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Terje Rypdal: Odyssey: In Studio and In Concert


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: Terje Rypdal: Odyssey: In Studio and In Concert
To achieve confluence, an artist must first demonstrate multiplicity. With the benefit of hindsight, the meeting of disparate concepts might appear inevitable when reassessing a decades-long career, but few artists actually possess not only the building blocks but the intuition and acumen to achieve what is, in Sanskrit, called Sangam. That ECM has two recordings using that very name—Trygve Seim's sublime 2004 meshing of rigorous form and controlled freedom, and Charles Lloyd's similarly successful 2006 marriage of cross-cultural concerns—is but one recent indicator of a label long predicated on the conjugation of seemingly incompatible forms into something altogether new. Producer Manfred Eicher was, however, already thinking along those lines when he formed the label in 1969 with one of its initial premises: bringing the pristine clarity of classical recording into the world of jazz and improvised music.

Sangam could, in fact, be a suitable subtitle for this box set, which collects Terje Rypdal's two-LP Odyssey album—heard on CD, for the first time, in its entirety—and Unfinished Highballs, a recently unearthed 1976 radio recording that documents the Norwegian guitarist's commissioned work for his Odyssey quartet and the Radiojazzgruppen / Swedish Radio Jazz Group. The complete Odyssey may address a longstanding demand, but Unfinished Highballs will surprise even Rypdal's most committed fans. It reveals that not only were many of the markers which would come to define his career already in place, but the intrepid guitarist was already searching for ways to include, rather than exclude, in his approach to composition and performance. Rypdal was one of Eicher's first major finds, brought to international attention alongside other influential Norwegians including saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen.

As early as his eponymous 1971 ECM debut, Rypdal was already demonstrating a desire to find new means of expression based on the seamless merging of touchstones that included jazz, rock and classical music. That album's hypnotic opener, "Keep It Like That—Tight" was named after a whispered utterance by Miles Davis during the recording of his seminal 1970 classic, Bitches Brew, and if it reflected an allegiance to the American trumpeter's own cross-pollinating predilections, it also demonstrated even greater attention to space and nuance, while "Rainbow" reflected Rypdal's affection for the music of composer György Ligeti, albeit with the unpredictable wildcard of an improvisational context.

What Comes After (1974) further expanded upon these foundations, with the searing, Jimi Hendrix-informed but more linguistically sophisticated Rypdal rapidly evolving, and inescapable hints of Norwegian folk music beginning to enter the mix. Leaning more to the classical side of the guitarist's complex equation, the title track to the subsequent Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away (1974) is a haunting 17-minute tone poem with members of the Südfunk Symphony Orchestra that pushed the envelope by positing distorted electric guitar as an acceptable solo instrument alongside the more conventional violin, viola, clarinet and oboe. Rypdal would later expand the premise and purview to include a full symphony orchestra in his 1992 "Double Concerto (Op. 58)" for two guitarists—Rypdal, and Ronni Le Tekro, of the rock band TNT.

In some ways, the lineup for Odyssey happened for all the wrong reasons, coming together in 1975. "Before the Odyssey band it was more or less short-lived trios, put together for tours," says Rypdal. "I'd been playing with Jon Christensen, but by this time he was playing with Keith Jarrett, otherwise he'd have been in the group. I originally tried to get Peter Knudsen, who'd played mellotron and electric piano on Whenever I Seemed to Be Far Away, but he had other plans."

Still, sometimes adversity can result in unexpected serendipity and, indeed, confluence, as organist Brynjulf Blix and, in particular, drummer Svein Christiansen clearly helped define Odyssey's altered complexion and unique place in Rypdal's growing discography, sandwiched as it was between recordings with Christensen (Whenever I See to Be Far Away and 1978's Waves). Bassist Sveinung Hovensjø, whose history with Rypdal dated back to the 1973 What Comes After sessions and who would continue working with the guitarist after the Odyssey group disbanded in 1977, provided an important element of continuity, while Rypdal's unorthodox choice of trombonist Torbjørn Sunde configured the group with an uncommon foil for the equally unconventional guitarist.

