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Thomas Stronen: Time Is A Blind Guide

John Kelman By

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Thomas Stronen: Thomas Stronen: Time Is A Blind Guide Over the past couple of decades, Thomas Strønen has become, perhaps, best-known for his unfettered improvisational forays in electro-centric contexts: sometimes freewheeling and frenetic, as in Humcrush, the drummer/percussionist/electronics wizard's hardcore duo with his similarly inclined Norwegian partner, keyboardist Ståle Storløkken (and occasional guest, singer Sidsel Endresen); other times more spaciously ambient in the atmospheric Anglo/Norwegian collaboration, Food—initially a quartet that has, since releasing Last Supper (Rune Grammofon, 2005), whittled down to a core duo with British saxophonist Iain Ballamy, along with various invited guests including trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and guitarists Christian Fennesz, Eivind Aarset and Prakash Sontakke, on ECM releases including 2010's Quiet Inlet , 2013's Mercurial Balm and 2015's This Is Not A Miracle.

But those fortunate enough to have been in Oslo on March 20, 2013, had the chance to witness a very different Thomas Strønen: a composer of music that may have incorporated no shortage of improvisation, but was also some of his most structured work in some time and some of his most lyrical music ever. It was on that date, at the Norwegian capital's Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria club, that Time is a Blind Guide had its first live presentation: a song cycle written for Connexions, the series curated by British journalist/radio presenter Fiona Talkington with a core premise of bringing together musicians from Norway and Britain. Previous Connexions shows included Jaga Jazzist's exceptional collaboration with Britten Sinfonia at Oslo's larger Rockefeller venue, as Ultima Festival's closing concert in September, 2012.

But whereas Jaga Jazzist's collaboration was largely about rearranging existing music for an even larger instrumental context than its usual eight-or-nine-piece group, Time Is A Blind Guide represented a brand new set of music, written by Strønen specifically for this brand new constellation of musicians. An octet featuring two rising British stars in pianist Kit Downes and cellist Lucy Railton, it was also founded on the contributions of, including Strønen, five Norwegians, including three percussionists and one of the group's most important anchors and melodic foils, double bassist Ole Morten Vågan. One of the hardest working bassists in Norway— seemingly everywhere at almost every festival attended between 2008 and 2015—Vågan has been, amongst many, many projects, a member of Motif, The Deciders and, alongside Strønen, a member of Swedish pianist Maria Kannegaard's trio, while the more internationally known violinist, Hardanger fiddler and viola d'amore players, Nils Okland, brought his unique ability to meld antiquity with modernity. At the time, Strønen described the project as "probably a dream come true...but a dream I didn't know I had."

The group has changed slightly for this overdue release of Time Is a Blind Guide, with the three percussionists trimmed back to two because, as Strønen recently explained, "I felt that two percussionists left a little more space, which I felt the music needed. Often, when we play live now, we play with only one." Additionally, some of the original compositions were trimmed—or eliminated entirely—and more new music has been written; in fact, since the 2013 performance, Strønen has written so much new material that he could have easily released a double-disc set; but as has always been clear to anyone with the pleasure of speaking with him, Strønen is an intensely thoughtful artist more concerned with a finished set of music that tells a clear story than simply shoe-horning as much music as possible onto a release.

And so, while the original performance of Time Is A Blind Guide ran, with the inclusion of spoken introductions, considerably longer than the 60 minutes of music that was ultimately broadcast by NRK (Norway's public radio and TV network), the album release has been pared back further still, to a 53-minute suite that feels like there's not a single superfluous note. As outstanding as the live performance was, on record Time Is A Blind Guide demonstrates the benefit that time, distance and consideration can provide when coming to record music as a permanent document.

One noticeable change to the lineup, beyond trimming the percussion section, is the replacement of Nils Okland with violinist Håkon Aase, described by Strønen as "a young, extremely promising musician who plays (and reads) very well, and who I wanted to give this chance when Nils decided to leave the band and put more energy into his own group." The blending of Aase with Railton is positively empathic, with each player demonstrating an ability to shine individually; both, in particular, demonstrate remarkable skill with a bow, sometimes playing so lightly as to feel like a whisper.

Strønen recently described the project as being "important for me to make a strong form as well as putting in surprises. By listening from the beginning, I think the first four tracks all come as surprises compared to what you might expect." Certainly, the opening "The Stone Carriers" possesses more than its share of the unexpected: an atmospheric pedal- tone introduction, with bowed cello, pizzicato bass and delicately articulated violin, all bolstered by percussive color, lead to the suite's first major melodic statement. A six-note ascending phrase—driven by Strønen's light brush work, Vågan's muscular anchor and Downes' fourths-driven voicings—creates the context for a lengthy melodic passage played by Aase, Railton and Downes, leading into a lengthy piano solo that clarifies, in just a few short minutes, how he has evolved into one of the most important young British pianists of his generation. Downes builds his solo with motivic care and harmonic sophistication, bolstered by Strønen's increasingly powerful stick work, leading to the first of Time Is A Blind Guide's numerous climactic peaks.

Downes' clear allegiance to the jazz tradition, combined with Strønen's desire to demonstrate his own predilection for music that, if not swinging in a conventional sense, absolute swings in a more visceral and openly defined one, blend with the unshakable Vågan—who, perhaps more than any other Norwegian double bassist, possesses the muscular potency and rhythmic drive of Charles Mingus—to create a core trio that brings an unrelenting sound of surprise to Time Is A Blind Guide...even to those fans who've followed Strønen's career closely over the past two decades.

