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Paal Nilssen-Love: Transforming the Boundaries of Creative Music

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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Music means everything to me and has given me the reason to live. It feels pretty amazing to be playing again. —Paal Nilssen-Love
He learned to play the drums before he could walk, battled cancer before the age of thirty, and is a driving force behind several of today's most innovative and progressive bands (Atomic, The Thing, Ken Vandermark, Frode Gjerstad and the Peter Brotzmann Tentet) just to name a few. He has taken the drums to new creative levels, has been a part of thirty-three recording projects, and that's just in the last two years.

If there is a common set of traits amongst the bands mentioned above, it's the energy, intensity and commitment that each one of these ensembles brings to the table in every single recording session and performance. These are extraordinary individuals that attack the boundaries of music and the very traditions that they are from. But there is also a telling difference, and that difference is that these are artists that travel fearlessly into the unknown, while respectfully taking the tradition with them.

It's not a coincidence that behind the kit of every one of these innovative and driven ensembles is Norwegian drummer, Paal Nilssen-Love. Every instrument has a history of creative musicians that have developed the possibilities of their given instrument in a step by step progression. But every so often, a musician comes along that advances their instrument far beyond the logical steps of development and evolution. And though Nilssen-Love may not be as well known for reasons of genre or citizenship, make no mistake, CD sales, radio play and popularity have no bearing on creative brilliance.

The following interview with Paal took place in Chicago during the spring of 2006. It was the morning after an intense and blistering performance by Atomic/School Days at the Green Mill and they were about to do their 2nd night of three sets. These two nights remain a part of the greatest musical experiences that I have been a part of and you can find them on the new two CD set, "Distil" on the OKKA Disc label.

Lloyd Peterson: I understand that you started playing drums before the age of five.

Paal Nilssen-Love: Actually, I played drums before I could walk and was given my first snare drum when I was one year old.

LP: Was it difficult getting exposure to jazz while growing up in Norway?

PNL: My parents ran a jazz club from 1979 through 1986 and musicians such as David Murray, Steve Lacy, Arthur Blythe, Don Pullen, Misha Mengelberg, Art Blakey, Tony Oxley and John Stevens would play at the club. My Dad would have me sit at a certain place and encourage me to focus on the drums and I remember really enjoying Art Blakey who encouraged me to get up on stage and play the kit, but I was too shy at the time.

LP: But kids can get board quickly. What attracted you to this music?

PNL: (Laughs) I know. My friends were not too sure about the music but I enjoyed it a lot, especially since I played the drums. There was an energy and freedom I felt in the music and I could sense there was something going on, an interaction that didn't have words but had sounds.

LP: When people speak about Art Blakey, it's usually in the context of the musicians he mentored but rarely about his musicality and his sense of time.

PNL: Right and I don't know why that is. His way of supporting and coaching the soloists with extreme and sudden dynamics along with his way of using the hi-hat was very important in addition to how he overlapped from bar to bar. He could create melodies and would consistently vary the density while pushing and making the music swing. He also used Afro Cuban rhythms which could be pretty intense. It was the feel of his playing and the music that I was attracted to and this had a great impact on me when I was a kid.

LP: Art Blakey and Elvin Jones were not your typical timekeepers; they created their own time and could bring music its own life. Today's young drummers have plenty of chops but most are deficient in this area.

PNL: Listening back to Elvin or Art Blakey, there's an enormous amount of interaction going on between the soloist and the rest of the group. If you want to play music, you've have to realize that it's about communication and interaction between people, just like in a conversation. As in life, you have to compromise. And on stage, one should reach a level where technique is only a tool for you to communicate and should never get in the way for any reason.

LP: Your playing is also very dense but in a way that creates a palette and energy for the other members of the band to work with and there is always a particular tension. It's quite unusual.

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