Jacob Young: Lyricism and Elasticity

John Kelman By

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Now thirty-four years old, guitarist Jacob Young has been active on the Norwegian music scene since the early '90s, when he'd return home during summers off from his studies at New York's New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. With three records under his belt on smaller Norwegian labels, the time has come for him to reach a broader international audience, and the release of his ECM debut, Evening Falls, which has been out in Europe for a few months but is only now seeing release in North America, is poised to do just that. With a multi-generational group of players that includes one of the true geniuses of modern drumming, Jon Christensen's first recording for the label since the '99 sessions that produced Bobo Stenson's outstanding '00 release Serenity, Young has made a number of developmental leaps as a player, composer, bandleader and arranger that make this an auspicious time to be introduced to a broader audience.

Chapter Index
Early Days
New York and The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music
This is You
Pieces of Time
Karin Krog and Where Flamingos Fly
Meeting Manfred Eicher and the Evening Falls Quintet
Recording Evening Falls
New York Versus Norway

Early Days

Born to an American father who had relocated to Norway to marry, Young picked up the guitar around the age of twelve. While he did not come from a particularly musical family, he was exposed to a variety of styles from an early age. "I guess my first memory of music," says Young, "was a cassette tape that my mother had. On one side was a Norwegian folk singing group that was popular in the '70s, and the other side was Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain; that's one of my first memories of listening to music with real joy. Also, my father had a lot of Motown albums, Frank Sinatra records, classical music also—so I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music when I was growing up, in all different genres.

"When I first started playing guitar I learned the basics from a friend," continues Young. "We were on a mountain trip together and everyone was out skiing. He showed me a few things on the guitar and I just decided I wanted to stay inside and learn this basic stuff, which was guitar blues. I really got hooked and decided to spend time with it. I first started getting interested in jazz after a few years, before that I was listening to The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, and other rock stuff. But I listened to a lot of different music, and I didn't really care so much if it was jazz or rock or whatever."

New York and The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music

Young studied music in Oslo, but the emphasis was more on classical music—analysis, four-point counterpoint, music history and composition theory. But after a year- and-a-half he decided to move to New York and attend the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, although his original reasons for relocating to New York were hardly artistic. "I didn't go to New York to study music in the first place," Young says, "the reason I started at the New School was because I was going after this woman that I was dating and she moved to New York. I was so much in love with her that I tried everything to be around where she was. And she found out that I liked jazz, so I could check out schools in Manhattan for music. She sent me a few things and I applied and got in, but my motivation wasn't really music in the first place. And then I met Jim Hall and all these other great guys who were so much ahead of me at the time, it was really a wake-up call for me. And ultimately she didn't want to have anything to do with me, so I was stuck at school, but it was kind of my way in I guess."

Interestingly enough, while Young obviously studied theory, harmony, composition, all the subjects that a young student would, his exposure to music through people like Jim Hall, John Abercrombie, Kenny Werner and Richie Beirach was less about what to play, and more about how to play. "Jim talked a lot about playing the melody," Young explains, "trying to improvise and stick to an idea thematically; focusing on the song you're improvising on. The best solos he plays sound like compositions, they're so well-shaped, and the form is so masterful. We never talked about theory, more about basic things like attitude and approach. We never talked about scales or chords or anything like that. It's not because I knew everything and we didn't need to talk about it, but I talked to other people about that stuff. He spoke more about the basic flow of music, and in a very inspiring way. So by watching him and listening to him and being around him, it was very inspiring.

"I knew John Abercrombie from Norway, before I came to New York," Young continues, "from listening to a record he'd done with Jan Garbarek called Eventyr, which I really liked. So I knew a little bit about his playing before I came to New York, although I knew nothing about Jim Hall, which is kind of strange. Anyway, I would ask John some questions, but mostly we just played. He's a very positive guy, he showed me a little bit about how he thinks when he's improvising. He superimposes triads and he was one of the first to play with that kind of dual harmonic concept. And he uses contrast a lot. He has his own style, with a harmonic concept where he's basically pretty free, and we'd just play standards and discuss things while we did.

"Also, he uses his ears as a musician," continues Young, "even though he clearly knows his theory. We talked about that also, that it's something you have to practice, you can't really read your way through it, you have to do it. Basically what I'm saying it that for me jazz has to be an oral tradition, like folk music; the information is handed down through exercise, through practice and through meeting masters like John and Jim. So that was the most important thing I learned. Everything about theory you can read.

"Kenny Werner," Young concludes, "who was a staff member at the school and taught advanced theory and composition, talked about how everything is possible, how there really aren't any rules in music, that it's just the way you make the connection between one chord or one note and the next. It's like a Zen space. He'd have his hands hovering over the keyboard and he would say, 'The next sound is the most beautiful sound I've heard in my whole life,' and he would just smack his hands down on the piano and there'd be this cluster of sounds. So he would talk about attacking the music from that angle, to open up and get away from strict formulas. He was great for opening up like that, he would have exercises where you would write down letters on pieces of paper, mix them up in a hat, arbitrarily pick them out of the hat and make a new. And that opened up a whole new world, because there are so many ways of attacking improvised music, so it's about trying to have a concept, not sticking too closely to rules, and learning to express yourself in a way that's convincing."

This is You

While Young didn't return to Norway permanently until '95, he recorded his first album, This is You, for the Norcd label, in '94, when he was home for the summer. An interesting blend of various styles, the album reflected Young's exposure to the great musical melting pot that is New York. "I had done professional gigs in Norway since '92," says Young, "and when I went back to Norway in the summers I'd do three or four concerts in Oslo, or a small tour. I had already played with [drummer] Per Oddvar Johansen, but never with [bassist] Terje Gewelt, who [saxophonist/producer] Bendik Hofseth brought in for the session. I also flew in [pianist/organist] Larry Goldings, who I had met at the New School; he's a few years older than me and had finished the year before I started, but he was hanging around and playing a lot with Peter Bernstein, who is a friend from my New York days and is one of my favourite guitar players.

"I think that This is You is not as focused as my other records," continues Young, "because there are so many genres going on. There's one swing tune, a bossa nova tune, a free tune, a straight eighths tune, a bluesy tune. I guess I didn't really know what I wanted to do, so I tried to do a little bit of everything. But I always had a predilection for lyricism, for melodies; that's been important to me since I started playing guitar and writing, humming, just trying to put together my own melodies or stretches of chords. And I still play the title song live sometimes. So I'm proud of it, there are things that I wish I could have done better, but I think it has some nice writing, some nice compositions."

Pieces of Time

For Young's next project, '97's Pieces of Time, released on the Norwegian Curling Legs label, he recorded with a group that he had been playing with on a regular basis, and the difference is palpable. The same sense of melodicism is evident, but there's a stronger sense of interplay and unity about the record that makes it a more compelling listen. The group features saxophonist Trygve Seim, who has gone on to record his own albums for ECM, keyboardist Vigleik Storaas, Per Oddvar Johansen on drums and bassist Mats Eilertsen, with whom Young continues to work to this day. "That was a working band," says Young. "We had done a few tours in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. We were all about the same age and knew each other, so Pieces of Time was definitely more of a group record.

"Trygve Seim was an old friend of mine from high school," Young continues, "and we've had some of the same influences and steps in our careers. I went to New York and he studied in Norway at the Trondheim Conservatory. He was a very familiar person to have in the group, both professionally and socially. Mats Eilertsen was very young when we started playing, I think he was only nineteen, and he was still a student at the conservatory. From '96 to '97 I had a gig every Thursday at a club in Oslo called "The Young Market," which was basically a session where I invited different players to play, ending with a jam session. But for the first hour we would prepare material for musicians that had basically never played together before. We would play songs, not just free improvisation. I was playing with this Norwegian drummer in a group called the Young Love Trio, and he had heard about Mats, and we flew him over for this gig with [trumpeter] Nils Petter Molvaer, and we went on and played some groove-oriented free, energetic music and he locked in right away.

While there is still stylistic diversity on Pieces of Time—including "Wonder Why," on which Young pays homage to one of his influences, Keith Jarrett's European Quartet, and "In a Subtle Way," with it's swinging hip hop-informed rhythm, songs including "When We're Talking" and "The Promise" demonstrate a stylistic approach that could have easily fitted into the ECM aesthetic. Young also began to augment his warm, clean electric tone with acoustic guitar, another foreshadowing of Evening Falls, where the record is split almost fifty-fifty between the two instruments.
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