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Norwegian Jazz 101b: JazzNorway in a Nutshell 2010

John Kelman By

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May 26, 2010: Gunhild Seim and Time Jungle

Amidst a country of trumpeters like Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen—players stretching the boundaries of tone and texture, and moving more decidedly away from the American jazz tradition—Gunhild Seim might be considered a somewhat more conventional player, possessing a more orthodox tone and composing music more closely aligned with that tradition. Having studied with Dave Douglas at the noted Banff Centre in Canada, the Stavanger-based trumpeter has, however, forged a distinctive voice over the course of two albums with her Time Jungle group, marrying clear compositional elements with shades of Norwegian traditionalism and plenty of free exploration. While many Norwegian musicians are familiar with the jazz tradition but choose not to be a direct part of it, Seim's music possesses hints of chord-less groups like Old and New Dreams, John Zorn's original Masada Quartet (with Douglas), and a straight line that runs back to the early free jazz of Ornette Coleman.

But in her set—opening Nattjazz's festivities in the intimate Studio USF—Seim also demonstrated a greater compositional focus than any of her antecedents. Her writing sometimes provided only the barest of roadmaps, to create a context for collective free play by a superb quartet that also featured alto saxophonist Arild Hoem—new to the group, and replacing American saxophonist/clarinetist Andrew D'Angelo, who also produced Time Jungle (Drollehålå, 2007)—and original group members bassist John Lilja and drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen. But in a set culled from her second album with the group, Morpho (Drollehålå Music, 2009), Seim also enlisted Odd Børge Sagland, who contributed percussion and marimba during part of the set, most notably on the dark, through-composed "Tunnel Mountain Drive," where he and Narvesen expanded the already open-ended sonic potentials of their instruments by employing all kinds of small hand percussion instruments, bowed cymbals, hands and additional extended techniques.

The set began with a folk-tinged rubato piece that gradually gained rhythmic footing and emerged as "On My Doorstep," an irregular-metered but still relatively simple I-IV-V tune that, as Lilja gradually found his way to a defined pulse, bolstered an opening solo by Seim, demonstrative of her plangent tone and considered approach to building solos from the ground up. While her tone was, indeed, more conventionally trumpet-like than that of Henriksen or Molvær, she has forged a number of her own extended techniques, including a multiphonic prowess that, much like fellow Norwegian and saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, was unexpectedly consonant. In support of other soloists, she created spare but effective harmonic counterpoint with a plunger, again finding new and unusual ways to use it as she adopted, at times, a raspier tone.

As on Morpho, "Captain Cook" began with a duet between Seim and Sagland on marimba, engaging in some subdued but nevertheless deep interplay that, with Sagland's shimmering tremolos, was reminiscent of the title track to German bassist Eberhard Weber's Fluid Rustle (ECM, 1979), before the marimbaist's Afro-centric chordal pattern signaled the rest of Time Jungle to enter for a more dramatic melody, peppered by staccato trumpet/saxophone shots and an impressive solo from Hoem built on color as much as it was melody. Like Seim, he relied on extended techniques to support the others, oftentimes adopting a percussive timbre to actually provide defined time when Lilja and Narvesen were engaged in more textural activities.

Lilja was especially noteworthy—as lithe and flexible as the music demanded; at times she was a firm anchor, but elsewhere a contrapuntal arco partner with Seim. All told, Seim and Time Jungle capitalized on the strengths of Morpho, but took the music to another level with a careful sense of free play, in concert with the trumpeter's carefully constructed writing.

May 26, 2010: Matthias Eick Quintet

When trumpeter Mathias Eick performed at Mai Jazz in Stavanger, Norway, at the 2008 edition of JNiaN, the young trumpeter expanded significantly on his superb debut as a leader, The Door (ECM, 2008). The disc demonstrated many of the qualities with which international fans were becoming familiar—in particular Eick's economic, rich-toned and deeply melodic approach—on Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla's outstanding Northbound (ECM, 2006) and Norwegian guitarist Jacob Young's sublime Evening Falls (ECM, 2004). But neither session—nor his own album, for that matter—prepared fans for the visceral energy and sheer electricity of his touring group, where The Door's pianist, the redoubtable Jon Balke, was replaced with the younger Andreas Ulvo, one of Norway's more ubiquitous pianists who performs with his own Ensemble and Eple Trio—not to mention his work with saxophonist Froy Aagre, NORCD owner/saxophonist Karl Seglem and hardcore group Shining.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Norwegian festival scene is commission opportunities for many of its musicians. Guitarist Terje Rypdal continues to receive commissions from Norwegian festivals, including the 2003 Vossa Jazz opportunity that led to Vossabrygg (ECM, 2006) and a 2009 Nattjazz performance with the Bergen Big Band, which has just been released by ECM as Crime Scene (2010). Eick, along with guitarist Eivind Aarset and pianist Helge Lien, was one of Nattjazz's commission recipients. Amidst considerably altered material from The Door, the trumpeter performed new material in his May 27, 2010, performance at the club-like Sardinen venue in USF Verftet that, hopefully, will appear on his next album, which has already been recorded and is currently in ECM label head Manfred Eicher's hands for mixing.

