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Eivind Aarset: Guitar Anti-Hero

By Published: July 5, 2012
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
'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
, 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
, 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."

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