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Jacob Young: On ECM, founding a label and finding the "drama" in the music

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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I’m not a strong leader in the sense that I want the other musicians to play an ideal that I’ve carved out, but I’m rather open for their input. I like to let everyone find their own role within the structures that I provide. —Jacob Young, Guitarist, Composer
There's a lot to be said about musical excellence in versatility when it comes to guitarist Jacob Young. The Norwegian fret-acrobat came to international prominence in the early 2000s, when ECM's Manfred Eicher detected his remarkable chops and subsequently recorded and released Young's debut Evening Falls (2004) for the prestigious German label. Two more sessions followed with 2006's Sideways and Forever Young in 2014—all of which met with great critical acclaim. But even a couple of years before, upon returning to Oslo in 1995, and having just graduated from The New School and freelancing in New York, Young was able to make his mark on the improvised music world.

His debut album, This is You (NORCD, 1995), released in the year of his return to Oslo, features his fellow colleague from the New School, organ player and pianist Larry Goldings as well as his Norwegian compatriots Per Oddvar Johansen, and Nils Petter Molvaer, who, by coincidence, would soon also become a fixed part of the Norwegian ECM-family. A sense of serenity and clear perspective can be heard even in this, some of Young's earliest recorded playing and composing, gracing his debut record with a highly sophisticated notion. Then again, having learned from fellow guitarists Jim Hall and John Abercrombie, as well as studying composition under Richie Beirach and Kenny Werner, among others, the mature playing on This Is You shouldn't come as too much of a surprise.

In seamless alternation between acoustic picking and subtle electric guitar strokes, Young's primary statement on Evening Falls was a compositional one rather than a display of instrumental virtuoso. The holistic approach to his music has remained the same ever since. Nuanced arrangements giving way to elegant harmonic structures and wistful melodies define the guitarist's musical voice and demonstrate his tight ensembles' elaborate networks of communication, in which the different musicians have a language in common, while also being given the space to make their own original voices heard. An even smoother approach —in terms of interplay, melodic figures, and the understated manner in which progressions ascend and recede again—informs Sideways . Featuring the same sideman as its predecessor, the record radiates a pronounced chemistry between the players, with the core trio of Jon Christensen, Mats Eilertsen and Young himself, each leading the changes in their own characteristic ways.

Forever Young , released seven years later, contrasts with the former records for its modern sonic properties, owing, on the one hand, to Young's more chordal approach to his instrument, which shifts the compositional framework— and on the othe hand, to the newly appointed sidemen; besides featuring another longstanding musical partner in tenor saxophonist Trygve Seim, Marcin Wasilewski's trio makes up the remaining part of the quintet. The piano and the guitar's similar harmonic scope give this recording a more layered sound, creating a warm foundation for tasteful soloing and inviting the more percussive faculties of drums and bass to flourish.

Since his last stint for ECM, Young has created his own Label Oslo Session Recordings, on which he proves more prolific than ever. This year alone he plays on Oyvind Braekke's recent sextet release Wilderness , just released a brand new trio recording called They Say Humans Exist and plans on releasing the sophomore effort of his duo collaboration with Norwegian singer Siril Malmedal Hauge later in the year —all on his own label. These projects only hint at the remarkable diversity of constellations and variety of musical styles Young has delved in during the course of his career. And still, in this pool of alternating formations some names and facts seem to pop up on a more regular basis—creating a sort of common thread throughout his musical oeuvre. Bassist Mats Eilertsen (another ECM regular), drummer Jon Christensen and Rainbow Studio's Jan Erik Kongshaug, who'd been ECM's go-to sound engineer up to his unfortunate death in 2019, are among these key characters and only some of the milestones that Jacob Young talks about in an extensive conversation with Allaboutjazz. Opposite to what might be expected, the Corona-lockdown has given him even more time and energy to focus on recording new music.

Jacob Young: Last week I was in the studio with Siril [Malmedal Hauge] recording a follow-up to Last Things (Oslo Session Recordings, 2019). It was nice, not having to pay too much attention to the whole Corona thing for a little while.

Allaboutjazz: It's great to hear that this whole situation isn't holding you back. Can we expect the release of that recording this year?

JY: Maybe!

AAJ: Exciting news! If you don't mind, I'd like to go back in time to your first recordings as a leader and trace your musical evolution through some of the highlights of your discography—starting with your debut record This Is You, and then circle back to your current work with Siril Malmedal Hauge.

JY: Let's do it.

AAJ: When you recorded This Is You, you'd just returned to Norway from your years spent in New York and went right ahead to record with some high profile names. How did you and Larry Goldings end up collaborating with each other on that album?