What many international fans of Eick's work on ECM don't know is that he's been a busy session player. He had recorded well over 50 albums when last spoken to in 2008, so who knows what the number is by now? He's also a longtime member of Jaga Jazzist, a group that came back from a four-year hiatus last year at the 2009 Molde Jazz Festival. This year, the group released the powerful, rock-edged One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune, 2010). Eick's rockier proclivities were in full flight at his Nattjazz performance where, along with Ulvo and The Door bassist Audun Erlien, the trumpeter expanded his quartet with drummer Erland Dahlen (replacing original drummer Audun Kleive) to potent twin-drums quintet with Gard Nilssen also behind the kit. Opening with the kind of rubato tone poem that's become a Norwegian signature, the tumultuous effect of two drummers was felt immediately, with the performance attaining a rare degree of power, balanced with a singable melodicism that quickly resolved into a thundering pulse as clearly engaging to Eick as it was his audience.

Ulvo, augmenting grand piano with a gritty Fender Rhodes and synthesizer, drove the energy level even higher, taking every solo opportunity and turning it into a virtuosic narrative that never lost sight of the music. Clearly for Ulvo (and, for that matter, the rest of the group), the demands of the music came first, and as much as Eick's writing and arranging often evolved toward increasingly powerful, groove-driven spaces—a clear demonstration that even shifting bar lines can't stop the music from being danceable—it was never about "look at me" pyrotechnics, a quality that, paradoxically, only made him a more charismatic player. Capable of rapid cascades and seemingly endless ascensions, Ulvo also kept the core of Eick's oftentimes ambiguous harmonies grounded with repetitive, near-hypnotic patterns.

At 43, Erlien remains a sideman with no albums to his name. He's something of a rarity amongst the bassists who have recorded for ECM in that his instrument is solely of the electric variety. While he locked in with the two drummers consistently—at times possessing an equally thunderous tone—he was also a contrapuntal partner for Eick, muting his strings to create a deep but percussive tone that rose above the strong rhythmic foundation provided by Nilssen and Dahlen, the two drummers locking, at times, into forceful synchronicity. Dahlen, in addition to some marvelous in-synch drumming with Nilssen, also brought his own unique texture to the set when he became a melodic foil for Eick on a bowed saw.

As electric as Eick's group was, transforming the reflective "Williamsburg" into a thing of great power, the trumpeter's tone was all about embouchure—a combination of tart orthodoxy, the melancholy lyricism of Kenny Wheeler and the more expansive textural approach of Henriksen and Molvær. But Eick's tone is all his own and was all the more impressive when, partway through the set, he began to create a variety of loops to build a mini-horn orchestra. Another signature of the Norwegian scene is its organic integration of electronics into the mix of acoustic instrumentation—saxophonist Håkon Kornstad's Dwell Time (Jazzland, 2009) is a particularly impressive example—but what's even more remarkable is how so many musicians are adapting technology in profoundly personal ways. The sadly all-too-common accusation that technology strips an artist's voice is clearly made without hearing what is going on in this country of less than five million people, where innovation and a fearless refusal to accept boundaries of any kind drive almost unparalleled diversity and undeniably distinctive personality.

Eick's performance was just one more example of how a musician can drink deeply of the tradition—having spent many of his growing up years buried in the music of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, to name two; yet, while the spirit of that tradition can loom large, it needn't dilute instrumental personality. Eick continues to be a much sought-after player, but what's been most thrilling, watching his career as a leader take off since the release of The Door, is to see just how rapidly he's assimilated the various lessons learned from his active career as a sideman into a solo career that's on a rapidly upward trajectory.


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