Nils Petter Molvær: Solid Ether (ECM 1722)

Solid Ether

Nils Petter Molvær
Solid Ether

Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, piccolo trumpet, synthesizer, electronics, bass, percussion, sound treatments
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Audun Erlien bass
DJ Strangefruit voices, beats, samples, ambience
Per Lindvall drums
Rune Arnesen drums
Sidsel Endresen vocals
Reidar Skår vocoder
Recording producer: Nils Petter Molvær
Recorded, edited and mixed 1999 at various floors in Oslo, Norway
Mastering: Shawn Joseph, Masterpiece London
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

ECM left an indelible mark in 1998 with the release of Khmer. Trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær’s leader debut spread a royal flush across the table when the music industry least suspected it. Solid Ether marks a return to that trending sonic universe, only now it turns away from the idiomatic sources of its predecessor and looks deeper into the mirror for inspiration. This time around, the layers are more archaeologically striated, servile to a beat-driven cartography. Melodically, the album is rawer, rudimentary, and finds its voice through the detailed care of the arrangements. “Dead Indeed” is but one rhythmically arresting example with an altogether sharper edge: a bolder, well-oiled machine. Molvær’s far-reaching introduction surveys a landscape with hand over eyes before diving into a serpentine Nile of its own making. The grinding drum ‘n’ bass vibe raises the dead with its veracity while singing calls harmonize like ancestors with the living: a mummy reanimated and bid to break-dance like it has never loosed a ribbon before. With a wry smile, it cocks its head and throws a handful of sand into those same eyes, that it might have a moment to fade and leave you wondering if it was all just a dream, a vision gone mad the moment you pressed PLAY. This opening track is also significant for being almost entirely played and programmed by Molvær himself, grafting only guitarist Eivind Aarset’s overdubs for effect.

“Vilderness 1” takes its name from Molvær’s daughter Vilde and boasts a cut-and-paste aesthetic of many masks. It is a porous, geometric picture, of which the throbbing bass is an alizarin crimson-loaded palette knife. “Vilderness 2” doesn’t continue where the first left off but dances through its forest once more, hopping from branch to branch like the lithe warriors of Ninja Scroll. After experiencing this slide of Rubik’s plane as if from the inside, the caress of “Kakonita” feels like a wholly different love. Floating primary-colored blocks of notecraft on a bed of infant foghorns, it reworks cinematic DNA into a golem’s playlist. Sidsel Endresen, with whom Molvær plays on the singer’s two ECM recordings, So I Write and Exile, lends her voice to two iterations of “Merciful.” Joined by Molvær on piano, she cuts moving pictures of intense observation, each a morsel of gesture in a world of stills. Her poetry peels alienation away like a sticker, filling in the remaining ghost as if it were a piece of candy in danger of melting.

“Ligotage” first appeared on a Khmer tie-in single and takes a more congealed form here. Its breathtaking scope and depth of language glistens with sun-kissed brilliance. Audun Erlien’s growling bass flushes the sewers of the mind with its grit, heightening the feeling of alarm until it leaps with the unbridled spirit of a dolphin against Ra’s unblinking eye. Drummers Per Lindvall and Rune Arnesen add similar comfort to the concoction of “Trip,” proving definitively that the feeling created by this hip collective sells the music by virtue of its structural integrity alone. From tripping to skipping, we come to “Tragamar.” Striding a fuzzy border between ballad and lament, it drowns in the title track and its biochemical integers. More live drumming adds punch and bites us in the ear with its head-nodding finality.

There is an indigeneity to Molvær’s art that is as far away from pretention as we are from knowing the truth about ourselves. The music is a stranger in its own land, a king without subjects, a dog without a leash. It has only us to turn to.

Nils Petter Molvær: Khmer (ECM 1560)

2000 X

Nils Petter Molvær

Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, electric guitar, bass guitar, percussion, samples
Eivind Aarset electric guitar, effects, ambient treatments
Ulf W. Ø. Holand samples
Morten Mølster electric guitar
Roger Ludvigsen acoustic guitar, percussion, dulcimer
Rune Arnesen drums
Reidar Skår samples, keyboards
Recorded 1996/97 at Lydlab A/S, Oslo
Engineer: Ulf W. Ø. Holand
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Ulf W. Ø. Holand