JY: Well Larry and I were studying together pretty much at the same time at The New School in New York. We had some friends in common and got to play together quite a bit. Also, he played with Jim Hall at the time. I was in Jim Hall's ensemble, so I got to know him through that as well, and that's how he ended up playing on my record.

AAJ: For a debut album, This is You already sounds very sophisticated without trying too hard. You established a characteristic guitar tone and especially fluid language straight from the get-go. From there you went on to record Pieces of Time (Curling Legs, 1997) and Glow, which further cemented your distinctive sound. Before long, you were recording for ECM, making your debut for the label with Evening Falls. You discussed the recording process of that album extensively with fellow Allaboutjazz contributer John Kelman—documented in detail in this article from 2004. Of those releases, which project, to your mind, really put you on the map, in a more comprehensive way than before?

JY: Between Glow and Evening Falls I recorded the duo album Where Flamingos Fly (Grappa, 2002) with the Norwegian singer Karin Krog and touring with her in light of that album really brought me around the world. We went to the U.S., India, Japan and many different places in Europe. I think Manfred Eicher had heard and liked that record, too. You could definitely say that that three-year stint was a kind of stepping stone for my career.

AAJ: How did you end up recording for ECM?

JY: Manfred [Eicher] was at the release concert for my album Glow in Oslo, at the jazz club Blå. Trygve Seim had invited him, and other ECM players were there, too, such as Arve Henriksen and Christian Wallumrod. However, I didn't meet him then. It was actually Jon Christensen, who we sadly just lost, who'd called Manfred to let him know that we had a trio with Mats [Eilertsen] that he should check out. We did a few concerts with the trio, but Manfred wasn't too into it. Then we did a concert at the Norwegian Kongsberg jazz festival with two additional horn players. That instrumentation intrigued Manfred, so that's how it started.

AAJ: You and Jon Christensen go pretty far back. Could you elaborate on how you knew him and what working with him was like?

JY: When I moved back from New York I started this weekly session at a local club every Thursday. That attracted a lot of musicians. We had a steady trio with a weekly alternating special guest. We'd spend a day rehearsing with the special guest, playing his or her original music as well as other songs and after the opening concert it basically turned into a jam-session. Jon used to come to that. He'd sit in a few times, then he was a featured musician and we started hanging out. Actually, he was the one who told me not to go back to New York. He said I might as well just stay here, 'because you can make nice music in Norway, too.' (laughs)

AAJ: Had you been playing with the idea of moving back?

JY: Yeah, a little. I'd lived there [New York] for two and a half years and then I was just back to do a sort of equivalent or more a substitution of the military service, which is mandatory in Norway. Everyone has to do either military service or some sort of social work for a year. That was the only reason why I came home. And then Jon convinced me to stay. So we started playing together and he was of course just a wonderful person and musician to be around.

AAJ: All of your work—your three ECM outings in particular—demonstrate the subtlety with which you approach your instrument and your compositions. No matter in what formation, you always seem able to create the perfect platform for other musicians to flourish. If you had to break it down to some core elements, what are the things that drive you when you're composing and playing. What are your goals and what do you want to avoid?

JY: I usually write all the music myself, as for example on my early trilogy of records, before ECM, but I only have an idea of what the music should sound like. I try to leave room for other musical voices to be able to impact the compositions. I'm not a strong leader in the sense that I want the other musicians to play an ideal that I've carved out, but I'm rather open for their input. I like to let everyone find their own role within the structures that I provide. I know what it's like to be a sideman and therefore I know that it's always nice to have some space for me to do my own thing. The musicians shouldn't feel constricted.

Beyond that, what is most important to me is that the overall sound, composition and arrangement are interesting—in other words the "drama" of the music. It can get boring pretty fast if music is just about showing off what you're capable of on your instrument. It can be fun, too, but a whole album like that? It's hard to listen to that without getting bored, you know?

When it comes to recording with Manfred, there's a special kind of atmosphere. Especially for the recording session of my first ECM album, I was very excited, even kind of nervous. Suddenly you're in this room with Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug, whose incredible productions I grew up listening to and who I idolize. So, it probably took me about an hour to get my shoulders unclenched (laughs). But we were very prepared for the recording and knew pretty much exactly what we wanted to do. I think it is very important to be as prepared as possible, as much as one can be, when working with Manfred. Or any other producer for that sake and especially when in the studio. Because the producer will always look for ways to mold the material to be stronger and might change the direction or set the mood entirely. And I am always open to that. It's part of the process. But it's always good to be well prepared. That way you make a bigger impact on the end result and the "job" floats easier for everyone, in my opinion.

