Saturday, November 17, 2007

Nils Petter Molvaer: ER.

It has been called Scandi jazz, nu-jazz or simply not-jazz. How you wish to define it is your choice. Whatever description you settle on, one thing certain is, it is a music worth exploring. A music that challenges the boundaries between genres and has shown itself open to a younger generation’s experiments in Electronica and Dance.

Perhaps one of its most important figures is Nils Petter Molvaer. A trumpet player from Sula, Norway. Perhaps the hard core of the movement would accuse him of not pushing the boundaries further, but he has reached the wider audience. He came to prominence in 1997 with his much acclaimed album Khmer, followed in 2000 with Solid Ether, both released on ECM the famous German label. In 2002 he left ECM to record NP3, a continuation of themes. And in between were two albums of remixes by various DJs and luminaries of the Dance scene, plus a live album. In 2005 he released ER, his most accomplished work to date.

Scandinavia is not a part of the world one normally associates with fiery passion or expressiveness. Certainly not the burlesque and energy of early twentieth century black America; Jazz’s true roots. A generalization perhaps. Yet in the last 15 to 20 years many Scandinavian its musicians have contributed hugely to the field of contemporary jazz; Jan Gabarek, Esbjorn Svensson, Palle Danielsson, Terje Rypdal to name a few.

There has been criticism of course. Some have seen the emphasis on coolness of sound and experimentation with electronics as sterile. As not in the spirit of jazz. Yet despite a tendency not always to swing it is nevertheless a sound that belongs very much in contemporary music. Some of the great figures of jazz, Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman for example, have not been afraid to experiment. Mixing different genres of music, Middle-Eastern, Indian, north African; bringing in unconventional instruments, tablas, sitars, guitar synthesizers, wah-wah pedals, and of course utilizing the latest studio technologies. In fact Miles Davis is probably a good point of reference for the work of Nils Petter Molvaer. Particularly his recording Aura, a project instigated by the Dane Palle Mikkelborg; a project Davis himself held in high regard.

ER is maybe two albums in one. A first half of tracks drifting around melody, electro percussion and atmospheric sweeps. It’s culminates with ‘Only These Things Count’, a song, vocals courtesy of compatriot Sidsel Endressen; the remaining tracks are denser, exploring syncopation, rhythm and the texture of sound, electric and acoustic.

On each track Nils Petter Molvaer winds his trumpet, at times hinting at Miles Davis circa the mid-seventies or the treated sound of Jon Hassel. At other times he bends notes in an almost primitive or folkloric way. Breathing through the horn as though it were a voice. Making voice and instrument almost one. Reminding the listener perhaps of music’s link with speech and language. He does all this over an atmospheric yet never overbearing palette of sound. Climaxes of instruments suddenly give way to space and the lone horn. A minimalist melody, that is plaintive or haunting.

The track titles are simple and starkly suggestive. Hover, Softer, Water, Sober, Darker, Feeder and Dancer. Only the aforementioned ‘Only These Things Count’ deviates from this trend.

Stand out tracks have to be ‘Water’, a beautiful intro, standing bass, sparse horn and electro effects, woven through with Endressen’s wordless and stuttered voice. ‘Hover’ a subtly struck bass and rhythm syncopation, the horn drifting at times so far back into the mix, it stretches attention, as though drawing the listener into another room, only to return, breathy and warm. ‘Only These Things Count’, is a mixture of acoustic and treated sound framing a conventional song structure – the horn here mostly warm and intimate. And ‘Dancer’ a darkly rhythmic piece, with swirling guitar drones, sound loops, the trumpet here one minute, there the next, driving the music on, occasionally discordant and chaotic, but never less than compelling.

I was recently listening to this while driving out of London and up the M11 to Stanstead airport. A somewhat misty, November afternoon. Stretches of cloud and a deep autumn sun. It was the perfect soundtrack. Evoking the landscape, suggesting its history, its connections and yet so very urban and contemporary in its nature.

This is a special of music. It will bear repeated listening. It will draw you in from first listen Then reveal its thoughtfulness, its invention and depth with time. Worth your attention.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Nov 2007

Nils Petter Molvaer. ER. Buy here:

No comments: