Biosphere: Dropsonde

Terje Rypdal: Vossabrygg op. 84

Miles Davis's 1991 passing certainly hasn't arrested the flow of Davis-related material, whether it's the seemingly seasonal appearance of another Columbia boxed set or tribute discs like Mark Isham's Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project or Bill Laswell's Panthalassa. Perpetuating the tradition, new releases from two Norwegian artists, ambient composer Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere) and guitarist Terje Rypdal, take their respective inspirations from ‘60s modal jazz and Davis's late ‘60s-early ‘70s period (Jenssen's fifth Biosphere release on Touch is admittedly more obliquely connected to Davis's work than is Rypdal's).

Dropsonde (a weather reconnaissance device that records telemetry when dropped from an airplane) offers a fascinating meeting-ground between Jenssen's atmospheric Biosphere project and the modal style of Kind of Blue and My Favorite Things. The worlds come face-to-face on “Birds Fly By Flapping their Wings” when Jenssen merges naturalistic bird sounds with cymbal-driven patterns vaguely reminiscent of “All Blues” and when seaside noises appear alongside the gentle surge of “Warmed By the Drift.” Some tracks are more purely ambient (the softly billowing “Dissolving Clouds” and the eleven-minute meditation “People Are Friends”) while others reveal stronger jazz leanings (the gloriously stoked drum groove sailing through “In Triple Time” suggests a resurrected Philly Jo Jones or Jimmy Cobb).

What might seem an odd fusion on paper turns out to be a rather natural fit; after all, the Biosphere style exploits repetition to establish entrancing atmosphere while modal jazz accentuates repetition too, if from a different angle. In addition, Jenssen's decision to excise jazz soloing to focus on rhythm loops produces an hypnotic, pulsating effect consistent with his aesthetic. The album may split listeners, though, depending on their affiliation: jazz purists coming to “Fall In, Fall Out,” a vinyl-encrusted, seven-minute exercise in martial drum patterns, may decry the tune's lack of development; Biosphere devotees may delight over how the subtle inclusion of jazz elements advances Jenssen's style. (Trainspotters should note that the 70-minute CD release is nearly twice the length of the vinyl edition with, naturally, many tracks exclusive to the CD).

Recorded live on April 12, 2003 at Norway's Vossa Jazz Festival, Rypdal's Vossabrygg, Op. 84 is a largely successful Davis tribute performed by a formidable Scandinavian octet. It's a rather unwieldy travelogue, though, one whose ten parts shift episodically from one section to the next without ever doubling back, and an epic ride too, never more so than during the eighteen-minute opener “Ghostdancing.” The work begins with a brief “Pharaoh's Dance” quotation before settling in to a general evocation of Davis's In a Silent Way and Filles de Killemanjaro sound. Drummers Jon Christensen and Paolo Vinaccia channel Tony Williams' spirit while Bugge Wesseltoft and Ståle Storløkken weave keyboard lines like Corea and Hancock. Occupying the daunting trumpet chair, Palle Mikkelborg (a natural participant given his composing and production contributions to Davis's 1985 Aura) generates fierce echoplexed heat that recalls “Bitches Brew.” Tellingly, Rypdal largely lays out during the album's first nine minutes, and though his scalding scalpel-sharp tone is prominent thereafter, he presents himself as one soloist of many; in short, the work is clearly not a guitar concerto but an ensemble work.

Mikkelborg's muted horn and Rypdal's soaring peals on the pretty ballad “Waltz for Broken Hearts / Makes You Wonder” are highlights, with the second half more evoking Weather Report than Davis with Bjørn Kjellemyr donning the Pastorius role in a solo turn. Certain sections suggest Rypdal wants to not only honour Davis's past but propose directions he might have explored had he lived longer. Even so, Marius Rypdal's voice samples, jungle beats, and electronics on “Incognito Traveller” might reference Miles's forward-thinking spirit but evidence little connection to his music. Elsewhere, “Hidden Chapter” marries orchestral elements to a hip-hop groove but flirts with kitsch, and the percussion spotlight “De Slagferdige” could have been omitted at no great loss. Despite such caveats, the strong moments outnumber the weak, making Rypdal's admirably ambitious Vossabrygg, Op. 84 a reasonably satisfying addition to an ever-growing number of “Dark Prince” homages.

April 2006