The striking artwork on Undertowed
serves as metaphor for guitarist Per-Arne Ferner and pianist Per Gunnar Juliusson's musical relationship. A brooding, cloud-heavy sky and a still sea seem like reflections of each other, or a seamless whole. The lone figure juxtaposed against this imposing landscape is at once a part of it, and yet apart. The inner gatefold reveals a snow blizzard on the left and two black birds in a leaf-shorn tree oppositesuggestive of quiet power, melancholy, and evolution. Everywhere in these imagesdesigned by Eple Trio
drummer Jonas Howden Sjøvaagthere is, like in the music itself, a natural, clearly defined symmetry. Contrast and balance between light and form is central, and there's a strong sense of interdependence between the various components.
It's tempting to draw comparisons to pianist Bill Evans
and guitarist Jim Hall
's classic Undercurrent
(United Artists, 1962). Undertowed
may sound much like a nod to the half century-old masterpiece, but Ferner and Juliusson's performancesurely inspired on some level by that meeting between two of jazz's most innovative musiciansgoes far beyond homage. They create personal, captivating music colored by modern classical, jazz and Northern bluesin more or less equal measureand inspired by the dramaturgy of the Norwegian landscape, both physical and metaphysical.
The precise, nuanced playingand, above all, the deep empathy between Ferner and Juliussonis really what calls comparison to Evans/Hall. The guitarist and pianist play tightly woven unison lines throughout much of this composed music; however, as on the quietly dramatic title track, space exerts a significant weight. The arresting "Beyond the no margins hill" has a stronger rhythmic core, and juxtaposes repeated single note motifs and chords with darting, bluesy runs that blur the lines between jazz and modern classical music. "This I pointed to, to a disappointed you" contrasts fast unison lines with a delicate, airy passage where Ferner and Juliusson float in dreamy counterpoint; the aesthetic lies somewhere between ECM and Windham Hill.
Three short improvisations break up the denser compositions like side excursions on a longer journey. The minimalist "Ascension" soothes like mist off the sea. "Small Path" is a solo guitar meditation of subtle textures, while "Descension"'s brooding ambiance casts a chilling veil. These three pieces work separately in themselves, but their shared minimalism, sparseness of notes and emphasis on textures and moods create an intriguing sub-plot within the music as a whole.
On "The road may belong to Baoding," Ferner's bent notes evoke a blues that lies somewhere between the Mississippi Delta and Ganges basin. Juliusson's marvelous piano motif lends potent support. Both players develop telling individual solos, with counterpoint subdued. Freedom and form are finely balanced on "Milla dates with density," with Juliusson shining on an extended solo whose vocabulary draws from myriad sources. "Thank you dark matter, for keeping us together" reverts to a more composed framework, with tightly spun unison lines framing more spacious passages.
In terms of packaging and production values, the NORCD label deserve plaudits, as ECM couldn't have done a better job. Neither could Ferner and Juliusson; a wonderful duo excursion that thrills and seduces, technically and emotionally.