Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: Outstairs (ECM 2289)

Outstairs

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble
Outstairs

Christian Wallumrød piano, harmonium, toy piano
Eivind Lønning trumpet
Gjermund Larsen violin, Hardanger fiddle, viola
Espen Reinertsen tenor saxophone
Tove Törngren cello
Per Oddvar Johansen drums, vibraphone
Recorded May 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With Outstairs, pianist Christian Wallumrød has taken chamber jazz to new levels of intimacy, redefining its parameters and capabilities with atmospheric profundity. He achieves this through no small measure of humility, by which he imbues the music with the color of invitation. The risk is that, once you step through it, his door might never let you out again. Such is the irony of the album’s title, which promises escape yet embodies the reflective side of a two-way mirror.

Wallumrød

The title of the fifth track, “Startic,” is a suitable adjective to describe the cellular approach of Wallumrød and his ensemble. Each piece feels like the beginning of another, ad infinitum, until a sense of the whole begins to emerge, by which time your brain has already been soldered in. The dark pulse of “Stille Rock” begins at the piano before drummer Per Oddvar Johansen and fiddler Gjermund Larsen spin flesh around the ivory. With pathos not heard since Górecki’s Lerchenmusik, it nurtures a patchwork of unfinished sentences, which only the listener may complete.

Wallumrød Ensemble

Subsequent references abound. Whether intentional or not is immaterial, for no matter how much of their clothing has been worn before, Wallumrød’s alterations eat new fashion for breakfast. Some, like the Morton Feldman-esque “Very Slow” and the microtonal “Beatknit” (which resembles an abstracted compression of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin), are more obvious. Others, like “Bunadsbangla” and “Tridili #2,” feel as if we should know them. Grounded by deep beats and lathered up with bubbling chords, they are the soundtracks to films not yet made. The soothing tenor of saxophonist Espen Reinersten and earthy strains of cellist Tove Törngren are silhouettes of trees in the latter excursions, while Wallumrød’s harmonium and Eivind Lønning’s trumpet percolate through the leaves in the form of sunlight. These absorbent textures cloak an outer resonance in the guise of a seventh band member.

The album’s remainder is for the most part percussively centered. Regardless of instrument or title—be it in the brushstrokes of “Folkskiss” or the toy piano of “Ornament,” the darker sustains of “Third Try” or biological crop circles of the title track—an underlying clockwork reveals itself in every rustling and reedy song. As title of the concluding “Exp” implies, this program represents a leveling up for the ensemble. And as its final climbs find themselves lured by whispers of a forgotten darkness now returned as a gift, we have no option but to succumb to the heat of understanding. The lava is our birthplace, and it is to the lava we must return.

This reality, unglued.

(To hear samples of Outstairs, click here.)

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM 2118)

Fabula

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble
Fabula Suite Lugano

Christian Wallumrød piano, harmonium, toy piano
Eivind Lønning trumpet
Gjermund Larsen violin, Hardanger fiddle, viola
Tanja Orning cello
Giovanna Pessi baroque harp
Per Oddvar Johansen drums, percussion, glockenspiel
Recorded June 2009, Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Christian Wallumrød is a court composer of our time, and we are his servants. His distinctly crafted chamber pieces on The Zoo Is Far ushered in a certain specificity and microcosmic style. Replacing trumpeter Arve Henriksen from that previous session is newcomer Eivind Lønning, whose lungs brighten the patina of Giovanna Pessi’s Baroque harp in “Scarlatti Sonata” and lend rounded contrast to the violin of Gjermund Larsen in the modestly titled “Duo.” Regulars Tanja Orning on cello and drummer-percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen flesh out the palette with insight and exactitude.

Wallumrød

This time, as Wallumrød’s sound-world paints through a new galactic stencil, he and his bandmates show a deeper commitment to the integrity and possibilities of atmospheric improvisation. Reference points are as varied as the album’s 18 tracks. “Quote Funebre” takes its inspiration from the music of Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman, which Wallumrød spins into what he calls “small harmonic events,” each a stepping stone for Larsen’s commenting fiddle, while the Swedish folk-inspired “Jumpa” (in two versions) lifts off agile feet into the future. For the most part, however, the core of each piece is a solar system unto itself, blown to dust and melted down into a rough gem. Here an emerald, there a ruby.

