Eivind Aarset: Guitar Anti-Hero
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 muchalmost 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 Noirehis first for the label and his overdue debut as a leaderwas 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'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 insteadmuch like Norwegian collaborators present and future including Molvær and Arve Henriksenfor 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 recordnotably 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 Remixthe 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-wisemorphing 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.