Montreal Jazz Festival, Days 4-6, July 2-4, 2011
While he's something of a regular in Montréal, it's been almost a decade since Eivind Aarset has brought one of his own projects to FIJM. Finishing up a brief tour that saw the Norwegian guitarist hitting festivals in four cities across the country, Aarset has been traveling with the same Sonic Codex group that played at Natt Jazz in Bergen last yearthe twin drum team of Wetle Holte and Erland Dahlen, along with electric bassist Audun Erlien. The focus may have been on much of the same music, but the group has come a long way since that 2010 Norwegian date, and also benefitted, in Montréal, from having a few dates under its belt, not to mention a couple much-needed days off, after back-to-back shows in Vancouver and Ottawa.
Perhaps the biggest evolution in the group is the inclusion of a variety of other percussion instruments, beyond Holte and Dahlen's drum kits. The two drummers laid a thundering groove on "Electromagnetic," which moved from a whisper to a roar as Holte and Dahlen demonstrated almost frightening telepathy, playing unison parts but each contributing individual expanding parts that never once conflicted with what the other was doing. This may have been scripted music, but with the freedom of interpretation that's been a part of Aarset's music since he released the groundbreaking Electronique Noire (Jazzland) in 1998, a seminal time in Norway that also saw artists trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær, noise improv group Supersilent and keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft change the landscape of improvised music in ways that continue to be felt to this day.
Dahlen and Holte also brought a variety of tuned percussion instruments to the table: Dahlen, with a series of hand bells on a rack so he could hit them with the palm of his hand, in addition to a steel drum, xylophone and tunes wood block; Holte some electronics, and small bells that managed to cut through the sometimes dense nature of the music, thanks to Johnny Skalleberg, a sound engineer who has been doing live show mixes for Aarset, Molvær and others, in Norway and on the road, for years. Unlike many North American acts that rely on festival engineers to handle their sound, most Norwegian groups travel with their own, viewing them as integral members of the bandsomething that became clear, not just from the understanding Skalleberg had of the music in terms of actual mix, but with the addition of processing that, for example, gave the drums extra weight on "Electromagnetic" and, in particular, the head-banging, King Crimson-esque "Sign of Seven," which closed the set to enthusiastic screams from the nearly full house at Gésu.
From left; Eivind Aarset, Wetle Holte, Audun Erlien, Erland Dahlen
Like Dahlen and Holte, Erlien did double duty, with a Fender Rhodes and small synth set-up nearby. And while his sometimes delicate Rhodes work helped flesh out the gentler material, it was on his main axe where he demonstrated his greatest strengths. More than a timekeeper or riff-master, Erlien was, at times, a melodic front man to Aarset's soundscapes, including one of the downright ugliest distorted electric sounds since guitarist Jeff Beck's vomit-inducing tone on "You Shook Me," from his 1968 debut, Truth (Epic). Still, with Aarset's expansive soundworlds as much about texture as they were creating melodies (that role left just as often, in fact, to Holte and Dahlen's tuned percussion), Erlien was fundamental to maintaining an anchoring forward motion, and it's no surprise that he's also the bassist of choice for artists like Mathias Eick, heard most recently on the trumpeter's Skala (ECM, 2011) and in performance at Jazzahead 2011.
In a world of guitar posturing, Aarset remains a refreshing alternative. It's not that he doesn't have the chops to stand front and center, he just chooses not tobut, unlike King Crimson's Robert Fripp, Aarset was clearly engaged in the music, swaying back and forth to the beat and pulling his guitar back and forth as he created swirling sonic colors. He demonstrated an almost unparalleled ability to layer densely distorted chordssometimes played gently, other times strummed furiouslywith serpentine EBow lines and, at the end of "Sign of Seven," a rare sojourn into a near-solo, albeit still more concerned with being part of a larger whole than in any kind of "look at me" pyrotechnics, even as it was clear just how much Aarset could do, were he to choose to.
From left; Eivind Aarset, Wetle Holte
Instead, in a set where improvisation was intimately tied to the structure of Aarset's writing, but more collective and interpretive rather than delineated, the members of Sonic Codex shone without ever once doing anything to explicitly draw attention. The only shame was that, because this late night show at Gésu was a double bill with another Norwegian group, In the Country, Aarset had to perform a slightly abbreviated set. Still, with a group that is evolving in concept an execution, it was a welcome return to Montréal for Aarset, and one that was clearly hotly anticipated by fans of the festival.