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.

PNL: Some feel this way and some don't and it creates a discussion in whether it's a good quality or not. It's not always easy. I sometimes hear that I'm over blowing the person I'm playing with but that's not my intention at all. I try to see it as a quality and try to work against extreme density. But then again, you also need contrast to feel the quality of it. All levels of density are needed and if they are all there, the different levels will benefit from each other. I try to work with all levels of frequencies, rhythms, volumes and density and when it all interacts together; there is a sense of tension and release. The tension is released by the contrast of the different elements and you should then be able to experience the music with a completely different feel of time and pace.

LP: We spoke previously about the how the individual voice can influence the direction of the music. Can you expand on this?

PNL: You have to believe in yourself and be strong enough to project your own voice. Even if you don't get a response from your partner, you are changing the music because of the contrast that you might be producing. But if you don't believe in yourself, you end up following the other players and that doesn't exactly invite interaction. If you're on stage with someone else, investigate the possibilities of interacting with other musicians. Even laying off will affect the direction of the music.

LP: You grew up during a time when rock music had a substantial impact on American and European culture. I admire the fact that you haven't lost your roots in rock music and don't deny who you are.

PNL: There's no reason to deny or reject those influences just as I cannot reject the influences from Art Blakey. All your influences are always going to be there and will always be a part of you and you're playing, audible or not.

LP: It's unfortunate that many who listen to open improvisational forms don't listen to mainstream music just as it's disappointing that those within the mainstream don't find the challenge of trying to understand the freer forms of the music interesting.

PNL: I would say that many of the musicians who are playing free music are aware and listen to mainstream music. Not necessarily today's mainstream music but when the music was originally happening; before it became mainstream. If you want to listen to where Evan Parker came from, you have to go back to the late or even early recordings of John Coltrane. Or check out Sidney Bechet to find out where Peter Brötzmann came from.

It's interesting but a fact that free players are more into bebop and straight ahead jazz than most people think. But that doesn't mean the straight ahead players are into freer music. Free music isn't a phase you go through; it's a way of expressing yourself. It's a style as everything else and there are those that are trying to push the limits within free music, which isn't always that free...

LP: Don Cherry said that if we are not careful that style could lead to the death of creativity. It's a statement that seems quite appropriate today?

PNL: I couldn't agree more. Creative music is dead as soon as you box it as a style. You should let all styles of music and art create your style, and then let it become all styles. You have to believe in yourself and build on whatever provokes your feelings and then create your own art from your own risks. If what you do ends up as a style, go even further and give people more to chew on. It's like the art historian who complained about Paris not having its own style because there was such a mixture of styles, which was right. It was all styles.

LP: One of the areas within jazz or creative music that has changed significantly is the approach of the drummer and bassist. Traditionally, the bassist and drummer worked as the timekeepers or as the rhythm section and kept everything in the pocket. But today, the drummer and bassist help lead the direction of the music. Bassist Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten and yourself are prime examples of this.

PNL: There is a long tradition of the bassist and drummer having the role as the rhythm section and supporting the soloist. But fortunately today, these two instruments are now considered equal with the other instruments. And within improvised music, all instruments are on the same level and can influence the musical direction.

Ingebrigt and I have been working together for so many years now and it still feels as though we have so much territory to explore. I don't know how many shows we've done together but we still manage to push and surprise each other into new directions. And if that wasn't happening, it would be time for us to find other people to play with. That's one important rule! But it's also an incredible feeling to be so connected to another player and with the vaguest hint, be able to cut the music in a completely different direction. At the same time, I also think we both benefit from playing with other players.

LP: There was a time when European jazz musicians usually played traditional standards and it didn't always translate too well. Then a change occurred and the more progressive European composers began writing compositions that were influenced by European music history and culture.

PNL: Right, right and I think it has to do with being honest and whether you believe in yourself and your own culture. The European scene was influenced by the American scene but then in went on its own. There are great players from England that had their own music that was related to American jazz, but the London scene really exploded when people like Louis Moholo-Moholo and Mongezi Feza moved in from South Africa. And Paul Lytton and Tony Oxley were originally mainstream jazz drummers but they wanted to play their own music. I have a lot of respect for those guys because they chose to do that and could hardly get any gigs.

LP: There is also a well known history of American jazz musicians such as Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster moving to Europe where their music seemed to be more accepted and appreciated. Why was this the case?

PNL: Europe has a history of looking up to American society and culture which also includes jazz. The musicians looked up to the American players as icons and cherished musicians like Dexter, Webster and Stan Getz and that was because that is where jazz came from. But now, people are aware that music is from all over and not only America or Africa. This is fortunate because in the long run, iconozing will only make things go backwards or even stand still.

LP: Is music more visual for you or more about feel?

PNL: More about feel but I sometimes think of music like a sculpture; building and shaping a form that can be changed at any moment. But it can also be very visual and bring up different shapes and images and bring things out of you that you did not know were even there. It's also a very physical phenomenon and must be fascinating for a blind person to listen to. How would a blind person hear a landscape? Would they also see it?

LP: Why is music so important to you?

PNL: Music is pretty strong, can bring people together and when you see the reaction that music can create in people, you have to respect the power of it. That's why it's so damn important that the presenters don't underestimate the audience. They need to believe in the music and understand the importance of presenting it. If people were exposed to more creative art that communicates to them, life situations would be better. Music is just a mirror image of who you are as a person and every time I am in contact with the instrument, what I play reflects the present.

LP: You recently had to deal with cancer. Has it had an impact on your view or appreciation of music and life?

PNL: For sure. When you get your life back, you appreciate life and the people close to you more than ever and begin to realize that whatever you do, it might be the last thing you do. You begin to feel that you're on borrowed time. Music means everything to me and has given me the reason to live. It feels pretty amazing to be playing again.



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