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Nils Petter Molvaer: Skeletons, Samples and Fish Fillets

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There's no overstating the impact that Nils Petter Molvær's debut CD Khmer made when it was released on the ECM label in 1997. The Norwegian trumpeter/composer was no stranger to ECM and its founder/producer Manfred Eicher— Molvær had been a member of the collective jazz group Masqualero, that had released records on the label, and he'd played on sessions by ECM artists such as percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky. With his impeccable European jazz credentials and his winsomely melodic, atmospheric trumpet playing—distilled through a host of influences like Jon Hassell, Brian Eno, and Middle Eastern and Norwegian music—Molvær was, in a sense, the archetypal ECM artist.

Except that he wasn't, really. Unlike just about every other ECM release, Khmer wasn't a live-in-the-studio session; it was a tracked studio creation that took Molvær years to create. And while Khmer and its 2000 follow-up Solid Ether have a considerable amount of acoustic instrumentation, they're also packed with electronics, samples and beats; this was music that owed as much to musical genres like electronica, drum 'n bass, ambient—and the technologies that made them possible—as it did to jazz. Actually, it was a genre unto itself, and Molvær became immediately known as the most celebrated creator of the Norwegian musical style known as "nu-jazz. Khmer made Molvær a star—in Europe, anyway—and ECM bent its de facto rules for him, breaking all tradition to release singles and remixes of his material.

Molvær parted ways with ECM after Solid Ether, but has continued to release strong recordings through Universal (he retains ownership of his masters) like 2002's aggressive, post-911-informed NP3 and last year's more serene ER. These records are available only as imports in the United States, where he's never had the following he commands on the continent. In an attempt to reintroduce him to American audiences, the Thirsty Ear label recently released An American Compilation, a well-sequenced, career-spanning collection. I was fortunate enough to see Molvær and his remarkable band perform over the summer at Chicago's Empty Bottle (he tours very infrequently in the States) and can state categorically that I'd never before experienced such a quantity of equipment and improvisation on a stage at any one time. I telephoned him in Norway shortly after.

All About Jazz: I want to go way back and proceed historically through what you've been doing with your music and career.

You played in the group Masqualero for actually quite a few years, and in this group, you played a style of music that fell into the category of acoustic jazz. You'd also played with people like Elvin Jones and Gary Peacock and done a lot of rock sessions. But when you appeared as a solo artist with the 1997 Khmer album on ECM, you were doing something entirely different from any of that—something deeply electronica-saturated in its rhythms and overall atmosphere. This can be seen as the first prominent statement in the movement that's known as Norwegian nu-jazz. I'm interested in what got you to this point, since—even though I don't think you've ever made the same album twice—you're still exploring this territory as an artist. What got you to this point, this rethinking of what you wanted to create?

Nils Petter Molvær: Well, with Masqualero I was part of a very democratic band. And elsewhere, I was, as you said, a kind of sideman in different kinds of bands. And yes, I played with Gary Peacock. I played three nights with Elvin Jones in Oslo, which was an incredible, fantastic experience. And I played only one concert with Gary Peacock, which was very, very nice—but it's not like I was playing as a regular member of their bands or anything. But I had this idea of making something of my own, and I thought it should sort of reflect the music that I had been listening to, and the music that I liked, music that had driven me, inspired me. Like [Brian Eno and David Byrne's album] My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire Records, 1981), which I heard when it came out. And a lot of the ambient stuff that Brian Eno was doing, and the records he produced for, for instance, [guitarist] Michael Brook. There was a record called Hybrid (EG Editions, 1985) with Brook, Daniel Lanois, and Eno, which for me was very, very important. Just the feeling of it, you know—and, of course, the music, but the feeling of that album was incredible. And some other things. [Pianist] Harold Budd had a record called The Pearl (EG Editions, 1984), which was also an Eno thing.

AAJ: Oh, yes, I just bought the reissue of that one.

NPM: Oh, yes? Well, these sorts of the things were the absolute opposite of bebop [laughing], of that kind of hard-core jazz. Anyway, for me, The Pearl was a very important record. Also, Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics (EG Editions, 1980), NYC [trumpeter] Jon Hassell. When I listened to that one, I was very excited; suddenly it seemed possible to do the things I'd been dreaming about doing on trumpet. Besides that, I'd also been listening to a lot of world music—Middle Eastern music, North African music. There was a feeling there, a sound that has a deep, deep longing for something. Something bigger than, ah—a Grammy!

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