Bjørnstad/Darling/Rypdal/Christensen: The Sea II (ECM 1633)

The Sea II

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
David Darling cello
Terje Rypdal guitars
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded December 1996 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If The Sea was a sweeping journey along the surface of its namesake, then this sequel is a plunge into its darkest depths. With the focus of an underwater camera, Ketil Bjørnstad and his peerless group render visible entire worlds we would otherwise never have known. Unlike its predecessor, The Sea II unfolds its map in 10 titled sections, each a different island strung along a melancholy chain. Cellist David darling joins the pianist for the introductory “Lalia.” In so doing, he carries on the sentiments they so beautifully wove together on The River, the chronological and elemental link between the two seas. A voyage in and of itself, it emotes in all directions until guitarist Terje Rypdal brings forth his blade in “Outward Bound.” Jon Christensen’s orchestral drumming is the only reminder of land to be found as we approach the sandy floor. And while Darling does crest a wave in “Brand,” holding fast to boxes from a forgotten shipwreck, within those boxes lie innumerable others. Rypdal rockets off into the night, where more water awaits him as he jumps into that great river in the sky. Anchorage returns in “The Mother,” its quivering arcs the salve for a wounded heart. “Song For A Planet” takes a solemn look at our own, settling into the album’s most understated cradle. Darling and Bjørnstad are simply transcendent on this duo track, as they are on the forlorn “Agnes” and “December,” the latter an ode to the month in which the album was so sensitively recorded. All three speak to the astonishment of their craft. “Mime” is Rypdal’s time to break into the current, a veritable shaft of sunlight lassoed to a dolphin’s fin, while“South” shuffles to the beat of Christensen’s drum, ever detailed and sincere, as Rypdal plies the ether with inquiries of rain and fertility.

This is music to swim in, to touch and be touched by. Don’t let it leave you dry.

Ketil Bjørnstad & David Darling: The River (ECM 1593)

The River

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
David Darling cello
Recorded June 1996 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If ever there was a seed beating like a shaded heart in The Sea, it was the twined musical filaments of Ketil Bjørnstad and David Darling. The Norwegian pianist and American cellist spoke on that session like siblings, at points giving us a foretaste of the droning flavors we encounter at the edge of The River. The size and scope of the water have changed in name only, for here is the former’s other half, spreading its finger paint across twelve parallel sections. If we note anything different this time around, it’s that the horizon feels so close that we could just close our eyes and reach out and there would be the sun.

Bjørnstad’s love of aquatic themes stretches an ideal surface tension across which Darling may unfurl his sails. The delicate ostinato of one becomes the leviathan drone of the other, drawing threads through opaque expanse (just as Swiss-born artist Mayo Bucher has placed a white edge through this and select other ECM cover paintings). As cello keens and trembles through a pianistic hall of mirrors, it ladles shadow from the wells of solitude in which we all take shape before birth and to which we also return, lowered in buckets of light. So is The River as much about earth as it is about water, impossible to separate from the glitter of mineral deposits that marks its flow. Darling may paint the air as a salmon through the current, but he is also keenly aware of the sediment kicked up by his journey, of the molecular oneness that binds. Lost to the gazes of two figures crouched at the banks, lowering offering memories to an open fan of moonlight, he swims on.

These are pieces of subtle virtuosity, timbre, and emotional integrity, utterly devoid of self-interest. Their flowering symmetry is a living palindrome of surrender that shuns the pleasures of its philosophies in favor of feeling for its own sake. Though overwhelming at times, there is never a possibility of drowning when water is your air. In this reverie there can be no reveries, for the world is already a dream.


Alternate cover

Bjørnstad/Darling/Rypdal/Christensen: The Sea (ECM 1545)

The Sea

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
David Darling cello
Terje Rypdal guitar
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded September 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The twelve parts that comprise The Sea are of a proportion far beyond aquatic, for their magic lies in the hands and hearts of four musicians who came together for a session as ever-changing as its namesake. The number would seem to be significant: months in a year, hours in a day, each a cycle rendered timeless through a story that bleeds and weeps. David Darling’s trembling cello lets out the first cry, eddying with all the force of nature at the edge of a bow. Pianist Ketil Bjørnstad therefrom unfurls a theme for the ages, drifting as might a reader’s eyes pass over the words of a favorite letter. As the hearts of the session, his keys drip glitter and shadow in equal, sometimes comingling, measure. Drummer Jon Christensen knocks at a ghostly door suspended above the horizon, leaving guitarist Terje Rypdal to complete the picture, breaching vapor and phosphorous. Such is the first ray of light to spoke from this sonic hub, spinning to the pulse of Bjørnstad’s heart-tugging ostinatos in a pregnant and billowing unity. Somehow, the stars feel closer, each a solar flare arcing into rebirth. But the breath is always damp, the air even more so, while the language falters to hold its shape in the presence of something so free. Of note is Part VIII, a duet between Bjørnstad and Darling that presages The River and a beautiful lead-in to an enchanting closing of the triangle. The spectrum of Christensen’s palette grows richly and organically as threads wind together, each color a drop into the inky cascade of its rapture. Part XII closes the album with Bjørnstad at his solemn best, far from shore.

The power of this music is its ability to adapt to whatever mood you bring to it. The listener is its vessel. The Sea is also a remarkable feat of engineering, fully expressing ECM’s commitment not only to the evocation but also embodiment of concept. But though it might very well flourish in the flesh and machines that produced it, it ultimately flows from, and returns to, the currents of which it is composed.

Ketil Bjørnstad: Water Stories (ECM 1503)

Ketil Bjørnstad
Water Stories

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Terje Rypdal guitar
Bjørn Kjellemyr bass
Jon Christensen drums
Per Hillestad drums
Recorded January 1993 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ketil Bjørnstad made a splash, if you will, with this, his first of many collaborative projects for ECM. Water Stories puts the Norwegian pianist, composer, and novelist in fine and familiar company, sharing the studio with guitarist Terje Rypdal, drummers Jon Christensen and Per Hillestad, and bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr. Though billed as a jazz album, Water Stories is folk music for the ocean floor. Bjørnstad swishes through his motives with the surrender of a sliver of driftwood on the waves, bowing to his band mates in unobtrusive postures. With the first stirrings of “Glacial Reconstruction,” he thus sets a career-defining formula. Christensen’s unmistakable cymbals brighten in the album’s opener as if from the dark phase of a solar eclipse, stirring where only there was stillness and awe. Christensen again sets the mood in “Levels And Degrees,” now with toms, moving from the sparkle of wave-tips to rumblings from the deep as Bjørnstad and Rypdal paint swaths of marine life in dripping color. From this hails the piano ostinato of “Surface Movements” amid glints and plunks of bass. This bubbling evocation of the album’s namesake is a softly beating heart shrouded in time. “The View I” and “The View II” are astonishingly beautiful, featuring some of Rypdal’s tenderest playing on record. Melting the piano’s subtle undertows, it presages the beauties of The Sea, even as it tears a page from the book of the sky with a solo of pastel fire. Worth the album alone. “Between Memory And Presentiment” indeed rests its head on a liminal pillow, dreaming even as its casts its nets back to a childhood marked by Kjellemyr’s thoughtful solo. Bjørnstad cuts the light in “Ten Thousand Years Later,” in which Rypdal springs an electric flower from the bass’s hollow stem. The brief “Waterfall” and “Riverscape” provide the most programmatic moments of the set, crashing and flowing on their respective paths toward eddying afterlife. “Flotation And Surroundings” is another slice of bleeding pictures, leaving only the synergistic “Approaching The Sea” and the aptly titled “History,” thereby ending another defining label session of the nineties.

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