Pessi’s harping constitutes a defining voice within this modest choir. Her affinity for description infuses pieces like “Dancing Deputies” and “Blop” with tactility, foiling percussive undercurrents like staples across the skin of time, while her pathways light the way through the barely-touched instruments of “Snake.” Johansen is another, catching wind with wings in the descending trills of “Solemn Mosquitoes” and pulsing through the veins of “I Had A Mother Who Could Swim.” Through all of this mimesis, Wallumrød himself shines like a broken firefly, its light turned to liquid. The effect is somehow otherworldly. Even his toy piano in “Valse Dolcissima” feels less like the remnant of a human childhood and more like the language of an alien race who anthem is his concluding “Solo”—the benediction of an artist at play in his telescopic wanderings.

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: A Year From Easter (ECM 1901)

A Year From Easter

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble
A Year From Easter

Christian Wallumrød piano, harmonium, toy piano
Nils Økland violin, Hardanger fiddle, viola d’amore
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Per Oddvar Johansen drums
Recorded September 2004 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A Year From Easter is the third ECM leader date for pianist Christian Wallumrød. Nourished on the same label’s diet, his skills as an improviser (and as a composer) have sprouted fields of their own making and artfully striate the colors of fiddler extraordinaire Nils Økland, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen into the present spectrum. Wallumrød has always folded his aesthetic along tactile creases, but the chambering of Easter finds him unusually palpable.

The triangular melody of “Arch Song” sets the stage accordingly, scanning its laser of pathos across the barcode of “Eliasong” (and its deeper sequel) with equal precision. From gray to shining gold, Henriksen’s elliptical reasoning morphs over harmonium, an instrument Wallumrød plays to further, glassy effect on “Lichtblick.” With the gentility of breeze through poplars, his keyboarding—regardless of instrument—puts lips to candle and blows just enough to make things flicker. Such is the bearing of “Stompin’ At Gagarin,” a delightfully programmatic piece that emits Wallumrød’s east-leaning aura. His understated feel for arrangement and storytelling is clearest in such tunes, as also in “Japanese Choral.” Here, over an icy surface, keys and horn unfold with chromatic purpose, misted like a Kenji Mizoguchi still.

Ugetsu

Indeed, cinematic feelings abound. Like a crafted visual story, the slow figurations of “Wedding Postponed” build into dynamically richer constructions as more characters are introduced. Similar impulses mark “Horseshoe Waltz,” of which the pianism beams an attic of clattering relics. Pizzicato strings scuttle along the hard wood, carving rays of light into the air by freshly liberated dust plumes.

Yet the album’s focus remains out of doors, the title track being a representative example. With its warming skies and leaf-lined pathways, it leads us to the sacred spaces of tunes like “Psalm” and “Neunacht,” both like hymns reverse engineered to their stained-glass origins. Such is Wallumrød’s approach: conjoining cells of color by the solder of his crafting. In the latter solo piano piece, block chords process like candle-bearers from rear to fore, making way for linear melodies and violin sketches. Rasping across the night, his motifs swing ably from tree to barren tree, leaving ashen poetry in their wake.

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: The Zoo Is Far (ECM 2005)

The Zoo Is Far

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble
The Zoo Is Far

Christian Wallumrød piano, harmonium, toy piano
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Gjermund Larsen violin, Hardanger fiddle, viola
Tanja Orning cello
Giovanna Pessi baroque harp
Per Oddvar Johansen drums, percussion, glockenspiel
Recorded October 2006, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Christian Wallumrød’s evolving ensemble makes its return to ECM as a sextet with The Zoo Is Far. On this, his fourth album for the label, the Norwegian pianist-composer draws from sourced and spontaneous material. It is perhaps his most “classical” album, if only for the added inspirations of cellist Tanja Orning, Norwegian fiddler Gjermund Larsen, and baroque harpist Giovanna Pessi—along with mainstays Arve Henriksen on trumpet and Per Oddvar Johnansen on percussion. Although Wallumrød is the heart and soul of the ensemble, his presence is more often ghostly than physical. For while his pianism erects brooding infrastructures for “Nash Lontano” and the Platonic cave of the title track, in “Parkins Cembalo” he lurks behind a harmonium, evoking trembling fear. On a deeper level, the embers of his gifts brighten with compositional prowess. The five descriptive “Fragments” scattered throughout the program alone show formidable thematic breadth. What begins as a Ravel-like blush might suddenly bleed across the page in the semantics of George Crumb or rustle like cattails in a breeze. Such changes are part and parcel of Wallumrød’s flora, which draw nourishment from eclectic resources indeed. “Music For One Cat,” for example, takes its inspiration from Mehdi Hassan (then still with us), a Pakistani ghazal singer known for his divine throat and passion for the cinema. The slink-tailed gait leaves no question about the title, disappearing one strand of fur at a time until only the eyes are left glowing in the dark.

