Norwegian Road Trip, Part 4: Oslo and an Interview with Jan Erik Kongshaug
The past couple years have been good for pianist Helge Lien. His most recent release, Hello Troll (Ozella, 2008) has received both strong critical acclaim and won a Norwegian Grammy. Performances at the 2009 Punkt Festival in Kristiansand and, more recently, NattJazz 2010 both reveal a trionow together for more than a decadethat is in no danger of losing its edge; instead, if anything, Lien and his trio, with bassist Frode Berg and drummer Knut Aalefjær, continues to find new ways to raise its game. Lien unveiled some new music at NattJazz that is bound for release on the trio's next CD, which may get recorded as early as this fall, with hopes for a 2011 release.
Lien, still in his mid-thirties, has found a way to marry the American jazz tradition with more distant concerns; a virtuosic player with a quick sense of humor, it becomes clear that not only does he bring a mischievous playfulness to the table, but his trio mates are just as quick to respond in kind, making Helge Lien Trio performances run the gamut from technically impressive to sensitively economic, from light to dark, and everything in between.
Surprisingly, culture and music were not a big part of Lien's upbringing. "My parents were not musicians," Lien says, "none of my close family members were musicians; my mother played accordion in her spare time, but we had this old organ in the house, with the rhythms, and the upper and lower keyboards. So I learned some tunes on itI taught myself, really, just out of interestand I also played in a band with a friend of mine; we also made music, quite early, inspired by The Beatles. I advanced on the organ, got better organs, and then I got synthesizers. My first experience with a piano wasn't 'til I was thirteen or fourteen, there was this English jazz pianist who settled into my town, working as an organ player also, in the church, and he was really interested in young people, so he arranged for concerts with me and some of my friends and other young interested people in the area, and did lots of good things for us. I also had some lessons with him, and this was my first meeting with jazz, actually, and with the acoustic piano."
"I started at this high school when I was around sixteen, which had a special music program," Lien continues. "I started a big band in high school, which was maybe the most important schooling that I'd had to that time. The idea of becoming a musician and the longing to write my own music started then, but I'd actually been composing music back when I was twelve or thirteen. Anyway, I had two years of classical piano there; after that, I started at the State Academy, in Oslo. When I started the State Academy, I had a teacherMisha Alperin, the Russian pianistand he was very focused on creativity and composition."
In North America, music students emerge with a strong command of their instrument and technical knowledge; but the creativity aspect seems somehow lacking. "How do you teach someone to find their own voice," Lien asks. "A very, very normal view on this is that you first have to learn the skillsthe history, the chord changes; and then you can start being a composer. But I think this is wrong. I think the ability to catch an idea, to recognize something that is unique is something that you have to rehearse. You have to rehearse being creative, in a way. I found my way to do it, at the State Academy, was I'd sit down at the piano, and just improvise; I went in there and pretended it was a solo concert, for hours and hours. I recorded it and listened to it afterwards, and then, of course, it was terrible because most of it was just crap; but I was rehearsing, and a few times, here and there, there was something that I liked, and then I could make that into something. But I was not so conscious of it, while I did it. But what I know now is that I was actually rehearsing to be present in the musical producing state. And this is quite unique; you cannot learn it theoretically, you have to make this experience happen all the time and over a long time. And you will use your internal filter to pick out what you like, and this is a good way to find your voice; it provides a very good picture of how your voice can look."
From left: Knut Aaleflær, Helge Lien, Frode Berg Helge Lien Trio, Performing at Punkt 2009
For a young performer, Lien is an oddity in Norway: he is working with a conventional jazz piano trio format; there's no technology to be found; and despite a largely original repertoire, Lien does make reference to his roots very clearly by covering music by Johnny Mercer, Paul Desmond, Wayne Shorter and Billy Strayhorn, amongst others. A jazz trio, then, in the most conventional definition. "My first big influence was Oscar Peterson," says Lien, "and then Keith Jarrett has been very important, of course, and in later years, Bill Evans. But also many, many other musicians, not just pianists; I'm fascinated by drummers, for example. I'm a really big fan of Audun Kleive and Jon Christensen, and (of course) Jack DeJohnette."
"For me, the piano is about making illusions," Lien continues. "So it's really important for me to focus on things that are not obvious for the piano. On breathing, for example; and the length of the notes, and to make vibratothis very, very absurd thing for a piano because, of course, you cannot make vibrato, but it's what makes it interesting...that you can make the illusion of vibrato. All these things that are around and under the piano. That you can make the illusion of a note that sustains for five seconds, like a saxophone note."
Lien met the musicians who would ultimately become Helge Lien Trio while in the State Academy. "Knut, the drummer, he went through the classical department," Lien says, "he was one year older than me. And Frode, the bassist, he was already finished classical bass. But we played together in different settings from time to time, and I just had a kind of feeling for them, and put them together and I recorded our first rehearsal on a minidiscwe just played some standards and some free stuffand I listened to it, and I really liked how we played together. Something just kind of happened; something not so obvious, which I liked very much."
"I think I have more than enough work to do discovering the possibilities of the acoustic," Lien continues. "And, as I said, I'm really fascinated by illusions, and when you use a loop machine, like Bugge Wesseltoft does, it's amazing, he makes really great music with it. But for me, I find it more fascinating to work with the illusion of these things. When you have a loop machine then it's looped and you hear it."
There's an unmistakable advantage to having a group that's been together for ten years; the chemistry is at a profound level, and the trust amongst the players is equally deep. But there is the challenge of keeping things fresh. "I think the whole concept of how we produce music is very much about being fresh and surprising each other with the interplay," says Lien. "Of course, we have to rehearse new music regularly, which we do, of course. I also feel that the other two are developing themselveshow they think and how they play; I often feel surprised by them. Frode is classically educated and has an extensive career with lots of different kinds of music. He can play electric bass, funk and all kinds of techniques, and he can read like hell, so he's kind of a total, all-around musician. At the same time, I like him because he has personality and he has extreme skills on his bass; the sounds and the ideas he uses are completely unique. I think he challenges the normal way to function as a bass in this kind of group, and I like that a great deal. But now he has a steady job, he's hired as a bassist in the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra."
"Knut is also classically educated," Lien continues. "He also plays a lot of different kinds of music, contemporary music as well as pop music, jazz music...anything. He has quite unconventional sound ideas, he plays his drums in a much more classical fashion, with high, short notes; for me, it's just fresh and I think he also has a very unique approach to groove and beat. He uses different kinds of sticks, and puts small bells and other equipment on his drums and plays them. A much wider spectrum for sound than a normal jazz drummer; he knows how to produce sound and how to make variations."
Lien believes in slow evolution rather than rapid evolution. That said, he has plans for the next trio recording that will make it different than Hello Troll. "I would say that the next album may be a bit darker, that's how I see it now. When I make albums I try to visualize a mood as a kind of frame, and I think this time it will be a bit darker, a bit heavier. I'm excited to hear how it comes out. It was great to be able to play some of the music in Bergen [at NattJazz 2010, where Lien was one of four artists commissioned to write new music for the festival]. It's great to be asked to write new music for a festival; I work best under pressure. Lots of great things happen under pressure; when I'm not under pressure unfortunately I get a bit lazy."