I have to say, working with these world class people, namely Manfred and Jan Erik, has been extremely rewarding to me, artistically speaking, and the best possible school. I feel very humble and thankful just being given the opportunity really. Manfred is an extremely good listener and also very good at making the music flow and breathe, pulling out the things that are interesting and instigating us musicians to develop upon those elements. In that session he'd make comments like "Let's try a different tempo" and "maybe the bass should start the intro" or "How about we skip the first part." Small but important things of that nature. In the end it's always a team effort, making a recording. We do it together. And ultimately, all of that plays an important role in how my music unfolds as well.

AAJ: There was a seven-year gap between the releases of your second and most recent ECM records, Sideways (2007) and Forever Young (2014). Are there any specific reasons for these longer intervals between them and do you think you'll do another recording for ECM?

JY: The reason for that is simply that everyone wants to record for ECM and so there are a lot of requests from big musicians around the world; a lot of demand but only so many possible releases a year. That's one of the reasons why I started my own label, Oslo Session Recordings, because I can't always wait four or five years between each recording. Beyond that I also just have many other projects that don't quite fit the ECM aesthetics.

I'd love to do another album for ECM produced by Manfred, of course! I'm Still thinking about what format to do it in and have thoughts about maybe doing a trio recording. I am discussing different options with Trygve [Seim] and Mats [Eilertsen] these days, so we'll see.

AAJ: Beyond Jon Christensen and Trygve Seim, there's another ECM-associate who you got to know very well, even long before your first ECM outing. The late sound engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who'd been Manfred Eicher's go-to engineer at Rainbow Studios in Oslo, recorded almost all of your albums. How well did you know him?

JY: We were friends you know. I probably recorded around 20 albums with him—lots of different stuff, from duo-sessions to soundtracks etc.. I'm very sad about him having passed away last year. By coincidence, he and I had the same guitar. He was a really good guitarist! Unfortunately he never recorded anything for Manfred, but he did bring out an album for ACT [The Other World (1999)]. He truly was a great guy.

One of the wonderful things with him in the studio was that he was very calm. Everything was taken care of and ready so that you could just start recording right away and it would sound great, immediately! I think it had to do with him being a musician; he knew what the respective instrument sounded like within the group interplay on stage, he knew the aesthetics and ideals firsthand and was striving for that. Also, it was really easy for musicians to communicate with him, because he instinctively knew what you were talking about and could apply his knowledge to extract what you wanted out of the recording gear.

AAJ: Moving on from your ECM associated acts, you created your own label, Oslo Session Recordings, in 2015. You've already said that wanting to put out other types of music than what would be suitable for ECM was one of the reasons for founding the label. What else drove you to starting Oslo Session Recordings?

JY: That started with the album The Maze.

AAJ: An album, which, if I may say so, actually shares quite a few similarities with what one might expect ECM would release.

JY: Absolutely. I'd even talked to ECM about it, but at the time Manfred was in the U.S. We only had one specific day on which it was possible to record with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri who was visiting from New York, in light of a different project. Bendik Hofseth had a session booked with Jan Erik at Rainbow Studios for the whole week, also with another project, but they didn't need the Friday so that slot was still available. We pretty spontaneously decided to go ahead and record within a day. We had one rehearsal during the week, a concert on Thursday night and then on Friday we recorded for about 4 ½ hours, and that's it.

I agree that that could have easily been on ECM, sonically as well as compositionally speaking. But at the time we couldn't even get a hold of Manfred. I spoke to Manfred and told him about the recording. And since he wasn't able to be there on that day, he of course didn't object to us releasing it on our own. Same goes for my starting Oslo Session Recordings, which I'd talked to Manfred about, just to keep things transparent. There are no hard feelings between us (laughs).

AAJ: Was there also an economic incentive for you, to create the label, or were your motivations of a purely creative nature?

JY: Economic I'm not so sure about. I haven't seen any of that (laughs). But it provides me an outlet to do different projects, to be a producer and also to try to bring out the music of artists that I respect and find promising. For instance, I released singer-songwriter Marte Røyeng's album. I didn't have anything to do with that project as a musician, but she sent me her tapes and I really liked it. We had some discussions about the mix and then I went ahead and released it.

The last record I released on the label was Oyvind Braekke's Wilderness. He's an old buddy of mine, we've been playing together since Glow. Oyvind is an amazing composer and I just thought that he really deserved his music to be out there and get some more exposure. So the label is a vehicle for me to initiate projects and keep myself busy creatively. I'm too restless to be just a musician and a composer, I guess. I need to diversify, otherwise I get bored (laughs).

AAJ: Could you elaborate on some of the other releases on your label? The trio recording Rathkes Gate 12: 21: 58 for example, again featuring Bendik Hofseth.