“Arch Dance” and “Detach” are further confirmation of Wallumrød’s pen, both split into themes and variations. Prismatic and moonlit, they are touched by despair and folk sensibilities, walking the thin edge of being and nonbeing that separates them. “Need Elp” foils all of these with its angelic sheen. It pushes through glass as if it were water and touches feet to pond’s surface as if it were glass.

The Fantasias of late seventeenth-century composer Henry Purcell are the basis for three so-called “Backwards Henry” pieces. These at once mark the album’s grasp on the past and its interest in the future. As one known for his harmonic invention and ear for color, Purcell makes for compelling company to Wallumrød’s own “Psalm Kvæn,” which takes form in solo, trio, quartet, and tutti iterations, each an expression of the in-between. As in the concluding “Allemande Es,” the respect for history becomes a figure unto itself, standing at the edge of its own grave, into which it stares longingly for the release of silence’s puppet strings.

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: Sofienberg Variations (ECM 1809)

Sofienberg Variations

Christian Wallumrød Ensemble
Sofienberg Variations

Christian Wallumrød piano, harmonium
Nils Økland violin, Hardanger fiddle
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Per Oddvar Johansen drums
Trygve Seim tenor saxophone
Recorded October 2001 at Sofienberg Kirke, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist Christian Wallumrød surely turned heads—not around in surprise but downward in reflection—with the 1998 release of his ECM debut, No Birch. After passing through the filter of Trygve Seim’s The Source and Different Cikadas in 2002, Wallumrød retained that project’s frontman (who here guests on tenor), held to his trio’s trumpeter, Arve Henriksen, and to them added fiddler Nils Økland and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. The newly fashioned Christian Wallumrød Ensemble blossoms in an intimate program of composed and improvised material. Named for the Oslo church in which it was recorded, the album’s titular variations thoughtfully capture the spirit of their venue.

“Sarabande Nouvelle” is the touchstone of the program, appearing once as opener and twice more as variation. It bears a worn stamp of melancholy, as if it has been singing for years without sleep. This is precisely how Wallumrød’s music comes to us: wearing a patina. Thus formed, it holds firmly to an emotionally resolute façade even as it struggles to compose itself on the inside. And so, while the combination of horns and rubato swells lends imaginary power to the introduction, it nevertheless speaks of reality as if it were a sibling. That same sense of family lurks within “Memor,” wherein keyboard aligns with space, opening the floor to barest drumming and whispers of brass, reed, and bow. Wallumrød’s pianism is an arrhythmic heart that, through all the disruptions, maintains enough coherence to sustain life for as long as the blood of sound runs through it.

Forest-hued rumblings unearth the portraiture of “Edith.” With rasp of bark and stickiness of sap, it envisions a tree hanging its fruit over a cliff’s edge. Thus suspended, its sustenance finds balance in danger, and in that contradiction a supreme peace. Such is the tension in which the album’s themes incubate. Here the melancholy so easily ascribed to the music begins to blur and, like the cover photograph, kicks its imaging of the world off kilter. Thus skewed, disparity takes on a life of its own. Conversations flit between the silhouettes, coalescing in the alarm of pathos that is “Alas Alert.” This reverie of reveries is a braid of trumpet, air, and metallic signatures. Økland’s bow elicits the tremor, an indication that something in this body is fallible, something in its murmuring worthwhile. Økland adds further shading to “Psalm” and “Liturgia,” one the crossing to the other’s hatching. These decidedly sacred pieces turn memories into sliders on a mixing board of psychological experience that can be tweaked to suit the needs of every crisis. Such inner adaptability is key to understanding the method behind this record, in which there is no promise but only the fulfillment of something unnamed, if not also unnamable. Never before such delicate dissonance. Never such microscopic inference. The most haunting moments, in fact, come from the album’s ticks: a series of “Small Pictures” that surveys abandoned architectures with a ghost hunter’s eye. Ascending and descending motifs walk an Escherian staircase, leaving only a Möbius strip of gray footsteps to show for their having been there.

