The title of this album is an affectionate, if peripheral, salute to John Cage, whose music and philosophy Norwegian pianist Christian Wallumrød appreciates. In 1968, Cage wrote in his book “A Year From Monday” that “we no longer have to lull ourselves expecting the advent of some one artist who will satisfy all our aesthetic needs. There will rather be an increase in the amount and kinds of art which will be both bewildering and productive of joy”. Wallumrød’s Ensemble, embodying this prophecy, occupies a special niche, with music both attractive and hard to pin down. Although three of its members have had complex, interwoven playing histories over the last decade, the ways in which they interact in the Wallumrød group are unprecedented. To note that the quartet features three players from the world of ‘jazz’ and one from the world of ‘folk’ provides little real insight into the group character, focused so well through the medium of Wallumrød’s compositions. They have found a sound of their own outside the idioms. In recognition of the group’s marked originality, and a shared feeling that they are prising open a new space here, the participants have been making this unit a priority, despite a welter of other commitments.
This is the third ECM album from pianist Wallumrød, following the 1996 recording “No Birch” (which already included Henriksen in the line-up) and the 2003 release “Sofienberg Variations” which introduced the present quartet. Press reaction to the “Variations” was exceptionally positive. “The elements of composition and improvisation are tightly woven”, wrote Stuart Nicholson in Jazzwise, “as Wallumrød’s piano subtly mediates the creative impulses of his ensemble who have succeeded in creating a statement that is quite unique.” In the Birmingham Post, Peter Bacon spoke of “immense emotional depth, a magical sound.”
Wallumrød belongs to the new generation of northern players who grew up listening to ECM recordings. “The whole ECM field of European and American jazz – and Jarrett and Garbarek in particular – was a point of departure for my improvising.” Also important were the classic pre-ECM trio recordings of Paul Bley, including “Closer”, “Mr Joy” and “Rambling”. Bley indicated a route away from “clever lines” and conventional jazz harmony, and Wallumrød liked his dry wit, the aphoristic nature of his improvisations. Later as contemporary composition became an equally important inspirational source, Wallumrød heard points of contact between Bley’s world and the mordant humour of György Kurtág’s “Jatekok” and Bent Sørensen’s “Bird and Bells”. These, then, are some of the sources informing Wallumrød’s own compositional thinking.
“Sofienberg Variations” was the sound of his ensemble testing the water with pre-existent material. “A Year From Easter” is the first disc to feature music written specifically for the quartet. Three quarters of the material is new (although the ensemble also casts new light on a handful of pieces written for earlier Wallumrød bands). At the centre of the sound is the very special combining of the styles of Nils Økland and Arve Henriksen.
Christian Wallumrød: “I’m still constantly surprised about how well Arve and Nils manage to play together. I really don’t know what they are actually doing to get so close to each other in the sound.” Their backgrounds provide few clues.
Økland was added to the band at the suggestion of producer Manfred Eicher. Known in Norway as a radical renewer of the folk tradition, he has built bridges between the folk genre and contemporary composition and improvised musics. He is also expert in early music, and has made extensive studies of Biber, the 17th century composer whose experiments with unorthodox tunings, as well as his radiant music, still inspire modern players.
“As an improviser, Nils is both strong and open-minded. If he’s improvising on the basis of what he’s learned playing folk music and pre-baroque music, those elements are in his playing now anyway, integrated in his phrasing. He’s very concerned about playing in the context of the compositions. We talk about that often at rehearsals. But he is also a producer of pure sound and texture, he goes after colours and feeling and is capable of being very intuitive.”
Arve Henriksen and Wallumrød have played together in numerous settings since crossing paths in Trondheim at the beginning of the 1990s. Back then Henriksen’s trumpet was most strongly influenced by Don Cherry, Jon Hassell and Miles Davis. Since then, as he said not long ago, he has “been searching for sounds and moods in different corners... the Armenian duduk, Indian flutes, Balinese sounds, Mongolian overtone singing, electronic sounds. Over the years I've been into many different styles... Meanwhile, the trumpet sound has gradually moved along in the spirit of the shakuhachi”.
No trumpeter has a more liquid tone, a sound seldom resembling a brass instrument nowadays, and documented on ECM records with Jon Balke, Arild Andersen, Trygve Seim’s large ensemble and The Source (the latter also with Wallumrød). ECM has also distributed Henriksen’s albums “Sakuteiki” and “Chiaroscuro” as well as with the electronic improvising band Supersilent. Wallumrød: “Arve has a very personal way of playing and phrasing. He is always extremely present somehow. Yet at the same time he’s also an extraordinary musician in his ability to blend into almost any kind of setting. In the process of trying to write material or think of the ensemble sound, I consider how he can both blend in and stand out with his very special approach. And like Nils Økland, in fact, he’s very loyal to the written material, always doing his best to keep within the intentions of the music. As different as they are, as players and people, they have that in common.”
Per Oddvar Johansen, praised by the leader for his “natural musicality and creativity” has perhaps the most freedom inside the logically consistent world of the Wallumrød Ensemble. “Per Oddvar is both absolutely reliable and very playful. We know each other so well through so many years and so many bands [pianist and drummer also share time in the trio Close Erase], that I don’t write parts for him. “In this ensemble what he is often doing is stripping the music down, also in terms of how many beats are being played. But he is an improviser and he’ll approach the material differently from night to night.”
It takes time, Wallumrød says for each of the pieces to find its direction. “But the biggest difference between now and the ‘Sofienberg variations’ period is that we have played many concerts. Now, for me, the group really feels like an ensemble.”
A further round of concerts accompanies the launch of “A Year From Easter”, with dates in Norway, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. More details at www.ecmrecords.com