JY: We're old buddies, Paolo [Paolo Vinaccia], Bendik and I. We recorded that in Oslo, too. It's more or less a project among friends. Actually, originally that recording featured a lot of really amazing loops that Paolo had done, but for some reason he didn't want to have on the album. I'm currently thinking about releasing a kind of directors cut of that album, including those original loops. It's really a groovy crossover album when you include those loops.

AAJ: Your duo with Siril is another project that stands out as very different in style, compared to the rest of your discography. How did that collaboration originally come together?

JY: We were sidemen on the same project with the Swedish musicians Lars Jansson and Anders Thorén [Nordic Circles' Under The Clouds (AMP Music & Records, 2017)]. That was in Rainbow Studios, she and I met for the first time as hired musicians. I told her she should call if she felt like playing some music together, and a couple of days later she did!

A promoter in Japan had been talking to me, recommending I do something with a vocalist for some time, so that kind of instigated that collaboration, too. We started playing a little bit then recorded a demo which I presented to the promoter. He loved it, so we finished the album and have since been touring a lot with Last Things (Oslo Session Recordings, 2019). It's a neat concept. It's very easy to tour with. It's also very different. There are singer-songwriter elements, and on the upcoming album I'll even be singing leads on three songs together with Siril (humble laughter)! So yeah, that definitely has nothing to do with the ECM recordings I've done.

AAJ: This duo is a new situation for you as a guitarist. How do you approach this more compact style of music, where you are responsible for such a big portion of harmony and rhythm?

JY: It's really interesting to make music with only one other person, because it's so see-through. It's very intimate and as a musician, you don't have a security net too fall back on. You really have to rely on each other. Having to provide all the harmony and a fair share of the rhythm, as well as soloing without piano or bass is a challenge for a guitarist, but it's a fun one. It keeps you disciplined, too, because you can't just play the way you're used to playing in an improvised environment. You need a little more structure. At the same time, I have this orchestra going on in my head, which allows me to kind of anticipate what a bass would do, in any given situation, for example.

On the new recording with Siril about half of the songs consist of one guitar and one voice, while the other half is a bit more orchestrated, because we used the studio as a tool. We added guitar overdubs and various other sounds, producing it more in a pop-manner, while still keeping the fragile notion and some improvisation in play.

In regard to other new stuff, just a few days ago, on May 1st, I released a trio record digitally, featuring Sidiki Camara, the percussion player from Mali. Physical copies will be available soon. Sidiki plays ngoni, calabash and sings on the album. He's truly a beautiful musician. He played with Bill Frisell's The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003) band. On clarinet the record features David Rothenberg, who's more of a free jazz guy. He's actually on a duo recording with Marilyn Crispell on ECM [ One Dark Night I Left My Silent House , 2010]. This project is completely different from anything else I've done. It's totally improvised. I do a lot of electronics on it and experiment with a variety of sounds and instruments. The album's called They Say Humans Exist [Oslo Session Recordings]. It was recorded with Øystein Sevåg, who's also a musician, so recording with him follows the same kind of ideal about sound engineers being musicians as well. Sevåg had quite the career in new age and world music on the Windham Hill label in the U.S.. Now he's created a beautiful studio, overlooking the woods and the surroundings of Oslo, which was nice to experience while recording.

AAJ: What's your take on the whole digital concert movement, triggered of course by the Corona-Virus situation?

JY: I did one concert in Oslo, called "Corona-Concert." They set up a TV-studio at a concert venue in Oslo where I played, and it was streamed live on Facebook and Youtube. The whole thing was donation-based and quite a big thing in Norway, right when the whole Corona crisis began. It was really strange to play in a room without an audience. Because it's not like a recording studio either, where you can listen back, repeat takes and so on. Here, when you've finished with a song, there's silence. Nothing. It's very awkward. But just the other day the government announced that they were going to allow gatherings of up to 50 people again very soon. So, for jazz musicians, it should be business as usual, no (laughs)?

But in all seriousness, it's a little bit scary to think about the fact that the world we knew before this crisis might not come back the way we're used to.

AAJ: People are realizing that much of the travel we're used to doing isn't strictly necessary in order to do your job, which in the case of a jazz musician, is playing a gig for an audience. Much has moved online. One might be wondering whether that could remain a more or less permanent state.

JY: I can imagine jazz clubs live-streaming their concerts in the future, too. Maybe have smaller audiences in the clubs and bigger ones in front of their screens at home. Maybe what could happen is that more musicians will remain local, the way I did when I came back from New York. Have a weekly gig in one club, maybe stream it now and then and not travel all around the world all the time. But what really happens remains to be seen.

Photo Credit: Roar Vestad

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