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Eivind Aarset: The Edge Between Intimacy and Courage


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All my music reflects, to some extent, the changes in my own life, it opens them up in the form of either images or feelings.
Guitarist and composer Eivind Aarset is one of the most imaginative exponents of the spirit of open diversity that defines and differentiates the Nordic Jazz soundscape. Coming along a progressive-rock line of influence enriched by a world music heritage and refined by electronics, his music emanates the radiant energy of an unfolding white lotus flower that gradually reveals its self-contained complexity. His guitar tones explore spheres of pure lyricism paired with a vibrant force of expression, and reaches resonant peaks of solemnity backed by a sheer layer of tenderness. Along his career path, Aarset has played on his own albums or worked as a sideman, performing with some of the most illustrious representatives of the contemporary jazz scene, including Bugge Wesseltoft, Jan Bang and Nils Petter Molvaer, as well as Jon Hassell, Dhafer Youssef, and Andy Sheppard. Aarset is presently working on three new albums.

All About Jazz: What do you consider the starting point in your history as a musician?

Eivind Aarset: It was what I can literally call The Jimi Hendrix Experience. At the beginning of the seventies, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to buy the live "Experience" album from him because he didn't really like it. I bought for a very good price, ten Norwegian Krone, and I started listening to it right away. I still remember how the sound and energy of the music had an immediate impact on me. I couldn't stop listening. Back in those days a record was an investment, and when you listened to music you went into it very deep. I was trying to understand how they made those sounds because they were very strange and very beautiful. I remember listening to the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band track in the original Beatles version afterwards, and not liking it at all. More important was the fact that there was a long version of an improvised blues on this record that blew my mind. I still think that it is very beautiful and what touches me even today is the round, slow development, in the way that John Coltrane used to improvise.

AAJ: Do you come from a musical environment?

EA: I don't come from a musical environment in the sense of tradition, my family was not a musical one, but I got attracted by music and got involved with it at an early age. I had friends and older cousins who were playing in rock bands and they were very cool. I would hang out with them and try to imitate what they were doing. So I began to learn from them. Soon enough I started taking music lessons and when I was 13 or 14 years old it became very clear to me that music was what I was going to do, so went to a music gymnasium. Later on I joined the University in Oslo, because at that time it was the only place where I could study guitar. I learned a lot about harmony there and it was also good because I got a direct connection to the Oslo music scene.

AAJ: What was the most memorable musical experience that influenced your further development?

EA: That was most definitely my encounter with Miles Davis' album Agartha. I know that quite a few people say that it wasn't his greatest album, but for me the atmosphere and, again, the energy emanating from that recording were very important at that time. Another album with a similar impact, although with a quite different atmosphere was Eventyr by Jan Garbarek.

AAJ: As a performer, did you have any kind of groundbreaking experience?

EA: I think that in my case, it must have been to a lot of small steps that added up into some sort of development. I've been through a very long and slow process of gaining my confidence, in terms of showing more character in my playing. In the first ten years I was a session musician, doing studio work and I have to say that I really loved it. It is a good practice opportunity but at some point it may become limiting. You have to be careful and identify that moment, because if you don't use it, you don't get the chance to develop very much afterwards. Even so, it took me a long while to get accepted as a solo musician in Norway.

AAJ: Do you think that it would have gone faster elsewhere?

EA: It actually did. When I made my first album, it had a totally different reception outside the country or at international festivals, and I think that in Norway that had to do a lot with my history as a session musician.

AAJ: Do you recall when you first heard David Gilmour?

EA: I remember it exactly because I had received Wish You Were Here as a Christmas present and I kept listening to it, especially the opening track, with headphones day and night until and long after the New Year. I loved the waiting and the slow opening of that introduction.

AAJ: Did you listen a lot to white blues musicians, like Gary Moore?

EA: I did indeed, and even though I was more in the Gary Moore's line of playing myself, the most influential to me was, as I said, Jimi Hendrix. I also liked John Lee Hooker, his simplicity and the roughness of the sound, I listened a lot to Ry Cooder, and most recently to an African guitarist called Bombino.

AAJ: How would you describe your musical relationship with electronics musician Jan Bang?

EA: I really owe a lot to Jan. We met mid-nineties and we played together in clubs in Oslo. Later we started working closer together, and he even produced some of the tracks on my records. I was working with beats and with electronics from the first album on, and I was thinking much about forms. His work method is so different, his sense of form, is much more open than the way I had worked before. Things start somewhere and end somewhere else, and take you on a journey along the way. It was a really fateful experience that expanded my possibilities a lot. We extended that in the album Dream Logic (ECM, 2012).

AAJ: How was the work for the track "Surrender" from that album?

The starting point with "Surrender" was that Jan did a remix for the Punkt festival and already had the beat from there. Then he asked me if we could play something on it, and so we did. We introduced some layers, we added a few things and we took away some other things, and that's how it got into form. Thing like that are always happening when you work with creative people, you have a continuous exchange until you reach the final result.

