Norwegian Jazz 101b: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2010

John Kelman By

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May 28, 2010: Stian Westerhus

Since returning home after spending a few years in England, Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus has acquired the moniker "The Hardest Working Guitar Player in Jazzbiz," and it's an apt one. Last year, at Molde, he could be seen challenging the outer reaches of free improvisation with Crimetime Orchestra, and only a couple hours later adding his jagged sonics to the more strictly arranged music of Jaga Jazzist. He can also be heard with Monolithic and Puma (whose latest disc, Half Nelson Courtship ((2010)) has just been released by Rune Grammofon)—and on his own solo guitar release, Pitch Black Star Spangled (Rune Grammofon, 2010)—but the gig that is, perhaps, pushing him up into a larger audience's radar is with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær. Westerhus replaced another marvelous guitar innovator, Eivind Aarset, in Molvær's group last year, and the tour schedule so far has been beyond hectic, but in a very good way.

While Westerhus is, like Aarset, a player for whom altered techniques and electronics are fundamental to a style that largely eschews guitar conventions, those expecting his work with Molvær to carry on Aarset's more ethereal soundscapes will be surprised...and shocked. Westerhus is, indeed, his own man, with an approach that stretches the boundaries of improvisation, and so his work with the trumpeter can be expected to travel to more aggressive landscapes and alien soundscapes where the guitar is more a controller of sound than a melodic or harmonic instrument. All this and more was in full evidence during his boundary busting solo performance at Studio USF.

Despite his busy touring schedule with Molvær, Westerhus' primary focus is increasingly on solo performance, and simply entering Studio USF before the show made clear that this was to be one like no other. Four amplifiers—two Ampegs, one Hiwatt and the Vox AC30 that's become so signature to the sound of Aarset and Terje Rypdal—and an array of pedals that literally went from one end of the stage to the other spoke to the key importance of technology in Westerhus' music. But his hour-long set of free improvisation was not a case of technology-meets-guitar; it was deeper than that. Instead, Westerhus' instrumental array was as much a part of his DNA as the instruments he used to control it—a conventional Gibson slim-line hollowbody and a Danelectro Longhorn electric baritone guitar.

Starting in darkness on the baritone, Westerhus began by slapping and scraping the strings. Loops, pitch shifters and more became a part of the picture as he slowly began to develop an aural landscape that had little to do with melody and more to do with colors dark and industrial. While Westerhus—as much a product of Slayer as he is Derek Bailey—possesses no shortage of virtuosic technique, an unshakable irreverence and utter disrespect for convention meant that there were few reference points for the increasingly dense, increasingly loud and increasingly stunning sounds emanating from the stage. Despite few of the usual touchstones that might be expected in a solo guitar performance, trace elements of pulse, melody and harmony came and went in constant ebb and flow, as Westerhus plucked, pulled, struck, bowed and scraped his strings.

Westerhus' lack of reverence became even clearer at one point where, ripping the cable out of his baritone guitar, he seemed ready to switch to his Gibson. Instead, rather than plugging it in, he spent minutes touching the tip of the cable to create jagged electronic noise, which he further processed through his pedal array—triggered (sometimes simultaneously) with both feet and, dropping to his knees, his hands as well. Some might suggest that Westerhus' music, in its apparent lack of conventional structure, is nothing more than aimless meandering and knob-twddling. But watching him in performance only further supported the actual truth: this is simply not the case. Westerhus' command of his pedals and devices is so intimate, so complete, that while it would be true to call his music spontaneous and of-the-moment, it would be a mistake to suggest that he is in anything but complete control, even as he performs with seemingly reckless abandon. The thrill of discovery may have been fresh for Westerhus, as he found new ways to combine the seemingly endless permutations and combinations of his gear, but there was never any doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Noise much of it may be, but, as Norwegian noise improve progenitor Supersilent continues to demonstrate, that needn't mean there's no room for beauty. In a set that cut a broad swatch of dynamics and sound, Westerhus' mesmerizing performance proved that for the open-minded—for those able to accept that standard musical conventions need not be adhered to in order to create meaningful music—it's possible to be simultaneously soothed and attacked by the utter and vast potential of sound.

May 28, 2010: Eivind Aarset Sonic Codex

The problem with a festival running simultaneous shows in three rooms means that either choices have to made, or it becomes necessary to leave one performance early in order to catch parts of another. With two guitarists as important as Stian Westerhus and Eivind Aarset playing at the same time, the only possible choice was to leave one early and show up at the other part-way through its set. Aarset, who was the subject of an extensive AAJ interview earlier in 2010 to coincide with the release of Live Extracts (Jazzland, 2010), was in Sardinen with a double-drummer version of his Sonic Codex group, and missing the first part of his performance was as difficult a decision as leaving Westerhus' set, as both were thoroughly compelling in their own distinct ways.

Eivind Aarset

Drummer Wetle Holte has been with Aarset dating back to the guitarist's second album, Light Extracts (Jazzland, 2002), while bassist Audun Erlien—heard with trumpeter Mathias Eick a couple nights back—joined up with Aarset at the time of Sonic Codex (Jazzland, 2007). Drummer Erlend Dahlen, also heard with Eick, has been touring with Aarset's larger groups—this quartet and the expanded, six-piece Sonic Codex Orchestra—for the past couple years. During Aarset's set, the two drummers came together for some powerful in-tandem kit work, but they also contributed strong individuality as well. As in his performance with Eick, Dahlen added bowed saw to the mix—as well as vocals—during the powerfully balladic "Still Changing." He also played steel drum and some additional tune percussion, as did Holte, who contributed some additional electronics to Aarset's expansive aural landscapes.

Seeing Aarset and Westerhus back-to-back only emphasized how innovative, yet completely different, the two guitarists were. Aarset's approach to sound was equally forward-thinking, but his playing—despite use of devices like an eBow to create flowing, sustaining melody lines and gently tapping the body of his guitar to create sounds rife for processing—was more overtly guitaristic, as he used unusual voicings and odd intervallic leaps in his melodies to create music that was unmistakable and unique, yet still closely aligned to conventional concepts of time, melody and harmony. He proved a deeply lyrical player as well, capable of stunning virtuosity, but largely focusing, instead, on soundscapes and building a collective ensemble sound that combined elements of jazz and progressive rock...even, during the angular "Electromagnetic," hints of King Crimson-like Nuevo metal.

From left: Eivind Aarset, Wetle Holte, Erland Dahlen (missing, Audun Erlien)

Like Aarset the person, Sonic Codex's music took its time to unfold, gradually revealing more as it built from near-ambient atmospherics to ear-shattering crunches—where what was coming from the stage was so dense that it was hard to imagine so much sound coming from just one guitarist. Erlien created a solid anchor when the music demanded it, but wasn't afraid to kick in a distortion pedal and deliver harshly overdriven lines and powerful in-the-gut sonics. Aarset—who still plays in duo and other special projects with Molvær as well as with trumpeter Arve Henriksen and live sampler Jan Bang—is known primarily as a sound sculptor in his extracurricular activities. In his own work, while it's a relatively rare occurrence, he does break out with some guitar pyrotechnics here and there, as he did during the slow burn of "Sign of Seven." With a mad scientist's array of foot pedals, and even more on a table in front of him along with a laptop computer, Aarset's command of sound and intimate knowledge of gear yields new sounds as spontaneously as the lines and chords he plays. Live Extracts is a terrific document of Aarset's two working bands, but even it can't capture the visceral energy and expansive sounds that this guitar anti-hero proves capable of in performance, time and time again.



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