Recorded in the summer of 1975, Odyssey marks the beginning of Rypdal's focus on layered composition, performed by a group of musicians for whom improvisation was fundamental, but who came from backgrounds versed in anything but the standard jazz tradition. It was also Rypdal's first proper band as a leader. "Odyssey was my first major band, and the music was different too because, more and more, I was writing music in two layers—one thing going on with the bass and drums, and rubato playing layered over top. It was the first time I'd tried to connect with a band, more about writing together with improvisation. It was a challenge; I was trying, more and more, to bring together the composer and the player."

The brief opener, "Darkness Falls," introduces the rubato approach that would define much of Odyssey, the guitarist's juxtaposition of sharper attack and volume pedal-driven swells blending with the whammy bar-driven vibrato that was already a Rypdal signature. Sunde, who appears on the recording but ultimately did not tour with the band, solos with similarly unfettered lyricism, as Blix, Hovensjø and Christiansen elicit waves of sound that ebb and flow in support.

But it's on the 17-minute "Midnite" where Rypdal's layering is first truly felt. Hovensjø anchors the composition's 9/4 pattern, its relentless repetition mirroring the similarly hypnotic approach of Miles Davis bassist Michael Henderson. But rather than further adopting an American approach and supporting it with a thundering and more obvious pulse, Christiansen resorts to the kind of delicate temporal elasticity already innovated by past and future Rypdal collaborator Jon Christensen, coupled with a more orchestral approach coming, no doubt, from his concurrent work with the Oslo Symphony Orchestra.

It's one of many significant differences that have always, despite reductionist pigeonholing across the decades, distanced Rypdal's music from fusion. Instrumentation doesn't define style, nor does size restrict context. He may have been leading a relatively small quintet with organ, electric bass, electric guitar and drums, but Rypdal was already thinking in broader orchestral terms, with an improvisational approach informed as much by John Coltrane's Meditations as it was the feedback-driven, blues-drenched psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix, even suggesting that "if Coltrane went onstage with Hendrix, they'd have been perfect. Albert Ayler, too; it would have been the same music."

Studying piano from the age of six and becoming sufficiently accomplished to tackle some of Schubert's more difficult pieces by the time he was twelve, Rypdal also played saxophone, flute and, for five years in school, trumpet. "That was very helpful as a composer," says Rypdal. "I've been interested in so many things for so long; that's who I am."

It's not uncommon for guitarists to look to reeds for inspiration, but it is rare for one to cite flute as a significant reference point, as Rypdal later searched for "a different way to play melodies. Longer notes, more sustain and doing without attack." This model didn't come until later, however; when Rypdal first picked up the guitar at thirteen, he was motivated by the sounds of rock and roll.

Still in his teens, early career success with Norway's The Vanguards—modeled after guitarist Hank Marvin and The Shadows—led to The Dream, where the self-taught guitarist began exploring more improvised (albeit psychedelic) terrain, as a number of now-familiar connections began to coalesce, with Christensen and Garbarek passing through that group's door. Director Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, also became the now-21 year-old Rypdal's entry point into the music of Ligeti at the same time that he decided to make music his vocation, leading to studying composition at Oslo's Music Conservatory with composer at Finn Mortensen.

By 1969/70, everything was happening for Rypdal. He was married, and had joined Garbarek's new quartet with Andersen and Christensen, who also played on "Eternal Circulation," the guitarist's first and very successful opus ("in many ways I was trying to combine everything from day one"). Garbarek's quartet was collaborating with George Russell (American composer and creator of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation), leading to a series of recordings including 1969's Electric Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature and, more importantly, Esoteric Circle, Garbarek's second album as a leader following the 1967 trio date Til Vigdis, which caught the ear of nascent label head Eicher and was the catalyst for Afric Pepperbird, the saxophonist's ECM debut. Working with Russell was instructive for the guitarist, but he remains adamant about placing it in proper perspective. "It was a big challenge to play those parts," Rypdal says. "When we first started working with him we were playing his older tunes and my parts were originally written for valve trombone or something like that. I went through his Lydian Chromatic Concept, of course, but it was more like a toolkit that I needed, and I didn't finish it. I don't think it changed me; I don't really have a bebop background, and that would probably have helped with some things. I think Meditations was more influential."