Khmer marks a monumental occasion: namely, the debut leader date of Nils Petter Molvær. Fresh off the boat of Small Labyrinths, the Norwegian trumpet player came out of left field with one of those rare albums that becomes second nature after only one listen. NPM, as he is also known, epitomizes ECM’s transcendental spirit with a collage of unbridled passion and integrity. Combining influences as diverse, if not also as intimately connected, as rock, ambient, dub, techno, and jazz, he deploys his mercurial fleet in a sea of samples, breakbeats, and smooth dives. Also carrying over from the Small Labyrinths session is hard rocker Eivind Aarset, who bookends the album with his e-bow guitar treatments and foils the delicate additions of free improviser Morten Mølster along the way. Mari Boine band regular Roger Ludvigsen adds six strings and more, playing prepared guitar and dulcimer, and along with drummer Rune Arnesen fleshes out the band’s acoustic signature. Yet it is keyboardist Reidar Skår and co-producer Ulf W. Ø. Holand who give the music just the kick it needs to hit the ground running. Holand, whose Lydlab is two floors above Oslo’s hallowed Rainbow Studio, provided samples and enough studio time to help shape the album into what it has become, while Skår brought his magic touch to said samples and others, manipulating them into an organic whole. The result is a classic that fits snugly alongside ECM’s all-time best.

Despite what from the above may seem like a grandiose experiment, the flow of Khmer is built around cells of rhythmic and melodic delicacy. It is only through the skill of the musicians, producers, and engineer that over a modest 43 minutes these cells build into fully fledged organisms. We hear this in the berimbau taps and snaking guitar lines that open the title track, giving plenty of net for Molvær’s distinct lobs. This feeling of pulse, sere and crystalline, burgeons in “Tløn,” which gives our first taste of the album’s electronic spread. A descending trumpet line hooks on to one of the catchiest samples you’ll ever hear (courtesy of Coldcut’s cult dance sampler, Kleptomania!). The mounting drums and talk-boxed vocals send this brew into active fermentation. NPM’s presence is intermittent, offering the occasional fluid monologue (enhanced to an electric guitar’s sheen), thereby allowing the group’s emergence to swing forth. Shawm-like cries throw up their hands to the rhythm of windblown leaves, ending on that same solo line, recycled and returned. The sediment-rich waterway of “Access” chains us to the digital ablution of “Song Of Sand I.” Funk reigns supreme, meshing with orchestral swells suggestive of Cypher 7’s “Message Important,” while also bearing Manfred Eicher’s stamp of focused communication. “On Stream” allows NPM to stretch his muscles more humbly. We hear the preparatory rhythms of his breathing against a subliminal caravan beat. “Platonic Years” continues down this percussive road. If the Bill Laswell influences were already felt in the low-end execution, here they blossom in a sample from his classic Axiom double album, Lost In The Translation, melding with breath and drum. “Phum” gives us a bubble of air to suck on in the rising waters before “Song Of Sand II” unleashes the selfsame track’s grittier side. Thus do we “Exit,” shifting, dreaming of doing it all over again.

Khmer was, for its time, a culmination of everything ECM had striven for in bridging styles, times, and places. An album with a sound, if there ever was one…

Khmer: The Remixes (ECM 1560/M)

…but the journey didn’t end there, for Eicher and company went a step farther when the following year they released ECM’s first remix albums, allowing for even greater expansion into fresh idiomatic territories. The Remixes offers up three re-interpretations, starting with The Herbaliser’s DJ Fjørd Mix of “Platonic Years,” which against heavy beats and filtered pizzicato touches stretches its trip-hop legs. Another twist of the prism gives us Mental Overdrive’s Dance Mix of “Tløn.” What seems like a meditative introduction washes into half the remix before the promised dance begins, rendered all the more cathartic for coming out of such a viscous carriage. “Song Of Sand” also goes under the knife, appearing in a “Single Edit” but finding greater traction in Rockers Hi-Fi’s Coastal Warning Mix. All of this makes for some head-nodding goodness.

Ligotage (ECM 1560/L)

Ligotage is a single in the truest sense, its cloudy title track straight off NPM’s follow-up, Solid Ether. This thought-provoking track is couched by an unedited version of “On Stream” and Mother Nature’s Cloud & Shower Show Mix of “Song Of Sand,” which sounds like Boards of Canada doing funk (this cut also appeared on a special promo remix edition, ECM 1560/S).

When I first bought this album in college, I played it for anyone who would listen. I brought it with me wherever I went and fed it into every stereo I encountered. On one such occasion, a friend smiled when I asked what he thought and said, “Groovy.”

Right on.

