1982: Chromola

In a musical context, improv is the ultimate high-wire undertaking, so dependent is it on the chemistry between the participants. Without pre-scripted themes or structures to fall back on, the material generated has the potential to fall flat as much as soar. Certainly there's a lot operating in 1982's favour: Nils Økland, Sigbjørn Apeland, and Øyvind Skarbø are all highly developed musicians capable of holding the listener's attention separately as well as together, and the combination of Hardanger fiddle (and violin), harmonium, and drums is undeniably distinctive; further to that, the three have been playing together for ten years (their first time February 14th, 2007), so a healthy amount of telepathy naturally has crept into their performances. Perhaps one more thing is worth mentioning: patience. Without overpowering one another, all three are comfortable letting the music develop as it naturally will, and experience has given them confidence to believe that their interactions will prove eventful wherever they lead. And when such interactions happen during these generally slow pieces, the feeling of liberation is well-nigh palpable.

Though Chromola was recorded at Sandviken church in Bergen on the day after an evening concert, its material doesn't feel reverential or constricted by the setting, even if Apeland took advantage of the opportunity to play both of the church's pipe organs on six of the seven tracks (harmonium appears on the closing piece). While much the same could be said of any one of the three, Skarbø's the very model of patience and support; he never adopts the role of mere backup, yet while his playing is assertive it never overwhelms. Such balance is integral to 1982, and throughout the album the musicians' interactions achieve a degree of empathy aspired to by all improvising outfits. As the volume and intensity levels ebb and flow throughout the opening track (identified like all seven by number and duration), for example, the attention with which each reacts to the others and adjusts his playing accordingly provides a constant source of pleasure.

Though a slow, primal pulse is used to advance the second piece, Skarbø stays the course, resisting the urge to overembellish and instead allowing space for explorative statements by Økland and Apeland to develop without interference; gradually the intensity escalates as the three collectively nurture the sound mass and bring it to a satisfying resolution. With Skarbø and Apeland largely focused on contributing textural colour, track three allows the stirring vocal quality of Økland's fiddle to move to the fore in all its affecting glory. Of course like any improv recording Chromola has its share of meandering moments, passages where the listener's patience is put to the test. A fair amount of wheel-spinning takes place during the low-key fourth track, for instance, as the three take a number of minutes to figure out where they're going, but such moments are rare on an album that's rarely anything less than engaging.

April 2017