A brief percussion feature, "Tide," leads into "Everything Disappears," the first of two variations. "Everything Disappears I" is a piano/drums duo that will sound more familiar to Strønen fans, despite it being in a more acoustic context than much of his work has been in recent years. His ability to create fluttering flurries of percussion seems informed, perhaps, by the work of British drummer Tony Oxley, but Strønen's approach has ultimately evolved into something more personal...more dynamic, He moves around his kit with an effortless combination of hands, alongside small and conventional sticks to create a textural expanse ranging from deeply resonant bass drum shots to delicate cymbal strokes, as a spare form gradually unfolds in Downes' playing. The two players function as a single voice that's all the more remarkable considering how relatively rarely they've played together since Time Is A Blind Guide's premier.

After two appealing but slightly more avant pieces, "I Don't Wait For Anyone" is an epically constructed piece that manages to compress a great deal into its six-and-a-half-minute duration. Opening with a series of fifths-driven bass lines, it's a perfect confluence where a melody, tripled by violin, cello and piano, creates a sense of time where there often is none, before the piece finally blossoms into a more decidedly tempo-driven section with the kind of lyrical appeal possessed by some of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays' best collaborations...but never with this kind of open-ended freedom somehow blended into its formal arrangement. Its simple, singable and utterly memorable theme returns after Downes takes another set-defining solo; taken as a single composition, it's clear evidence of Strønen's ability to blend complex ideas brimming with detail and seemingly simpler, more accessible concepts.

What's perhaps most appealing about Time Is A Blind Guide—its title taken from the first sentence of Canadian author Anne Michaels' book, Fugitive Pieces (McClelland & Stewart, 1996)—is the broad terrain it traverses. Beyond percussive sections that bring together a variety of cultural touchstones, the music also covers a surprising amount of territory. Beyond being the closest thing to a "real" jazz album (whatever that is) that Strønen has made, there are unmistakable hints of Norwegian traditionalism blended with Oriental folklore ("Lost Souls"), as well as allusions of music even more timeless. The closing "Simples," with its open time, haunting strings, blend of melodic and atonal pianism and Strønen's piercing bells, makes for music that is somehow of its time yet, at the same time, completely and utterly timeless.

Sonically, the album is exceptional, with the 24-bit/96Khz high resolution version even more impressive—and revealing—than the CD release. The mix contains, alongside the music, its own surprises and its own story...one well worth telling. According to Strønen: "The recording was done in the beginning of June [2015] and mixed just a week later, due for release in mid-September. I took the finished mix on holiday at the end of July and listened repeatedly, while reading Soul Mining, by [producer] Daniel Lanois. The biography tells his story, as well as his recording techniques and how he has worked with various artists. He has remarkable focus and has put so much energy into following his ideals in order to serve the music properly.

"Maybe no masterpiece as a book, but it pushed me to dig deeper and to not be relaxed about the small issues I had with the mix," Strønen continues. "Slowly, I realized that I wasn't 100% confident with the final mix and I had ideas how to make it better. I spoke to Sun Chung from ECM—who was the recording's producer and who also mixed it with me—and he agreed: almost is never good enough. I spoke to [label head/producer] Manfred [Eicher] and he gave me the green light to make a new mix on my own, together with [engineer] Jan Erik Kongshaug, at Rainbow studios [in Oslo].

"Only ten hours after I got back home from my holiday, I was back in studio. The most crucial change we made was altering the overall stereo panning to the drummer's perspective, so hi-hat in the left ear, ride in the right. Of the 4,000 records Jan Erik has mixed, this was the first time he ever did this. After going through all the recorded material over again, I ended up satisfied...and very much relieved. This was in the beginning of August. When the group landed in Tokyo to play its first release concert in mid-September, the CDs were waiting for us at the venue."

It's always dangerous to talk about any album as representative of "The ECM Sound," given how, so often, any attempts to quantify just what that means are quickly laid to waste by examples drawn from the label's 47-year discography. Still, there is something perhaps indefinable about Time Is A Blind Guide that makes it an album whose home simply had to be with ECM Records. Strønen's story about remixing the album may be one of the best reasons why: few labels, with such a tight production deadline, would allow for a last-minute complete remix because "almost is never good enough."

The end result of a remarkable commission first realized in 2013; a recording where Strønen's consideration about how to best articulate exactly what the music meant; and the refusal to accept anything less than precisely what the percussionist felt was needed to ensure it was best represented, including a rare mixing approach that renders a distinctive suite of music all the more so: all of these factors combine with a septet of exceptional musicians to bring Time Is A Blind Guide to life with so many surprises that it continues to yield new revelations, even after more than a dozen spins.

Time Is A Blind Guide is, quite simply, a stunning record that stands out in Strønen's already impressive discography as one of his most expansive, cinematic and flat-out lyrical albums to date. An album so compelling that it truly deserves the term masterpiece, in a time when the word "classic" is bantered about far too often, it also creates hope that there will be more Time Is A Blind Guide compositions to come from Strønen's pen...and from this nimble group, clearly responsive and connected to his music at the deepest, mitochondrial level.

Track Listing: The Stone Carriers; Tide; Everything Disappears I; Pipa; I Don't Wait For Anyone; The Drowned City; Lost Souls; Everything Disappears II (Ode to JT); Time Is A Blind Guide; As We Wait For Time; Simples.

Personnel: Thomas Strønen: drums, percussion; Kit Downes: piano; Håkon Aase: violin; Lucy Railton: cello; Ole Morten Vågan: double bass; Sic Øyunn Kjenstad: percussion (1, 7, 9, 10); Steinar Mossige: percussion (1, 2, 7, 9, 10).

Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: ECM Records


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