Back in the 1990s, well before EDM made inroads into mainstream popular culture, the European electronic music scene was something that any musician with open ears was paying attention to. Rock and pop musicians were (sometimes reluctantly) getting remixed by famous electronic producers, DJs were becoming superstars, and so forth. So where better than jazz, a syncretic genre that is always taking in influences from the entire world of music, for this to take an early and lasting root? And who better than Nils Petter Molvaer, a Norwegian trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist (he’s also credited here with bass, sampler, treatments, guitar, and percussion) born in 1960, to cotton to the sounds his generation of European musicians were making and find a way to make it blend seamlessly with his kind of jazz?
Of course the music is not without precedent. It’s easy to point to Miles Davis’ similar groundbreaking experiments in the 1970s that fused jazz improvisation with popular rhythms to the consternation of the jazz establishment, or the worldly ethno-ambient records that Jon Hassell laid down in the 1980s (both with and without Brian Eno collaborating). But Molvaer is doing something different - the rhythms are frequently based on the then-contemporary dance beats of the drum & bass scene, but they're less aggressive than what Miles essayed on an album like On the Corner, venturing frequently into ambient territory. And where Miles played with a muscular assertiveness and Hassell drew on Middle Eastern tonalities for his treated trumpet sounds, Molvaer is somewhere else again, playing it cooler than Miles, with shorter phrases than the runs of the Miles of the early 70s, but also playing around with the rhythm a lot, not as much in the abstracted territory of sound that Hassell sometimes occupies. And though maybe I’m putting too much into it by associating his cool middle register tones and subtle phrasing with his Norwegian island upbringing, the record often fits the image of a chilly Scandinavian landscape – but certainly one where you can find Miles Davis albums to listen to.
The album kicks off with the title cut which fades in slowly, leading with a melodic line from the guitar that is then answered by Molvaer’s trumpet. A sampled bass thump plays in one channel while a more acoustic-sounding bass (also sampled) interlocks with it in the other. Percussion (performed live, not sampled) is light, fast, and skittering, right in the wheelhouse of the drum & bass music of the time, playing it both fast and slow simultaneously, though considerably less heavy than the real stuff. With the rhythmic groundwork laid, Molvaer’s trumpet and Eivind Aarset’s guitar trade solos mostly in a laid back, almost ambient mode until Molvaer starts playing longer lines and using the higher register of the trumpet, at which point it promptly fades into track two, “Tlon,” which starts mellow as well, Molvaer’s trumpet cutting like a foghorn through the electronic blips and heavy bass that surround it. Then guitar, trumpet, and an oddly perfect talkbox start a dialogue before the beats kick in to very directly link this to the contemporary electronic music world. But that’s before Morten Mølster’s treated guitar creates a squalor that would derail the goodwill that had been generated by any DJ playing this to a crowded dancefloor.
And so it continues, bouncing between more contemplative numbers like “On Stream” with its trumpet, bass, and mellow guitars over sampled percussion performing the most plainly lovely thing here, and songs like “Access/Song of Sand 1” or “Platonic Years” which start out quietly before rhythm starts to move to the fore and push the guitars and trumpet into more rhythmically choppy waters to match. “Song of Sand 2” and “Exit” close things out with the nosiest and quietest songs in the program, respectively.
Taken as a whole, this is a remarkable record, finding a way to take in haunting beauty, propulsive rhythm, improvisation, and the experimental sound manipulations, and meld them into a cohesive and entertaining whole. It’s something of a shock that it’s on the ECM label, primarily known (especially then) for exquisitely recorded small group chamber jazz, but good for them – it opened up the label to a new audience and it broadened the label’s outlook on what they could release. Also be sure to seek out Molvaer’s equally compelling second ECM album, Solid Ether, and then just start exploring – he has yet to put out a record I haven’t enjoyed.
- Patrick Brown