Bj°rnstad/Darling/Rypdal/ChristensenThe Sea IIECM 1633 CD 537 341-2
Writing in England's Jazz Journal, Michael Tucker described this album's predecessor as "quintessential ECM tone poem music, with leader Bj°rnstad's rubato and occasionally rhapsodic pianism cast very much in an adagio mould. Poetic and pensive in its rippling moods and keening delivery, with Darling's cello striking a typically meditative note, Christensen rolling and floating across bar lines with customary sensitivity and imagination, and some plangent passages of extraordinary, soaring intensity from Rypdal". The Sea was in itself a Volume II of sorts, continuing where Bj°rnstad's ECM debut Water Stories left off, and in between "Seas" there has also been The River, Bj°rnstad's smoother flowing, highly successful 1996 duet recording with cellist Darling. The Sea II, then, is really the fourth installment in a roman-fleuve on watery themes. The studio productions and the touring of the last few years have turned the quartet into a real band, and the tasks of the individual players have become more sharply defined. Improvisation in this unit is not so much concerned with interaction in the conventional jazz sense - of the four players, only Christensen can be said to have an unambiguous "jazz" pedigree - as with cross-currents. The ensemble sound swells around the patient, controlled chord-voicing of Ketil Bj°rnstad. Frequently the drummer and guitarist Rypdal are employed as disruptive elements, dangerous breakers shattering the deceptive calm. Leader Bj°rnstad has noted that water metaphors can be extended almost ad infinitum when discussing this group but for him the idea of "The Sea" signifies the horizontal and vertical movement in the music. "You have the horizontal movement of the waves - and that's a nice metaphor for the linearity of our music - and on a clear day you can see all the way to the ocean bed. Total transparency. And that's the vertical element." However, the sea is also a biographical as well as a metaphorical reference. When Ketil Bj°rnstad was struggling to find his artistic direction, he left Oslo to live on a small island lying to the southwest of the capital. He stayed there for 15 years. "It wasn't a philosophical or romantic quest, to exchange the city for a lonely landscape. I simply liked the nearness of the sea, yet I found I became quieter within myself, I discovered new levels of concentration and my work grew in a way it couldn't have done with all the tempting distractions of the city."
Born in Oslo in 1952, Ketil Bj°rnstad is a unique figure in the arts in Norway, recognized not only as an unusually well-rounded musician (interpreter, improvisor, composer) but also as a writer. He has published some 20 books, primarily novels (including fictionalized biographies of Grieg and Munch, the latter translated into several languages, including English and German), and also collections of poetry and essays. His history as a musician is also unorthodox. Classically trained in London, Paris and Oslo, Bj°rnstad made his debut at the age in 1969 as soloist with the Oslo Philharmonic, playing Bartˇk's Piano Concerto No. 3. An encounter with Miles Davis's In A Silent Way the same year changed his musical priorities and he left the classical world behind him. He first recorded in 1973 with a quartet including ECM stalwarts Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen, and through the 1970s enthusiastically monitored ECM's inroads into Scandinavian jazz - even though "jazz", at least in a traditional sense, is a music he has not wrestled with as a player. "If you're coming from classical music, you have to recognise that the disciplines are different." In the Sea group he keeps his own prodigious technique on a short leash. "In the way I'm working now, I feel an imperative not to overplay. I worked for many years as a solo improvisor and I'd grown accustomed to taking responsibility for all facets of the music, the development of the melody in the improvising as well as covering the rhythmic functions. It was almost shocking, during the recording of Water Stories, to find that I could achieve comparable results using far less notes. But I feel good about my role in the quartet. We have different levels of communicating. Sometimes it's about establishing a counterpoint, a relationship between the instruments, more than about 'solos'."
Guitarist Terje Rypdal (born 1947 in Oslo) has had a career at least as idiosyncratic as Bj°rnstad's, although its trajectory has taken almost the contrary path. "I've followed Terje's progress closely," said Bj°rnstad when the first volume of The Sea was released. "I feel connected to him because we have this strange history, coming from opposite ends of the musical spectrum. When I first played with orchestras, at the end of the 60s, he was a rock player approaching jazz. Now he's writing symphonies, I'm improvising, and we're both in this collaborative project with Manfred [Eicher]. His world of sounds and textures was always an inspiration to me, going back to the earliest albums like Bleak House and the first ECM records."
For his part, Rypdal appreciates the freedom of The Sea. The quartet liberates him from the structural concerns of his own small group and orchestral writing. He can, to use the jazz vernacular, just blow. And there is a lobby amongst Rypdal-watchers that holds that the guitarist is at his best as a player in precisely these circumstances. His guest appearance on Tomasz Stanko's Komeda tribute Litania - an album-of-the-year choice across Europe - raised the emotional stakes on that project; the Bj°rnstad group offers him a bigger canvas, on which to make a bigger splash.
Cellist David Darling (born in Indiana in 1941) is another maverick musician, obviously predestined to play with this cast, who cannot be definitively tagged as either "jazz" or "classical". He studied piano from the age of four and started on cello at ten, led his own bands in the 1950s in which he played alto saxophone and bass, and took classes with master cellist Janos Starker at Indiana State College. He has been defining his own brand of improvisation since the 1960s. Darling made his ECM debut with Journal October in 1979. Fragments of that recording would resurface in a startling new context, overlaid with speech and environmental sounds, in 1996 - as part of the complete soundtrack of Jean Luc Godard's Nouvelle Vague issued by ECM New Series.
Darling first encountered Jon Christensen in the studio in 1980 at a session for french horn player John Clark's album, Faces, and in 1984 joined Terje Rypdal for a duo album, Eos. He now plays both in quartet and in duo with Bj°rnstad, and they have toured widely together, from Norway to Taiwan (becoming in fact the first ECM musicians to perform in the latter territory). Their duo album The River proved to be both a commercial and a critical success, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as "an unforgettable listening experience...great playing entirely subordinated to the cause of the most direct emotional communication with the listener."
Jon Christensen was born in Oslo in 1943 and has, of course, been a crucial presence in music on ECM almost from Day One, rivalling Keith Jarrett as most-recorded musician on the label. Modern Drummer magazine has noted, accurately, that Christensen "has helped to forge a unique, original jazz imprint, which has only deepened over his 35 years as a musician. In Norway and abroad, his sprawling, elastic time interpretation and remarkable cymbal style have been elemental in defining the ECM sound ... Along with his contemporaries Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, Christensen changed the drummer's role in jazz from timekeeper to rhythmic/ melodic inventor, colourist, and commentator. His ability to deconstruct jazz rhythms over the entire kit, while still swinging with ferocious energy, is equalled only by his crystalline cymbal work and unusual melding of loose rock rhythms within freely interpreted structures." Ketil Bj°rnstad puts it more simply: "When Jon plays, there is music. In many ways, he makes it happen."