<< Marilyn Mazur’s Future Song: Small Labyrinths (ECM 1559)
>> Anouar Brahem: Khomsa (ECM 1561)

Robyn Schulkowsky/Nils Petter Molvær: Hastening Westward (ECM New Series 1564)

Robyn Schulkowsky
Nils Petter Molvær
Hastening Westward

Robyn Schulkowsky drums, gong, plate bell, crotales, cymbals, bronze bells
Nils Petter Molvær trumpet
Recorded January 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”
–Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Berlin-based percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, heard most recently with Kim Kashkashian on Hayren, joins forces with Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær for a singular and lasting document. Schulkowsky has worked with some of the biggest names in modern music—Heinz Holliger, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Iannis Xenakis have all benefited from her dynamic breadth and open precision—but her performance style consistently balances humility with fortitude. In 1991, Schulkowsky composed a percussion ensemble piece entitled “Hastening westward at sundown to obtain a better view of Venus.” The title was lifted from Beckett’s final prose work, Stirrings Still, which, aside from being a vastly important book for Schulkowsky herself, sums up the feeling of this “extension” thereof most succinctly. Originally conceived as a solo project, the album was enriched with a snap decision from Manfred Eicher, who introduced Molvær into the mix. The two musicians had never met, but together they described a challenging world that remains effortless to explore.

The album is comprised of two works. Pier and Ocean, in three parts, begins freely, with more explosive drums lying in wait. Its final part is heaviest, shifting from shamanism to survivalism in a single beat. The title work fills out the bulk of the album. Over seven chapters of varying lengths, it takes its first steps in the whitened paragraphs of a wintry page. A lonesome piano airs its grievances in background. Deep drums inhale the air of mallet percussion. Yet no matter how enervated the music becomes, it always looks down at its own feet. Even the timpanic battle cries in Part 3 are laced with melancholy. Part 4 is the album’s most brilliant, as Molvær falls into a spread of echoed clangs, thus inaugurating a psychosomatic transition from rhythm into rhyme. Part 6 sounds like a seaplane landing on a lake, only we are the water receiving its foreign presence with the same yielding attention as we might give to a bird fishing from our depths. The final “hastening” is anything but, a slow drone with metallic percussion and a few brassy notes divinely attuned to the resonance of gongs.

Sadly, this project was never repeated. Considering the unusual confluence of events that produced it, however, a sequel is hardly necessary. Either way, what it has left behind is solid enough to withstand eons of peripheral development. Hastening Westward is a sublime experience that calls to you when you least expect it. It is neither the thrill of the hunt nor the agony of capture, but the single thread that connects them both.

<< Ralph Towner: Lost And Found (ECM 1563)
>> Mozart: Piano Concertos, etc. (ECM 1565/66 NS)

Food: Quiet Inlet (ECM 2163)

Quiet Inlet

Thomas Strønen drums, live-electronics
Iain Ballamy tenor and soprano saxophones
Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, electronics
Christian Fennesz guitar, electronics
Recorded live in Norway, 2007/08
Produced by Food and Manfred Eicher

The earth is very still, like an infant asleep. Into a quiet inlet, a streamlet is falling. It is singing to the sleeping earth, telling it of the days to come when the great silence shall be broken by the voice of man, and life shall fill alike the darkling wave and the sunlit field.
–T. A. Rickard, “A Story in Stone”

Considering the distinct lyrical path Food has been forging since 1998, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the group would migrate into ECM territory. The guest appearance of Nils Petter Molvær is therefore a no-brainer. Fans of Molvær’s work will feel like they are slowly falling into the Norwegian trumpeter’s waking dreams. The results are an undeniably unique blend of nu jazz sensibilities and ritual melodic power.

“Tobiko” opens with metallic percussion against a cascade of synths and muted beats. A radio dial is tuned, reaching through the airwaves as if for a familiar voice to latch onto. Only then does Ballamy’s sax rise to the surface of this oceanic passage: if our ears are vessels, then here is the dolphin swimming silently alongside them. Before long, live drums make their presence known and lead us out of the fog. Having shown us the way, our guides then recede into the darkness, where light and sonar dare not venture. “Chimaera” is a gentler number. Sax lines continue their passage as percussion and electronics cocoon them with deep thematic threads, free-flowing and heavenly. “Mictyris” is distinguished by Strønen’s intense rhythmic drive, over which we encounter some fantastic electronics that sound as if a sax were being torn apart and rebuilt as a train whistle. Tight drumming, combined with the protracted ambient wash in the background, meshes wonderfully with Ballamy’s constellate reed work. “Becalmed” builds itself around a repetitive leads motif, its aftereffects ever ghostly and omnipresent. Whether intentional or not, this track also contains oblique references to Eleni Karaindrou’s “Parade” from the film Happy Homecoming, Comrade. “Cirrina” and “Dweller” both flow with Molvaer’s distinct sound, seeming to revel in their grace and liberation from formulaic constraints, while “Fathom” ends the album bittersweetly, as if the music were looking into a mirror, unsure of what it sees.

The electro-acoustic sound honed on Quiet Inlet works wonders at every turn. And on that note, it’s inspiring to see a wonderful artist like Fennesz crossing over into the ECM circuit. Let’s hope this is a sign of things to come.

(To hear samples of Quiet Inlet, click here.)