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Nils Petter Molvaer: Khmer

John Kelman By

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Nils Petter Molvær—KhmerNils Petter Molvær
Khmer
ECM Records
1997

At a time when, with the sheer volume of music vying for attention it's almost an impossibility to release a recording that actually shakes the foundation of what music is and what it can be, there was a time, in 1997-98—and in, perhaps, the most unlikely of places—when four albums changed the course of music...particularly in their native country, to be sure, but also on an international scale. Out of Norway came four albums whose influence continues to be felt to this day. First issued in Norway in 1996, it was in 1997 that keyboardist and head of the nascent Jazzland label managed to find broader distribution for the first in a series of recordings, titled (with some hubris, but justified) New Conception of Jazz which, also the name of his group, joined house and techno music with jazz in a manner that was fresh and new. in 1998, Supersilent shook the foundation of improvised music with 1-3 (Rune Grammofon), a three-disc set of largely aggressive noise improvisation that created its own space for music that, despite its often harsh angularity, could also reach places of unexpected beauty. That same year, guitarist Eivind Aarset released Électronique Noire (Jazzland), an album that garnered comparisons to the electric innovations of Miles Davis in the 1970s, and completely reinvented and re-imagined what could be done with electric guitar, a computer and a bevy of effects.

But it was trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær's 1997 album, Khmer, that had, perhaps, the most impact, if for no other reason than it was released on Munich's heralded ECM Records, a label with broad international reach and a reputation so strong that many of its fans would purchase albums by artists unknown to them on the basis of their simply being on the label. It's an album that, along with those from Aarset, Wesseltoft and Supersilent, positioned Norway as a significant contributor to music's forward motion towards the end of the 20th Century and kick-started an entirely new movement both in Norway and abroad, making it a perfect candidate for Rediscovery.

Molvær was already known to ECM fans as a member of the more jazz-centric, acoustic group Masqualero, led by fellow Norwegians, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen— both very well-known to label followers as two of the five Scandinavian artists whose work the label began releasing as early as 1970, and who formed the first "new wave" of Norwegian music of which the 1997-1998 period is considered to be the second. But while Molvær had already garnered attention as a particularly lyrical player capable of fitting into many contexts, and while Norwegians may have been aware of some of the work he was doing leading up to the release of Khmer, for the non-Norwegian public this was a powerful shot across the musical bow, and a huge surprise for ECM fans as well.

ECM had, by that time, garnered a reputation for making records quickly—two days to record, one to mix—and, while there have been exceptions to that rule, also generally eschewed the use of overdubs and significant post-production work. What a surprise, then, to hear the starting moments of Khmer's album-opening title track, with Aarset's serpentine e-bowed guitar creating a Mid-Eastern vibe, as Molvær and Roger Ludvigsen's ethnic percussion mesh with the more conventional sound of Rune Arnesen's drum kit, creating a cross-cultural stew, Molvær layers some Harmon-muted trumpet with echoes of Miles Davis...but also the sound of a player who, by this time, had a fully formed voice and clear intentions that, irrespective of context, leaned more towards the lyrical than they did the extreme, though some of his approaches—whether electric or acoustic—certainly explored (and continue to explore) the farthest reaches of his instrument's possibilities. As Arnesen slowly enters, first with percussive cymbal splashes and drum punctuations, it becomes clear that, while Molvær has created compositional constructs, the overall context is wide open and that this is a project where improvisation remains a fundamental.

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