Aarset explains. "First, it's a different kind of loud, so to speak, with Nils Petter. In my group we don't use any beats and it's somehow these hard, programmed beats in the monitor that are the worst thing for my ears. I'm playing fewer loud gigs and that helps. I've also been trying to keep the monitor levels down since the tinnitus began, but Sonic Codex Orchestra is still a very loud group. The stage levels have to balance, and the expression of the music, it's just not soft music."

One suggestion might be earplugs, but for the kind of subtle sonic work Aarset does, it's simply not an option. "It's really hard because I work so much with fading sounds in and out, and morphing different sounds together," Aarset says. "If my playing was more about riffs I think it would be OK, but unfortunately I lose total control of the dynamics and sound when I wear them."

And so, for 2010 Aarset plans to continue working with his group. "I still play in a trio and the quartet with two drummers. But it's very expensive to travel with six people so it's only possible for the really well-paid gigs." Aarset will also be touring in a duo with Jan Bang, in support of the live sampler's first album as a leader, due out later in the year on British experimental singer David Sylvian
David Sylvian
David Sylvian
b.1958
vocalist
's Samadhi Sound label.

Even more exciting to Aarset fans will be his next project: a solo guitar album, in the works for release in 2011. "It will be a big contrast to the live album," Aarset says. "Live Extracts is a document of the kind of expression that we as a group have established over the years, and I think it was important not to do so much editing, just keep the live energy and let it be a document of what the band is about. So now, the solo guitar album will be, I think, much more focused on sound; much more electronic sounding. It will also be interesting to try something so very different from the live album."



While Aarset may not be in Norway for this year's Punkt Festival, there's little doubt his spirit will remain. "Punkt is Jan [Bang] and Erik [Honoré]," Aarset asserts, "and I love to work with them and their approach. There's all that this festival has created, these new possibilities, and including more people in this sort of environment has been very successful and really interesting." Aarset has, since Punkt began, spent time with German producer/electronic/ambient music performer J. Peter Schwalm, and the two have plans for more collaborations. "It's very easy to work with him; we have a good connection, and it seems that every time we hook up we find new ways to work together—it's very cool."

From Hendrix to Hassell and Miles to Molvær, Eivind Aarset continues to evolve a personal musical aesthetic that's all about breaking down artificial borders—becoming, in the space of a little more than a decade, one of the most singularly unorthodox and inventive guitarists on the scene today. His seamless integration of technology, unconventional technique and broad harmonic and melodic acumen contributes to other artists' quest to define their own musical turf, and with his own small but significant discography, has carved out a unique place for himself that few can match. With a busy schedule that continues existing musical partnerships but inevitably finds new ones always on the horizon, there's plenty to watch out for in the coming years.

Selected Discography

Eivind Aarset & The Sonic Codex Orchestra, Live Extracts (Jazzland, 2010)

Andy Sheppard, Movements in Colour (ECM, 2009)

Jon Hassell, Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (ECM, 2009)

Nils Petter Molvær, Hamada (Sula, 2009)

Jan Gunnar Hoff, Magma (Grappa, 2008)

Eivind Aarset, Sonic Codex (Jazzland, 2007)

Jazzland Community, Jazzland Community (Jazzland, 2007)

Mike Mainieri, Northern Lights (NYC, 2006)

Dhafer Youssef, Divine Shadows (Jazzland, 2006)

Punkt, Crime Scenes (Punkt, 2006)

Nils Petter Molvær, er (Sula, 2005)

Arild Andersen, Electra (ECM, 2005)

Eivind Aarset, Connected (Jazzland, 2004)

Nils Petter Molvær, Streamer (Sula, 2004)

Ketil Bjørnstad, Nest (Universal, 2003)

Ketil Bjørnstad, Before the Light (Universal Norway, 2002)

Marilyn Mazur, All the Birds (Sunt, 2002)

Eivind Aarset, Light Extracts (Jazzland, 2001)

Ab Und Zu, Spark of Life (Curling Legs, 2000)

Marilyn Mazur, Jordsang (Dacapo, 2000)

Arild Andersen, Arv (Kirkelig, 1999)

Eivind Aarset, Electronique Noire (Jazzland, 1998)

Nils Petter Molvær, Khmer (ECM, 1997)

Bendik Hofseth, Colours (Sonet, 1997)

Marilyn Mazur's Future Song, Small Labyrinths (ECM, 1997)

Photo Credit

Featured Story by Jan Hangeland

All others by John Kelman


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