Where the lesser artists simply added a break-beat under their ’70s funk riffs or swinging jazz grooves, Molvaer took his electronic textures to new depths, without losing any live interaction or improvisation, retaining an expressive quality and freshness at every point in every song.[i]
The topic of musical “genres” has been a pet peeve on my blog so far and even though I don’t intend to insist upon it for much longer, for fear of boring my reader(s), I do want to pause on it – or one of its manifestations rather – just long enough to discuss the concept of subgenres. Ah yes, the sub-genre, that love-child of musical genres and Encyclopedia indexes. A new band comes out and they’ve got guitars and drums and bass and long hair and black t-shirts, but they don`t play “rock” but rather “Alternative medieval nintendocore death-proto-indietronica”. And while I obviously tend to make fun of such categorizations I have to admit that, to a certain extent and in certain cases, they are useful. Also, I believe that no other musical style has spawned more subgenres than my main music of choice: Jazz.
Jazz is a manifestation of music that, to the layman, can mean anything from the cheerful trumpet and comical scat singing of Louis Armstrong to the purity of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice or the epileptic guitar-fits of Marc Ribot, to whom I`ve dedicated last week`s article.Indeed there are so many variations of sound when it comes to Jazz that the ideal listener must always keep an open mind. This leads me to this week`s “subject”: inventive Norwegian trumpet-player Nils Peter Molvaer, who helped put so-called techno-Jazz (or nu-jazz, or electronic jazz, or chillout music or what have you) on the map. Molvaer is, right now, surely one of the most well-known names on the European Jazz scene, a trumpet player whose experiments with loops and techno-beats has helped revitalize the Jazz sound of the late nineties.
In 1997, after performing in the band Masqualero in the 80s and then releasing records in collaboration with other artists (like Jon Balke and Marilyn Mazur) throughout the early 90s, then 37-year-old Molvaer released his first solo album and with it a sound that would combine the cold Nordic melancholy of his trumpet with sounds and beats of techno music and the distorted sounds of lauded guitarist Eivind Aarset. Backed by the label-that-can-do-no-wrong, Manfred Eicher’s famous ECM, Nils Peter Molvaer’s Khmer introduced the Jazz audience to a new sound and a new way of looking at Jazz.
Khmer opens with the title track, a very well-chosen opening piece in which, from the first few seconds, the listener is greeted by the sound of Molvaer’s trumpet, a cold distant and mysterious lament, almost mystical, which is immediately accompanied by a powerful beat. Eivind Aarset`s guitar soon joins completing the “Holy Trinity” of elements and foreshadowing the intertwining between Molvaer`s often meditative trumpet, Aarset’s cryptic guitar and the techno/dance elements that end up defining the music of the entire album. As the song advances it becomes faster, the beats become more rhythmic and Molvaer’s trumpet goes from a long cry to a quick flurry of sounds. Khmer introduces the listener to the next “part” of the record, consisting of the closely-knit pair of songs Tion and Access/Song of Sand I.
In Tion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmCqHFL1btI&feature=related ) Molvaer goes full-on techno as the sound of his trumpet scarcely appears and when it does it takes the role of a unifying thread allowing beats, loops and computer-generated noise to take center stage. The rhythm continues with Access/Song of Sand I with the difference being that it is now time for Aarsets distorted-guitar-sounds to take over with Molvaer’s mysterious, distant trumpet only present to add to the melancholy and help paint the desolate picture of cold Nordic solitude. Aarsets guitar creates a frozen wilderness through which the listener gets to walk, his step guided by the near-hip-hop beats, in search of the evanescent apparition that is Molvaer’s trumpet.
If Tion and Access/Song of Sand I feel like a rite of passage followed by distant travel the destination is a most worthy one represented by On Stream an unexpected and lovely ballad where the listener is greeted once again by Molvaer’s trumpet at its most gentle in a sad and haunting melody that is bound to stick with the listener or a long time. If until now detractors could have (wrongfully) accused Molvaer of producing nothing more than glorified chillout-music, meant to serve as a backdrop for conversation in a cafe or mindless alcohol-induced dancing in an obscure pub it is with this track that Molvaer proves there is a method to his madness and a purpose behind his genre-defining experiments. On Stream is one of the most beautiful tunes I have heard since starting to be seriously preoccupied with music a few years ago and, though perhaps a bit too short, stands as one of the best compositions of modern jazz if solely by the serenity with which the “Holy Trinity” (trumpet, guitar, beats) homogenize. Judge it for yourselves: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRkqz2l5nus)
If the brilliant On Stream were to divide the record, the second part would start with Platonic Years which, out of all the tracks has probably the most traditional pop-rock feel to it with very pleasant sounding drums and guitar but little else to make it stand out. It is followed by Phum a “percusionless” interlude, the likes of which we are used to seeing in some of the works of Jan Garbarek. In Phum the trumpet and the almost all-encompassing sound effects work to create what is essentially a mood piece rather than a traditional song. With Phum, Molvaer succeeds where Garbarek often fails (see “If You Go Far Enough” from the album In Praise of Dreams), as Phum is no mere “filler” but rather a mantra, its purpose being to create a mood of a particular density and to prepare the listener for the finale of the record, set-up by the following track, namely Song of Sand II the most aggressive, at time disturbing and almost frightening first part of the two-part closing act, perhaps a “battle-cry” meant to intimidate and announce to the Jazz audience that Nils Peter Molvaer had arrived, bringing with him the sound he intended to be associated with and to turn into his legacy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b84qlPD5jcA) Afterwards comes Exit, which acts as a short epilogue and, with the familiar sound of Molvaers trumpet, repeated from Khmer against the eerie backdrop of the electronically-altered cello brings the record full circle.
To anyone willing to give this ground-breaking record a try I say that it sounds as fresh now as it did fifteen years ago, far from the banal chill-out music that would end up following on the path set by this excellent record.
Watch out for: the fairly recent development of Nu-Jazz
Best track: On Stream