A seasoned solo performer, sideman and leader, Nils Økland is a frequent ECM Records contributor capable of playing expressively across multiple styles. His hardanger fiddle and violin can range from poised and elegantsee Lysøen -Hommage à Ole Bull (2011), his collaboration with pianist Sigbjorn Apelandto raucous, as on the Dirty Three-esque Lumen Drones (2014).
For Kjølvatn, he assembles a quintet capable of evocative textures as well as hushed austerity. ECM mainstay Mats Eilertsen plays double bass; Sigbjørn Apeland is on harmonium rather than piano for this outing; and Håkon Stene contributes distinctively resonant percussion. Rolf-Erik Nystrøm takes an unconventional approach to timbre with his alto and baritone saxophones. His presence might lead to expectations of a more conventional jazz ensemble, but he rarely takes the lead, instead contributing well-timed squeals, grainy pulsations or subtle background colors.
"Start" reflects the enthralling, if precarious, sea journey suggested by the album cover. Nystrøm's percussive breaths do little to imply a saxophone as their source, bringing to mind waves buffeting a ship's hull. Økland's fiddle initially seems optimistic, circling a concise folk melody, but adopts a menacing quality as Stene's drumming grows more urgent. Though Kjølvatn was recorded in a medieval church, one could just as easily accept that it was captured on the lower deck of a historic schooner.
Nautical associations aside, the album's interspersing of invigorating and placid compositions keeps the listener engaged. For example, the creeping dread of "Drev" is followed by the hopeful balm of the title track. "Puls," the album's eight-minute centerpiece, finds the quintet pared down to one or two performers for prolonged stretches, but still manages to create a compelling atmosphere throughout its duration.
Kjølvatn may not be a stereotypical ECM releaseit is difficult to think of it as traditional jazzbut it is an excellent reminder of the label's dedication to blurring the lines between jazz and other genres. Though its performances feel thrillingly uninhibited, it is still highly accessible and even arrestingly beautiful at times ("Amstel"). Økland's quintet has created a spirited journey well worth taking.