From Afric Pepperbird and its 1971 follow-up, SART (which also introduced Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson to the label), Rypdal quickly found his own opportunity to record as a leader for ECM and, four decades later, remains steadfastly with a label that has provided the opportunity for everything from his 1980s power trio The Chasers, to classical recordings including 1993's Q.E.D. and recent genre-busting records like 2010's Crime Scene, with the Bergen Big Band. "Manfred and I share some of the same background, and we've always worked well together," Rypdal says. "He always wanted us to find something that nobody else had done. We had an angle; even if it was clear that it was influenced by different things, it sounded fresh and not too influenced by other things. And in my case there were so many influences it became hard to know what came from what. "

As successful as Rypdal's early ECM recordings were, Odyssey's dual-layer approach and the guitarist's steadfast refusal to bow to the demands of convention made it an early classic, and a CD that includes the 24-minute "Rolling Stone"—omitted from previous releases to trim it to a single disc—has become something of a holy grail amongst Rypdal fans. "In Germany, 'Rolling Stone' was like a small hit," Rypdal recalls. "If we didn't play it, we'd get booed. I've been asked about it for many years, and it seems to be important to a lot of people, especially in Germany and Italy."

While it's true that "Rolling Stone" is closer to fusion than anything else on Odyssey—its persistent 4/4 rhythm, this time driven by a more rock-centric (yet still eminently flexible) pulse from Christiansen—it remains centered on Rypdal's layered approach, as Sunde's theme floats atmospherically over the grounded rhythms. Rypdal solos at great length and with utter disregard for bar lines, but most notable is his avoidance of self-indulgent excess. There's never any doubt that Rypdal has the chops, but thinking more in classical terms, with sinewy lines revealing greater purpose over longer stretches and linked by scored passages, they're always a means rather than an end. "I never thought of my music as fusion," Rypdal says, "it started long before and came from a different place. The bass line to 'Rolling Stone' may be rock-oriented, but apart from that it's the same thing as the rest of the record, with a lot of rubato themes on top of it."

What other electric guitar record of the mid-1970s would include a track like the "Adagio," a 13-minute symphonic piece featuring just Rypdal's soaring guitar, Blix's swirling, effects-laden organ and, briefly, Sunde's near-vocal trombone? More closely aligned with Ligeti's polytonality and micropolyphony than the altered harmonies of jazz, it might be easier to see this piece for what it is, were it performed in a conventional orchestral context. But it's Rypdal's very choices—the inherent qualities of his electric guitar, which at times, come as close as he ever has to achieving the flute-like qualities to which he aspired, and the more expansive sonic landscapes of Blix's processed electric organ—that make it such a successful combination of unparalleled beauty and dramatic imagery.

Rypdal's metrically regular arpeggios drive "Better Off Without You" but remain rubato in the guitarist's fully interpretive decisions as to when to introduce harmonic movement (pushed and pulled by Blix and Christiansen), with Hovensjø's fuzz-toned bass assuming the lead role, as he does on the more eminently propulsive "Over Birkerot." Rypdal expands the landscape of "Fare Well," as he does throughout Odyssey, with the careful overdubbing of ARP String Ensemble and soprano saxophone, but it's Blix's brooding organ work that evokes the tonal clusters of Krzysztof Penderecki—a Ligeti contemporary and another Rypdal touchstone—while the appropriately titled "Ballade" is near-anthemic, and the closest Odyssey comes to actual song form.

