With Khmer (ECM, 1997) Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer almost singlehandedly introduced a new movement in the electronica-based nu jazz arena that would come to be known as "future jazz." Blending a group approach to improvisation with contemporary sampling and programming technologies, Molvaer creates hypnotic ambient soundscapes with compelling rhythms. Music for the body? Unequivocally. But equally, music for the soul and spirit.
Since leaving ECM Molvaer has in some ways become the gold standard against which other future jazz is measured. And yet, while his reputation has grown in Europe, greater success eludes him in North America. It's difficult to understand why this is, although one reason may be that his music tends to avoid the funk and soul that informs conventional American electronica, while equally eschewing the clearer links to a jazz aesthetic heard on some of the more adventurous works found on labels like Thirsty Ear. Instead, Molvaer is all about imagery, with his live performances lit so moodily that the musicians themselves become secondary to the visuals experience.
er is both a continuation of and a departure from previous albums, including last year's live Streamer. While Molvaer continues to use rhythm programming to augment drummer Rune Arnesen's natural pulse, he also introduces hand percussionplayed by Arnesen, but also by Helge Nordbakken, who has been instrumental on fellow Norwegian Jon Balke's last two ECM releases. While Balke's music is considerably more abstract, it's no coincidence that Molvaer is becoming increasingly interested in ethnic percussionnot alluding directly to any specific culture, but unquestionably drawing from a broader world view than the pulsing techno beats of so many electronica artists.
er may be Molvaer's darkest work to date, combining the distinctive icy cool of "Sober" with the more trancelike tribal rhythms of "Dancer." Whether on the insistent "Hover" or the aptly titled "Softer"where Molvaer layers his processed, Jon Hassell-influenced horn over a sparse soundscape there's a brooding quality that's far removed from the dance floor grooves of Streamer or NP3.
It's also Molvaer's first album in some time that does not revolve around his working band. Arnesen and guitarist Eivind Aarset are there, but this is more of a constructed affair, with a larger cast of characters. It's also his first album to feature a song with words. Norwegian singer Sidsel Endersenwhose electronica album Undertow (Jazzland, 2000) is a minor masterpiececontributes lyrics and her characteristically hushed and sparse delivery to "Only These Things Count," which, with piano, acoustic guitar and double bass, is the most organic piece Molvaer has ever recorded.
A strong lesson learned from his time with ECM, the sequencing on er is as critical as the pieces themselves. Molvaer's compositions always bear the feeling of an inner voyage, his albums a broader travelogue with evocative narratives. While unquestionably part of his overall oeuvre, er is nevertheless a directional shift for Molvaer, proof to the newcomer that electronica is about considerably more than pulsing beats and synthesized sounds.
Hover; Softer; Water; Only These Things Count; Sober; Darker;
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