When Norwegian label Rune Grammofon announces (in the press release for the debut album by the piano trio In the Country) that "Rune Grammofon presents its first 'jazz' record," you know it's going to be a unique take on a well-worn tradition. No standards to be found here, and with an approach that intentionally steers away from emulating any kind of expected jazz tradition, This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat is nevertheless the most organic recording the label has released. And one that can absolutely be considered a jazz recordif, of course, you're prepared to accept groups like E.S.T. and the Bad Plus as jazz.
Not that there's a whole lot to link In the Country with those aforementioned popular re-inventors of the piano trio, although pianist Morten Qvenild certainly shares a disposition, at least at times, towards compositions with a certain pop sensibility and structure. But whereas E.S.T.'s Esbjorn Svensson clearly comes from the Keith Jarrett school of thought, and the Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson owes a clear debt to Thelonious Monk, Qvenild's influences are distinctly un-jazzy.
Sure, there's a certain sense of abstraction and free play that makes "Trio for Quartet" an undeniable backwards glance at Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, and Paul Motian; but elsewhere there's an almost naïve lyricism and spacious melancholy that comes from another place entirely. Qvenild, in fact, cites modern composers Oliver Messiaen and Morton Feldman for their use of space and texture, and in the way that notes often seem to linger almost subconsciously, the influence is clear.
"Where Can We Go" builds from a foundation of long, sustained chords and delicate percussion; it's almost hymnal in its feeling of reverence. That "Beaver Creek" is written by Qvenild and "In My Time of Need" by singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, is more than a little curious, as they share a similar aesthetic, a certain folksiness and gentle but persuasive rhythm. While their differences far outnumber their similarities, the pervasive sense of calm and predilection for slower tempi also find In the Country sharing common ground with other fellow Norwegians of recent note, the Tord Gustavsen Trio.
That Qvenild, bassist Roger Arntzen, and percussionist Pål Hausken are individually involved in such diverse projects as the art-rock group Shining and the Norwegian country group Christer Knudsen and Sacred Hearts is demonstrative of the kind of broad diversity typical of so many emerging Norwegian artists. That, for example, Tord Gustavsen Trio drummer Jarle Vespestad can be such a spare and gentle player in that context, yet fit in perfectly with another much more adventurous Rune Grammofon group, the ambient noise band Supersilent, is clearly indicative of the wide range of musical interests that occupy many of these young players' attention.
With its air of dark tranquility, This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat may not have the immediate catchiness of releases by E.S.T. or the Bad Plus. But in many ways it's even more compelling, with an approach that, in its purity and lack of presumption, never approaches shtick or artifice.
Personnel: Morten Qvenild: grand piano, Casio SK-10, vibraphone; Roger Arntzen: double-bass; Pål Hausken: drums, percussion, timpani, autoharp, vocals.