The Odyssey band toured Europe—even crossing the Atlantic for a successful series of US dates—but, even so, Rypdal's career has by and large been assessed and defined by his recordings for ECM. Unfinished Highballs opens an entirely new window into Rypdal's world, a 68-minute, seven-moment suite that dissolves existing preconceptions and makes clear that the guitarist's purview was—and is—far broader than even his most ardent fans can imagine. If Odyssey reflects Rypdal's growing interest in layers, and a desire to interpret grand-scale ideas with a small ensemble, Unfinished Highballs' collaboration with the Swedish Radio Jazz Group draws a clear line between those goals and lessons learned during the guitarist's time with George Russell. It also confirms—as if any such affirmation was necessary—that he may not consider himself a jazz guitarist, but it's a greater part of his DNA than he might care to admit.

"It was very easy to write symphonic music and get it played; with all these commissions you could really start to grow as a composer," says Rypdal. "It was very easy for me to develop my voice and specialty. There even might have been a cooperation between Norwegian radio and Swedish radio for Unfinished Highballs; they did things like that. It was an opportunity that came and I took it. I didn't really know how to write for big bands, so I just wrote for a band with more instruments, not a 'big band,' in a way. I treated it more like an orchestra."

His orchestral approach is immediately clear from the first notes of the title track to Unfinished Highballs, a dramatic opener that makes full use of the 15-piece Swedish Radio Jazz Group's 11 horns, reeds and woodwinds. But as brash as its opening moments are, an atmospheric juxtaposition, where Rypdal's electric guitar sears over Bengt Hallberg's celeste, works to create a dynamic sense of tension and release.

Hallberg—a fine pianist known internationally for his work with Norwegian singer Karin Krog but here, in addition to celeste, playing harpsichord and that unwieldy instrument normally associated with progressive rock, the mellotron—is not the only familiar name in the Swedish Radio Jazz Group. Saxophonist Lennart Åberg appears on Don Cherry's 1994 ECM recording, Dona Nostra; bassist Georg Riedel is known for his work with influential Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, and nearly half the group had already intersected with Rypdal before on The Essence of George Russell (1971). As much as there are individual solo spots from members of the Jazz Group, Unfinished Highballs is most notable for pivotal revelations about the members of Rypdal's Odyssey band.

The entire suite is a revelation for Blix, whose work on Odyssey was largely textural, and in support of Rypdal and Sunde. Beyond an expanded instrumental palette that includes electric piano and Moog synthesizer, like Rypdal he proves far more aligned with the jazz vernacular here, taking an extended piano solo on "The Golden Eye" and the more incendiary "Talking Back," while engaging in linear synth exchanges with Rypdal on the occasionally swinging "Scarlet Mistress." Rypdal may claim to have not known how to write for big band when he took on this commission; clearly he was a quick study.

Rypdal's playing is just as revelational. There's plenty of the ice-edged electric work that's a cornerstone of the Odyssey band, but at the end of "Scarlet Mistress" the guitarist takes a brief and uncharacteristic chordal solo that references Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept as it segues into "Dawn," an arpeggio-driven cousin to Odyssey's "Better Off Without You." A return to the guitarist's rubato layering, this time with the broader textural palette of the Jazz Group at his disposal, it opens into a visceral, groove-driven solo section, again for Blix's synth, with the bottom-end push of two drummers—Christiansen and the Jazz Group's Egil Johansen—and an overdriven and ultimately pyrotechnic feature for Rypdal.

The guitarist is also a surprise on "Dine and Dance to the Music of the Waves," the only music on Unfinished Highballs that's been heard before, at least in part, as the theme to the title track of 1978's Waves. Switching to acoustic guitar for the first time since Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away, Rypdal proves that it's not necessary to be grounded in standards to play changes...or to swing, supported by bassist Georg Riedel and drummer Egil Johansen. If the movement smacks more of jazz in a traditional sense—with some of Rypdal's writing for an unusual orchestral setting resembling Gil Evans' more luxurious constructs—his other building blocks are, indeed, never far away.

