Terje Rypdal: Odyssey – In Studio & In Concert (ECM 2136-38)

Terje Rypdal
Odyssey – In Studio & In Concert

Terje Rypdal electric guitar, synthesizer, soprano saxophone
Torbjørn Sunde trombone
Brynjulf Blix organ
Sveinung Hovensjø bass guitar
Svein Christiansen drums
Swedish Radio Jazz Group

Odyssey (ECM 1067/68)
Recorded August 1975 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

My first encounter with Odyssey came in the late nineties. Still young in my ECM explorations and having just barely crossed over into Jan Garbarek’s Visible World, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the journey that label stalwart Terje Rypdal (a name as yet unfamiliar) had just taken me on. The CD fell out of rotation quickly, I’m afraid to say, buried under the pile of New Series albums then dominating my attention. Years later, and well into my own listening odyssey, I returned to it, only to find that it had never left me.

Rypdal has, of course, been under the ECM umbrella since almost the very beginning. The release of his self-titled debut in 1971 sparked an intrepid flame that continues to burn through a wide spectrum of colors. As the informative liner notes from John Kelman tell us, the band that was to define Odyssey was the product of circumstance. Drawing on a pool of musicians from previous sessions, including bassist Sveinung Hovensjø from 1973’s What Comes After, he also welcomed unexpected talents into the fold, such as drummer Svein Christiansen and organist Brynjulf Blix, the latter of whom contributed heavily to the album’s well-aged luster. The resulting sound proved a defining one, as inescapable bass lines danced touch-and-go with the guitarist’s unbridled narratives. We hear this most in the solid underpinnings of “Midnite.” Hovensjø lays down the rules for all of its 17 minutes, leaving Rypdal to stretch them to the pathos of his progressive solitude. Those carefully pedaled strings and alluring soprano sax (played by Rypdal himself) careen through its nocturnal billows with humble ferocity as Torbjørn Sunde brings comparable light to the sky with muted trombone. If the plangent cry of “Darkness Falls” that precedes this and opens the album tells us anything, it is that here is a terrain of emotional clarity and immediacy. The magic of this rendering lies in its continual flux, in its refusal to settle into one topographic pattern. The following “Adagio” plunges the album to new depths, even as it raises the bar from which it hangs. Solina strings owe their thickness to the charcoal yet discernible picture into which Rypdal’s guitar spills ether: a shout of autonomy in its coolest disguise. “Better Off Without You” walks in organic circles, occasionally poking its head above the watery depths of Blix’s ostinato haze, keeping an eye trained “Over Birkerot.” In this punchier setting, Rypdal keeps his feet planted amid a chain of horn blasts (think Hans Zimmer’s Inception soundtrack on a smaller scale). His cathartic rock-out midway through is a chance to let hair fly and pulls open the ribbon of “Fare Well.” Along with the final “Ballade,” it finds the musicians in languid suspension, crossing vibraphone-like paths toward elegiac destinations. It may feel blinding, but we can be sure this light comes to us by the force of a distant hope.

Rypdal has an incisive way of building anticipation, of dropping his solos at the most carefully thought-out points, his guitar an endless book of codas. Like the photo that graces its cover, Odyssey captures the life of a nomadic musician in candid monochrome. And while the album had been reissued on CD prior to this New & Old Masters set, the 24-minute “Rolling Stone” sadly did not survive that first digital makeover. An organ-infused underwater symphony of legendary status, its primal bass line and whammy bar ornaments flow like a meeting between Bill Laswell and Robin Guthrie before bringing on the album’s most rock-oriented developments. It also charts Rypdal in a pivotal moment of self-discovery where his tone began to coalesce into the sound for which he has come to be known. What a treasure to have in restored form.

As if this weren’t already enough to celebrate, ECM has gone above and beyond with another gem from the archives:

Unfinished Highballs
Recorded June 1976 by Swedish Radio, Estrad, Södertälje
Recording producer: Bosse Broberg
Engineer: Ola Kejving

This commissioned radio performance from 1976 features a streamlined Odyssey band (sans Sunde) fronting the 15-piece Swedish Radio Jazz Group. At under four minutes, the title track might blow by like the foreword to a novel were it not for its sheer theatricality. Rypdal’s vision cuts the darkness with a film projector’s eye, and blends into the Matterhorn bass of “The Golden Eye.” Icy synths challenge the thaw of Blix’s electric piano as fiery horns uncurl their tongues from the firmament and lick the snowcapped mountains of an unbridled story. Rypdal lifts this image skyward on waxen wings, which, unlike those of Icarus, are impervious to the light on which they feed. Next on this spacy ride is “Scarlet Mistress.” At once sharpened by muted trumpet and rounded by swinging textures, it gives wide relief to Rypdal’s laser etchings. One feels in its background the kick of eras when music’s enervation thrived in proportion to the harshness of its sociopolitical climate, so that the clubs of the 20s and 30s resurrect themselves and dance their ghostly dance. The soprano returns for a spell, for all a moonbeam peeking out from the clouds into a well of chords that pull us into “Dawn.” Melodies unwind, each a snake wrapped around the wrist of a god who whips it free into the glittering sky. Some enticing bass work dances amid Rypdal’s shimmers of water-harp enchantment, lowering us on a fishhook into the depths of “Dine And Dance To The Music Of The Waves,” in which sitar-like sounds pave a Nazca runway for the soprano’s grand coverage of worldly joy. Christiansen is the contortionist’s backbone of “Talking Back.” Sporting also high-flying reeds from Lennart Åberg and Ulf Andersson, its attunement is downright symbiotic. A real highlight. And speaking of which, where else to end but in “Bright Lights – Big City,” closing out the set on a signature dronescape.

With such a full sense of architecture to explore, it’s no wonder this newly unearthed companion has held its shape. In elevating the big band to a level of orchestral aliveness so rarely achieved, Rypdal has left a mark that is not only indelible, but also inimitable. With a nostalgic sound that distinguishes so much of ECM’s output from the decade, Odyssey – In Studio & In Concert shares the pedestal with Keith Jarrett’s Sleeper as release event of the year.

<< Eberhard Weber: Yellow Fields (ECM 1066)
>> Kenny Wheeler: Gnu High (ECM 1069)


5 thoughts on “Terje Rypdal: Odyssey – In Studio & In Concert (ECM 2136-38)

  1. Actually the point I begin to lose interest in Rypdal a little: his earlier releases are full of mystery, gaps between the sound, and wonderful guitar textures. It’s here that his playing begins to move towards the more full-on and almost rockist in style. I was never a fan of the ‘shredding’ guitarists that people often admire, valuing subtlety and unusual approaches over number of notes played, but Rypdal gradually moves away from the former and towards the latter from this point for me. The grooves and compositions on Odyssey are great, and I enjoy many of his later turns as side-man, but this is the last of his lead albums that I find especially enjoyable.

  2. How great is it to be able to review every single ECM release ? This label is now my absolute favorite. Redefining ‘jazz’. That being said, great review as usual. I am now officially on my Rypdal phase. I just got out of my Eberhard Weber phase and am now ready to really dig in to Rypdal. One of my absolute favorite musicians on this planet. No other guitar player sounds anything like him. Truly one of the greatest on the instrument IMHO.

  3. Wow just witnessed on again after decades I bought this thing in the 70s I played it over and over but beautiful music ECM put out in the 70s nothing more to say but incredible

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