Eivind Aarset: Guitar Anti-Hero

John Kelman By

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In a time when the interactive video game Guitar Hero is selling in the millions, Eivind Aarset is, in many ways, the Guitar Anti-Hero. Despite making music that could easily lend itself to the kind of guitar pyrotechnics that are so often the litmus test of a good player, Aarset's emphasis is on texture, on melody, on groove, and on a kind of collective improvisation that's been reshaping and redefining what jazz can be since he released his first album as a leader, Electronique Noire (Jazzland) in 1998. Live Extracts (Jazzland, 2010), featuring various incarnations of his expanded Sonic Codex Orchestra, is culled from a number of live dates in Europe, largely revisiting earlier material from albums including Connected (Jazzland, 2004) and Sonic Codex (Jazzland, 2007), but with paradoxically even greater energy and subtlety; music that moves from a whisper to a roar in a matter of seconds.

New developments in music don't emerge from a vacuum, though in many ways—at least on the international stage—that's just how it appeared in the late 1990s, when a seemingly massive wave of new music emerged from Norway, Aarset's home. Trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's Khmer (ECM, 1997), in particular, announced a new kind of improvised music where contemporary beats mixed with the curiously sensual world music influences of Jon Hassell, the ambient colorations of Brian Eno, a new approach to collective spontaneity where texture was as important as melody and pulse, and the intrepid dispensing of convention as Molvær's studied embouchure and electronic processing made his instrument often sound like anything but a trumpet. Aarset was a key performer on that disc, adding ambient soundscapes, raw edges and, at times, an altered tone that, played with an EBow, sounded more like the Middle Eastern, double-reeded ney than anything resembling a guitar.

Khmer wasn't the only album out of Norway to shake the foundations of jazz and improvised music at the time. Keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft emerged—after coming up in a variety of musical spaces that included playing on Norwegian saxophone icon Jan Garbarek's outstanding I Took Up the Runes (ECM, 1990) and singer Sidsel Endresen's subtle Exile (ECM, 1994)—with the first in his aptly titled New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 1997) series, with a decidedly more dance floor-friendly approach. Supersilent's 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 1998) not only announced a new, fearless approach to electronic improv—making clear that noise and beauty could come together in the same thought—but kick-started the careers of four of Norway's more important movers and shakers on the scene, most notably trumpeter Arve Henriksen, whose distinctly non-trumpet approach to his instrument mirrored Molvær's without sounding anything like it.

In the midst of all this music, Aarset could be found as an increasingly visible player, and in the years since this Norwegian second wave—the first was in the early 1970s, when the German ECM label brought international attention to a group of Scandinavian artists including Garbarek, bassist Arild Andersen, drummer Jon Christensen and pianist Bobo Stenson—Aarset has become vastly influential and respected—and not just in his own country. American vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, who recruited a group of high profile Norwegians, including Aarset, Molvær and Wesseltoft, for his remarkable Northern Lights (NYC Records, 2006), simply had this to say about the guitarist in a 2010 AAJ interview: "I love him, he's a genius."

Early Days: Developing a Language

Growing up, Aarset came to guitar the same way many youngsters did in the 1970s—through rock music. "Like most players of my generation, for me it was hearing Jimi Hendrix," says Eivind. "I remember I was 11 years old and I bought Hendrix in the West (Reprise, 1972), a live album. I couldn't understand what was going on or how to make a guitar sound like that. From there it was on to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Santana was also big. Then, my brother—he was some years older—brought home some jazz stuff, in particular Miles Davis' Agharta (Columbia, 1975); it became a big, big influence; [guitarist] Pete Cosey is really great."

While Agharta's dense, otherworldly landscapes became a touchstone for the aspiring guitarist, musicians from his own country were showing up on Aarset's radar as well—and not just for the music. "[Guitarist] Terje Rypdal was really big when I was a teenager," Aarset explains. "I think he was really a big star among the people I hung out with because he had more of a rock touch to his music, which I could relate to. But [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek was really important also. I didn't know much about the international thing—that they were famous outside Norway—but that is something I've thought a lot about later, that they opened up the possibility for other musicians to believe in their own sound and their own identity."

Studies brought Aarset into the jazz sphere, though he decided, quickly enough, that the stricter convention of the jazz tradition wasn't for him—at least, no t directly, as is immediately evident listening to his own music, like Electronique Noire's lyrical chillout, "Lost and Found," where it's clear that he's conversant with its more sophisticated vernacular. "I definitely know this harmony [jazz], but what I do is a mixture of the intuitive and the theoretical," Aarset says, "I really like music theory and enjoy working with scales. I think I'm more interested in modal things than in changes." Still, he admits with a chuckle, "I can play [John Coltrane's] 'Giant Steps'—but at a very slow tempo," even though he proved he can play changes—standards, even, when he collaborated with Mike Mainieri on Northern Lights, where, in addition to original writing and collective improvisations, the vibraphonist and his "Norwegian posse" performed a stunningly beautiful, atmospheric take of the enduring jazz standard, "Nature Boy."

"I think there are two ways of looking at it," Aarset continues. "I checked out a lot of jazz, and the heavy chord changes, but when I play it, it's stiff, it's stiff—it doesn't flow. I think it's great that people are playing that sort of stuff, but it's not for me. I think it's a misunderstanding that you have to do all these things in order to create music. The reason for doing it, in my opinion, should not be as some sort of gymnastics or exam; rather it should be a tool for helping you to express yourself, to reach that point of musical expression and tell the story which is behind chords and scales—or behind guitars, fuzz boxes and cables for that matter. Whatever harmony, whatever composition you use, at the core it should be to help the music, the emotions. If it's just a big fence standing between you and the performance then it's better to do something else."

Gun for Hire: Architecting Sound

That something else took time to solidify in Aarset's mind---and fingers. Meanwhile, from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, Aarset emerged as one of Norway's busiest session guitarists, playing with popular national artists like vocalist Rebekka Bakken and Lynni Treekrem, as well as stars of greater international acclaim, like world music/synth pop group Bel Canto and singer Morten Harket, of A-Ha fame. Aarset even ended up playing on sessions by Cher and Ray Charles. "With Cher's session [It's a Man's World (Warner Bros., 1996)], it was because I'd worked with Morten Harket (the guy from A-ha), who produced a lot of Norwegian artists," explains Aarset. "He'd done a solo record [Wild Seed (WEA, 1995)], and asked me to go to England to do some tracks with Cher. Ray's Strong Love Affair (Warner Bros, 1996) was produced by Kjetil Bjerkestrand; he arranged most of the album, so he asked me to join the session. It was a lot of fun."

Listening to some of Aarset's pop work, it's immediately striking just how much of a musical chameleon he can be, as he strutted some Steve Cropper-like funk on one hand, metal-tinged Hendrixian power guitar on the other. Like most electric guitarists, Aarset began experimenting with sound processors to expand his textural palette at an early stage in his career. But even as far back as the mid-1980s, his approach began to deviate from the norm. "I had been working with a more traditional '80s guitar setup, with racks and that kind of stuff," Aarset explains." I started to use some pedals as well, and I found that I could use some of them—very simple guitar pedals—in a way that did something else; a textural thing that wasn't solo, wasn't rhythm. I found things that made sense to me and built from there.

"The most important pedal that I got around this time was—and still is—the Boss DD5 digital delay," Aarset continues. "You can't buy them anymore and the new versions don't work the same way. I was able to build feedback on the delay, and working with the delay time—pretty short, maybe one second—create all kinds of strange stuff." Nowadays, Aarset's rig is the antithesis of the clean, rack-driven setup most guitarists favor. Instead, it looks more like a mad scientist's laboratory, with pedals and cables everywhere—on the floor and on top of his guitar case, which Aarset uses as a table in performance. He also runs his guitar through a laptop computer, using different plugins to shape and loop the sound of his guitar. What's especially remarkable is that he can literally set everything up in a matter of minutes—and it all works.

But it's more than just gear. Aarset can take the subtlest sound—like tapping on the back of his neck or lightly slapping the body of his guitar—and turn it into something more. Playing behind the nut of the guitar is, for most guitarists, just a quick device; Aarset turns it into a sound not unlike the African mbira, or thumb piano.

Back to his formative years, along with more conventional rock and jazz markers, Aarset was listening to music that would become increasingly influential. "I had been listening to [trumpeter] Jon Hassell for many years; it may have been Nils Petter [Molvær] who introduced me to him or it may have been before that, but that was a huge, huge, influence. I listened to a lot of his music, but I didn't really understand how it was being built because, for me at that time, it was so different from the other music I was listening to. I also liked a lot of Brian Eno's albums, but there was one that was especially important, called Nerve Net (Opal, 1992). It picks up, in so many ways, from Miles in the '70s but set in a very organized, electronic fashion. There's something very similar in some of its harmonic things and the way the chords sound."

It was during Aarset's "gun for hire" period that he first encountered Bugge Wessletoft and Nils Petter Molvær. "I met Bugge and Nils Petter as session musicians," Aarset says. "We worked on the same projects from time to time, and we hung out together listening to the same stuff. Nils Petter and I toured together for the first time in the mid-'80s—maybe '86 or '87. We were doing pop sessions, pop tours. But Nils Petter was much more into the jazz scene than I was [playing, at that time, with Masqualero, who recorded three albums for ECM including Band À Part (1986)], but he also did some pop gigs. And then we started in with [Danish percussionist] Marilyn Mazur, I joined her band [Future Song, which released the overlooked Small Labyrinths on ECM in 1997] because Nils Petter and [drummer] Audun [Kleive] recommended me.

During the 1990s, as Aarset continued to work busily as a session guitarist and in groups like Ab Und Zu, his own conception of sound was evolving...and crystallizing. Increasingly influenced by world music, house/drum 'n' bass/techno and contemporary electronic artists like Photek and Tricky, ambient music, and by improvising guitarists who were expanding the outer reaches of guitar as orchestra like David Torn and Bill Frisell, a watershed moment came on a session with Wesseltoft. "He didn't want anything like rhythm; he didn't want any solos," Aarset says, laughing. "For me it was really helpful to find out what that could bring."

"I heard an interview on the radio with a Norwegian contemporary composer recently," Aarset continues, "who said that his main focus was the notes, the architecture of the music, so to speak. He didn´t care so much about the instruments that played it. For me it is totally the opposite. I care, first of all, about phrasing, and about the shaping and the color of sound—this is a sort of a sensual thing. And I like to build my sounds in the atmosphere that is in a room, where the actual physical qualities of the room play a role—but even more, the interaction between the musicians, and between the musicians and the audience."



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