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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!

AAJ: Gosh, what could be bigger than that?

NPM: You know what I mean [laughing]. So there were these kinds of things that I'd been listening to, and I felt that I wanted to reflect those kinds of music. So that's where Khmer came from, really. I was working pretty closely with a sound engineer named Ulf Holand; we were just working in between other things, and it took quite a while. I think I started this album in 1994 or something. For me, it really was a natural development, so I was really, really taken by surprise when I saw the reaction to it when we finished. It suddenly became—in my world—a big success. So for me, it was quite shocking. I thought, "Yeah, maybe I'll sell a thousand, two thousand. But—again, in my musical world—it created a huge impact! And it was really only the result of the music I had been listening to. Actually, there were lots of things from the eighties as well. I was really not listening to jazz very much; I listened more to sort of underground music, rockish kind of dark stuff. Like [Berlin techno duo and record label] Basic Channel, [techno label] Chain Reaction—Berlin minimalist techno. I was inspired by all sorts of things, and Khmer was the result.

It really just came down to choosing direction. I had to choose where I wanted to go with those influences. I wanted contrast; if you have contrast put together in a musical way, that creates tension and really appeals to me. So I wanted contrasts; I wanted to put together songs, sounds, tonalities, noises, electronic and acoustic beats—all of these things. I didn't look at it as being something very new, actually. It was something people had been doing for quite a while, in a way.

AAJ: But I think the way you re-conceptualized those elements on Khmer really was new. It was more than just the sum of those influences.

NPM: I won't argue [laughing]. No, it's nice that people experience it like that. It's nice.

AAJ: Obviously, there is a significant technological aspect to your music; there's a goodly amount of equipment involved in the creation of your sound, including the gear that creates your trumpet sounds. During the years you created Khmer, was there very much of a learning curve in terms of mastering the equipment?

NPM: First, I will say that there is a lot of acoustic trumpet on Khmer. Most of it is acoustic, actually. There's a lot of acoustic on Solid Ether, too. I've always played a lot of acoustic trumpet. It's like two different things for me: I play the acoustic trumpet and I play the electric trumpet, and the two things are really separated in a way. So I have a completely clean trumpet microphone, an [Electro-Voice] RE20, that just goes to front of house. And on the electronic side—well, it happened by coincidence, how I've discovered some of these things. I was using a Danish effect box, which is basically used for guitars. It has a very good harmonizer. It's made by TC Electronic. So I was connecting this unit to a Whammy [harmonizing, pitch-bending pedal]—an old Whammy, a Whammy-2. It's the black one; I don't think they make them anymore. So it's more of a stepless harmonizer, so you can go [his voice gliding up and down], "wheeeeeeeeeeooooooo! But then you can also take it in very small steps. And I just connect it to one of the sides, because it's sort of a fake stereo. It's mono in and stereo out. And then I found I can make progressions just by using some specific programs on the Whammy, because the left side is static and the right side is movable. So you can create harmonic progressions.

So I was just checking stuff out, just trying things and suddenly this all happened by coincidence. So there are some other things—using the harmonizer for different things, using filters, just things I've been developing over the years. I haven't done that much lately. Actually, I'm now trying to think about the possibility of using the computer instead of carrying around all these huge things. Then I'd just have a pedal board which would control things along with the computer, and then some [audio software pioneers] Native Instruments things. I haven't really started checking it out yet.

AAJ: Some of the players on Khmer and its follow-up CD Solid Ether, are musicians that are still your associates today. Guitarist Eivind Aarset and drummer Rune Arnesen appeared on Khmer, and DJ Strangefruit (Paal Nyhus) and vocalist Sidsel Endresen are featured on Solid Ether. Solid Ether is, like Khmer, a seminal recording—I think "Kakonita and "Vilderness remain important songs in your body of work, and they're featured on your new American Compilation album. Not counting any remixes, this is your body of work on ECM. How influential was [ECM label head/producer] Manfred Eicher upon this recordings? Was his influence always a positive one? Was there any way in which he encouraged things that you wouldn't have chosen to do?

NPM: Well, there are two answers to that. One answer is that he is very influential on Norwegian contemporary improvised music. Very much so. And he and I became friends. So when I started to do Khmer on my own, I asked him, "Do you want to release a solo album from me? It's not going to be two-days-in-the-studio-and one-day-mix kind of thing. It's going to be a produced record that I'm going to spend a lot of time on. And he said, "Yes, sure. So we were working and he said, "It needs more focus. And I said [laughing], "Oh, yeah, I agree very much! So I was focusing more on getting it more together. Then he came into the studio for one hour or something on Khmer, and just changed one of the songs—took away the trumpet and put it somewhere else. So he was in the process. But as a producer, in the way people think of producers, he wasn't really involved very much. And with Solid Ether, I just sent him a finished master.

But in a sense, he was more like a film producer. If you're the producer of a film, you don't have to have anything to do with what the film is like. You can think of it like that—if you want to be nice. But then, I started to think about all the work I put in there and I felt it was very strange that I should just give it away for what was not too decent a deal. So I created a company, really just a paper company. I wanted to have the rights to my own music and license it out, and ECM didn't do that. So I just had to leave them. That is [laughing] one version. That's the good version. But basically, that's what it is. And my problem with ECM was really my problem with the whole business—and ECM are business people. They are no worse and no better than anyone else, except that they have extremely strong intent and taste when it comes to their profile. Which I really admire.
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