Rypdal looks back fondly on a time when it was possible to actually have a band in which its members focused most of their energy. Tours were longer, and there were more opportunities for musicians to grow individually and evolve as a band. "I was just struggling to find music that I liked, find musicians and evolve as a composer," Rypdal says. "Odyssey was together for about two years. We did two or three tours each year, each one from two weeks to a month. It gave the band the opportunity to evolve in ways bands cannot now—enough gigs to get to that point where we could discuss things after the gig and try something else the next night."

The release of Odyssey in its entirety, along with the significant revelations of Unfinished Highballs, comes when Rypdal is in a period of renewed creativity and activity, making it especially relevant as a more complete document of how confluence, at an early stage in his career, ultimately led to the further multidisciplinary junctions that keep his music as fresh and relevant as approaches 65. "I'm very happy this is coming out," Rypdal says, "because I've been asked, before Crime Scene was released, if I'd written anything for big band. I think this is a very important part of my career: I'm very glad "Rolling Stone" is finally coming out; and Unfinished Highballs will be a surprise to a lot of people. That's what I really like about this box—that it can accomplish both at the same time."

© ECM Records GmbH 2012. Used by permission of ECM Records, Munich.

Odyssey: In Studio and In Concert can be purchased here.

John Kelman Contact John Kelman at All About Jazz.
With the realization that there will always be more music coming at him than he can keep up with, John wonders why anyone would think that jazz is dead or dying.

Track Listing

CD1 (Odyssey, Disc 1): Darkness Falls; Midnite; Adagio; Better Off Without You. CD2 (Odyssey, Disc 2): Over Birkerot; Fare Well; Ballade; Rolling Stone. CD3 (Unfinished Highballs): Unfinished Highballs; The Golden Eye; Scarlet Mistress; Dawn; Dine And Dance To The Music of The Waves; Talking Back; Bright Lights—Big City.


Terje Rypdal: guitar; Torbjørn Sund: trombone; Sveinung Hovensjø: bass, electric; Brynjulf Blix: keyboards; Svein Christiansen: drums; Claes Rosendahl: woodwinds; Erik Nilsson: woodwinds; Sven Larson: trombone, bass; Bengt Hallberg: piano; Stefan Broilund: bass, acoustic; Georg Riedel: bass, acoustic; Egil Johansen: drums; Ivar Olsen: french horn; Håken Nyquist: french horn; Lennart Åberg: woodwinds; Ulf Andersson: woodwinds; Torgny Nilson: trombone; Bertil Lövgren: trumpet; Americo Bellotto: trumpet; Ulf Adåker: trumpet.

Additional Instrumentation

Terje Rypdal: electric guitar, synthesizers, string ensemble (CD1, CD2), soprano saxophone, acoustic guitar (CD3); Torbjørn Sund: trombone (CD1, CD2); Brynjulf Blix: organ, synthesizer (CD3), electric piano (CD3); Sveinung Hovensjø: 4-string bass guitar, 6-string bass guitar; Svein Christiansen: drums; Claes Rosendahl: alto saxophone (CD3), clarinet (CD3); Erik Nilsson: bass clarinet (CD3), flute (CD3); Sven Larson: bass trombone (CD3), tuba (CD3); Bengt Hallberg: celesta (CD3), harpsichord (CD3), mellotron (CD3); Stefan Broilund: double bass (CD3); Georg Riedel: double bass (CD3); Egil Johansen: drums (CD3), percussion (CD3); Ivar Olsen: French Horn (CD3); Håken Nyquist: French Horn (CD3), trumpet (CD3); Lennart Åberg: soprano saxophone (CD3), flute (CD3); Ulf Andersson: tenor saxophone (CD3), flute (CD3), alto flute (CD3), piccolo flute (CD3); Torgny Nilson: trombone (CD3); Bertil Lövgren: trumpet (CD3), flugelhorn (CD3); Americo Bellotto: trumpet (CD3), flugelhorn (CD3); Ulf Adåker: trumpet (CD3), flugelhorn (CD3).

Album information

Title: Odyssey: In Studio and In Concert | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ECM Records

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