Frode Haltli: Passing Images

Arve Henriksen: Strjon
Rune Grammofon

Christian Wallumrød: The Zoo Is Far

With John Coltrane and Miles Davis still casting immense shadows, the challenge for a saxophonist or trumpeter to establish an indelible and unique voice remains considerable. Despite the seeming enormity of that challenge, some do meet it, a case in point Norwegian trumpeter and Supersilent member Arve Henriksen whose solo works include the zen-like Sakuteiki, melancholic Chiaroscuro, and now Strjon. That trio alone testifies to his artistry, but Henriksen has also contributed valuably to others' albums, like the recent Passing Images and The Zoo Is Far by Frode Haltli and Christian Wallumød, respectively.

Strjon is the mediaeval name of Henriksen's home village Stryn (situated on the west coast of Norway ) and refers to a streaming water or river. But the title choice is rooted less in nostalgia or nature inspiration and more in the fact that some of the album's material originates from youthful homemade sketches produced at Stryn; consequently, despite the presence of collaborators Helge Sten (aka Deathprod) and Ståle Storløkken, the album is somewhat of an exercise in self-discovery for Henriksen, a theme suggested by the music's oft-sparse and intimate presentation (“Wind and Bow,” for example, which features his trumpet alone but for Sten's bow accompaniment). Much has been made of Henriksen's distinctive sound, a soft burr-like tone one might describe as a molecular fusion of Jon Hassell and the shakuhachi, with a muted dash of Chet Baker and early Miles Davis added for extra seasoning. That sound comes fully to the forefront on “Ascent,” where his soft cry flutters over a vaporous backing, and even more movingly on the skeletal “Leaf and Rock” and closing “In the Light” which show him able to wring profound heartache from a single smear.

Speaking of Strjon in jazz-related terms makes little sense, as it inhabits an entirely different realm, and, for that matter, is hardly a ‘trumpet' album either (some pieces, like the church organ interlude “Ancient and Accepted Rite,” eschew horn playing entirely). The material eludes easy stylistic capture, though calling it meditative, electroacoustic soundscaping comes close. Sten's presence as a producer and collaborator is clearly felt in the brooding “ Black Mountain ” and in the title piece, whose dark, cavernous rumble would sound equally at home on a Deathprod release. Elsewhere, Henriksen's trumpet meanders languorously through the gamelan-inflected “Green Water,” a remarkable polyphony of voices (including Tuvan throat singing) chants in the droning “Glacier Descent,” and a glorious trumpet chorale graces “Alpine Pyramid.” Though each piece possesses unique character, they collectively cohere into an extraordinary and intensely personal portrait.

Frode Haltli's accordion is the first sound one hears on Passing Images and how wonderful a sound it is, especially when the album, his second for ECM under his own name, opens with the stately folk beauty of “Psalm.” The transition from Haltli to his guests is effected artfully, with a pair of bent notes by the accordionist echoed by fearless vocalist Maja Ratkje, who is in turn augmented by Henriksen's trumpet and Garth Knox's viola. Generally speaking, Haltli's album alternates between boldly experimental pieces and gorgeous traditional folk settings. On the one hand, there's the virtually harmolodic “Vandring,” whose elastic free treatment radically redefines the boundaries of the waltz form, while, on the other, there's “Lyrisk vals” (‘Lyrical Waltz') by fiddler Gustav Kåterud, a mournful dirge which pairs Haltli's flowing lines with Henriksen's plaintive cry. Though the trumpeter and Knox certainly make their presence felt, it's Ratjke's virtuosic vocalizing that leaves an even strong impression, especially when two spotlights, “Inter” and “Lude,” grant her audacious approach full reign. The quartet's handling of experimental material impresses, but the sensitive treatment of traditional material (like the gorgeous closer “Vals” and riveting folk ballad “The Letter”) is even more affecting. What most recommends Passing Images isn't Haltli's bravura playing but the collective interplay, as all four musicians breathe inspired life into all of the music on this fully-realized recording.

Henriksen's a long-standing member of the Christian Wallumød Ensemble, too, though the trumpeter's voice is one of six heard on the Norwegian pianist-composer's fourth ECM album The Zoo Is Far. It's an unusual recording on multiple counts, with the chamber group performing twenty-four compositions that take their inspiration from Baroque music (extracts of Henry Purcell's music are referenced in three “Backwards Henry” pieces), new classical, folk, and minimalism; interestingly, jazz is present tangentially, if at all. Many pieces are fragments and solo settings, while others feature full group interplay. “Psalm Kvæn, solo” (one of four “Psalm Kvæn” variations) offers Wallumød a stately spotlight, while Henriksen's gentle cry dominates “Arch Dance with Trumpet.” By contrast, the related “Arch Dance” traffics in hypnotic minimalism with harp, glockenspiel, and piano suggesting raindrops falling lightly upon a windowpane. Like Passing Images, The Zoo Is Far is distinguished by rich instrumental colour, in this case produced by three string players—violinist (and Hardanger fiddle player) Gjermund Larsen, cellist Tanja Orning, and Baroque harp player Giovanna Pessi—whose contributions are complemented by Wallumrød's piano (and Toy piano), Per Oddvar Johansen's percussion, and Henriksen's horn. If there's a downside to this remarkable collection, it's that the sheer multitude of its pieces prevents it from easily cohering into a unified statement. That caveat aside, Wallumrød, like kindred open-minded explorer Uri Caine, operates within a boundless musical universe that invites admiration for its bold adventurousness.

October 2007