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Nils Petter Molvaer: Switch

John Kelman By

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Sometimes when forced into change, the best thing to do is toss what came before and shoot for something completely different. With Stian Westerhus leaving trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær's trio after three years of extensive touring and the sole, spectacular document Baboon Moon (Sula, 2011), Molvær's career—defined, since emerging in the mid-'80s with the acclaimed group Masqualero, by a restless drive for evolution and surprisingly regular revolution—was at a crossroad. If there's anything predictable about this spearhead to a new generation of Norwegian musicians with the groundbreaking Khmer (ECM, 1997), however, it's his complete and utter unpredictability. Who'd have imagined, after the largely hardcore Baboon Moon, that Molvær would, after a brief sidestep into electronica with Moritz von Oswald on 1/1 (EmArcy, 2013), return with Switch, whose many focal points include one totally new to his discography: the soothing sound of pedal steel guitar?

Switch isn't all relaxation and pretty melodies, though; with Erland Dahlen returning from Baboon Moon to assume an even greater multi-instrumentalist role—heard playing steel and log drums, blossom bells, xylophone, and electric and baritone guitars as often as his characteristically thundering drums—there's no lack of propulsive forward motion or, as the appropriately titled "The Kit" demonstrates, unrelenting power, his near-tribal sensibility driving Geir Sundstøl's sinuous and, at times, reverse-attack pedal steel, In The Country keyboardist Morten Qvenild's sonic landscapes and Molvær's unmistakable lyricism.

Still, with some subtle references to Khmer's more organic side, Switch's real strength lies in Molvær's shift to a softer approach and greater attention to the natural trumpet tone that's always been at the core of his work, but has often been metamorphosed by his tasteful use of electronics. The four "Intrusion" tracks peppered throughout the recording may largely feature Molvær and the much in- demand Sundstøl—not just in his native Norway, but abroad, too, having contributed to albums and performances ranging from Hanne Hukkelberg to Jimmie Dale Gilmore—but they're also contexts for some of the trumpeter's most drop-dead beautiful playing to date.

They may signal a gentler Molvær, but "Bathroom" still thunders mightily along, bolstered by Dahlen's massive tone and impeccable blend of precision and in- the-moment decision-making. Still, at its core is a melody so spare, so haunting, so anthemic that it could easily become a show-stopper in this group's upcoming European tour dates.

With Molvær finding a new home on the rapidly emergent Okeh label—in just over a year, building a prestigious roster ranging from Bill Frisell and John Medeski to Dhafer Youssef and Sonny Rollins, and reissuing seven titles from Molvær's back catalog including Baboon Moon, 2010's Hamada, 2008's Re-Vision, 2005's er and 2004's Streamer—the trumpeter seems primed to accomplish that to which he's been previously unable: break significantly into the American market.

The inimitably appealing Switch may present a mellower side to this intrepid instrumentalist, but it still possesses all the touchstones—and teeth—that have made him a veritable star virtually everywhere but the USA. Now's the time for this seamless organic/electronic amalgamator to finally garner the American audience he's deserved in the nearly two decades that have passed since the release of Khmer.

Track Listing: Switch; The Kit; Intrusion I; Quiet Corners; Strange Pillows; Intrusion VII; Bathroom; Intrusion VI; Somewhere Shady; Intrusion III.

Personnel: Nils Petter Molvær: trumpet, electronics, voice; Geir Sundstøl: pedal steel guitar, six string bass, National resophonic guitar; Morten Qvenild: hyper piano, programming and electronics; Erland Dahlen: drums, metal plate, log drum, steel drum, drum machine, blossom, bells, xylophone, electric guitar, baritone guitar; Jon Marius Aareskjold: additional programming.

Title: Switch | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Okeh

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