“Losing Temple” closes the session’s eyes with introspective pianism, with the fiddle again playing a descriptive role. The flute-like trumpeting from Henriksen is astonishing, the osmosis of his step likewise, which treats every wall as a cinematic gateway. This music fades like leaves with the wind that might never have existed to begin with. Their colors linger all the same.

Yet where the album’s spirit becomes clearest is in its handful of variations, which re-spin their referents in slow watercolor bleeds of storytelling. These are not, however, mere refrains, but parallel universes in which the bodies of iterations overlap without the others’ knowledge. Intelligent without being intellectual, it is music that breathes, for we are the lungs to its air.

Christian Wallumrød Trio: No Birch (ECM 1628)

No Birch

Christian Wallumrød Trio
No Birch

Christian Wallumrød piano
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen percussion
Recorded November 1996 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Of course it hurts when buds burst.
Otherwise why would spring hesitate?
–Karin Boye (trans. Jenny Nunn)

Pianist Christian Wallumrød makes his ECM debut with No Birch, an album of uncompromising melodic integrity and further proof that ECM’s mining of Nordic jazz ore continues to yield sonic jewelry like no other. The press release places the album somewhere between Morton Feldman minimalism and Paul Bley free play, and certainly we can feel a likeminded appreciation for negative space throughout. Yet beyond this lies an active, fluttering heart that is so full of expressivity that it must pace itself in lieu of bursting.

Wallumrød

Wallumrød is the youngest member of the group. From humble beginnings playing piano accompaniment at church (hence the reflective track “Before Church”) to intensive studies at Norway’s famous Trondheim Conservatory, where he developed an abiding interest in composition, he has found under producer Manfred Eicher’s purview the appropriate balance of space and atmosphere to open his emotional floodgates.

Henriksen

Freelance trumpeter Arve Henriksen has collaborated with a number of ECM stalwarts, including Jon Balke, Anders Jormin, and the great Misha Alperin, the latter of whom remains a touchstone of inspiration for this trio.

Sørensen

Take special note that Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen is credited as percussionist and not drummer, and you begin to imagine the group’s flavors before note one. Conservatory trained and much sought-after in contemporary jazz and classical scenes, he adds the subtlest edge, his palette elemental in the truest sense.

As a unit, these three friends have been playing since 1996, but what we hear in “She Passes The House Of Her Grandmother” implies generations of affect. Touching its feet to tundra soil as if it were the sun, it is the breath of blood and memory made manifest in the here and now. The unspoken becomes the flower of reality, plucked from the “Royal Garden.” This solo from Sørensen unravels a single cathartic and metallic cry, bowed at the edge of sibilance and time and carried across a landscape that was once pasture, since bordered and named under the banner of rule. It is the pulse of the soil, given light above ground in “Somewhere East,” a representative track that describes its directions only so that we might be aware of the center from which our perspective is realized. So locating us in the moment’s energy, the music sways, rooted. Next is “Travelling” in three parts, and which features some of the most delicate trumpet playing I’ve heard in a long while. Breathy, almost shakuhachi-like, it curls its fingers one at a time around a full glass, which is then tipped and spilled through the veins of “Ballimaran” and “Watering.” In the wake of these flowing sketches, the halting pianism of “Two Waltzing, One Square And Then” and “Fooling Around” cleanses the palette before “The Gardener,” the most somber of the set, refills with bittersweet aperitif.

Wallumrød’s “The Birch” is the album’s red thread, a four-tiered refrain that wipes its theme with the nostalgia of a hand across a foggy window. Tender and seasonally inflected, it brings liturgical wonder to the trio’s sanctity, as deferential as the day is long.