AAJ: Was there any similarity in the work method as compared your first record Électronique Noire (Jazzland, 1998)?

When I did my first album I had quite a few sketches ready but I wasn't very experienced, so Bugge Wesseltoft helped me a lot in those days. I wasn't very confident with my stuff and he listened to it and pointed to the right tracks. Later on when I was playing in his band he encouraged me to come out of my session musician role and have a more personal approach to the instrument. As a matter of fact, that's when I started to get rid of the Gary Moore stuff (laughs). Now, when I come to think about it, maybe my encounter with Bugge was one of those groundbreaking experiences you mentioned earlier.

AAJ: What is on your opinion the main characteristic of the Norwegian musical community?

I think that it is different with each generation, and that it can be better identified from the outside. My generation is very cooperative, we work a lot together and we exchange a lot of information and experience. As far as the creativity goes, for me personally, the godfathers of this movement are Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal and Jon Christensen, they opened the way by showing that it was possible for a Norwegian to create something different and have success outside the country. You don't have to play like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane anymore to convince the audience.

AAJ: Each of your albums has a very distinct signature. How do you see your development arch from the album Électronique Noir to Dream Logic?

EA: It was very important to me to come up each time with something different but nevertheless I think that beyond that, there is an element of continuity in all my albums. For example even if Dream Logic is the most extreme in terms of atmosphere, I still think that it connects with the other albums in terms of expressing things in my own personal language.

AAJ: Talking about this dramatic difference between Dream Logic and everything you did before, I was wondering to what extent that change reflects the changes in your own life.

EA: I think that Dream Logic brings a lot of emotion with it and the accumulated experience of making music. It also contains Jan Bang's esthetic mark, with regard to a certain clarity in the atmosphere. It is something I have never been able to make before. I still like to listen to it, especially the first track, and I am very proud of it. As far as life changes go, I think that my whole music is reflecting to some extent those experiences, it opens them up either in form of image or feeling.

AAJ: Your tone and your manner of playing is one of sensitivity backed by a large amount of subdued energy. Is that born or acquired?

EA: This has a lot to do with a certain kind of openness. I am sort of shy and the energy you mention was always there but now I can control it better. It is interesting that you are saying this because I am all the time on the narrow edge between intimacy and courage. Some time ago I had a talk with David Sylvian, who told me that if you are open enough, you can always feel how far the audience will let you go. And that's exactly what happened last night (at Jazz in Church Festival, Bucharest, ed. note). I had a good feeling playing for the audience yesterday, because I tried something and I felt immediately accepted. The show went on so well because I sensed that the audience was permissive. For me it is very important to feel the room, how the sound works there, and then to work with the sound. My working with trumpet player Jon Hassell has also a very important role there, because from him I learned the importance of sensuality in music.

AAJ: What is the role of the pause in your playing?

EA: The pause is very important, because silence is part of the music. It is a musical device I am very curious about, I am exploring it, and I am still learning a lot about it. Two days ago I went to an exhibition in Paris about the conductor Pierre Boulez and it was interesting to see how he makes music visible with his gestures and how he was using the pause. A pause can be very musical but you have to know how to use it. It important to work well with the pause, because otherwise you can lose the grip.

AAJ: Could you tell me the story of the track "Drobak Saray" from Sonic Codex (Jazzland 2007)?

EA: Originally I wrote the tune for the trio with Paolo Fresu and Dhafer Youssef but I used it only later in my own group. I worked the title together with Dhafer. The place where I was born in Norway is called Drøbak, and I have there a summerhouse where I actually wrote it. The tune has a strong Turkish influence because at the time I was listening to a lot of Turkish music, and Drøbak also sounds sort of exotic, so Dhafer had the idea to use the Turkish word Saray, which means castle. So the title came to represent the place where the piece was composed.

AAJ: Is the imagery development in your compositions a natural process or the result of a conscious endeavor?

EA: It is not a conscious process. I think that the capacity for imagery develops in time if you go deep enough. I have a lot of images, which I do not communicate, but they are in my mind when I make the music, and it would be nice to know what kind of imagery my music is creating. Maybe it is the same, who knows (laughs).

AAJ: What are you working on these days?

EA: I just finished recording a new album, which will be again completely different from all the rest. There will be a lot more energy in it than in anything I've done before. It is an album with two drummers and it will come out in September. It is called I.E. and has a double meaning. The two letters come form the Latin expression Id est meaning "that is" or "in our words," and the second meaning is the Norwegian "in the key of E," the key in which most of the tunes are written. I've also been recording as a duo with Michele Rabbia on drums, and I just finished the recording for another album I am very happy about. I worked on it together with Tigran Hamasyan, Jan Bang and Arve Henriksen at the ECM studio. It was an amazing session and it went real fast. We just met, we played, we improvised and we recorded it. It was also a great experience to work with Manfred Eicher because he is very focused and has a keen musical intuition. The album doesn't have a title yet and it will, hopefully, come out in February 2016.

Photo Credit: Mircea Albutiu

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