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Eivind Aarset: The Edge Between Intimacy and Courage

Adriana Carcu By

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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.
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