The five seconds of silence that precede the start of every ECM album are always telling. The anticipation; the lack of urgency at the start, heightened senses craving some recognisable sound. Yet rising from this darkened state, on Nils Petter Molvaer's ECM debut 'Khmer' was not a piano, or ride cymbal, or the pluck of a double bass string, but the droning twang of a dulcimer and the anguished wails of guitar feedback, Molvaer's whispering trumpet cutting a small yet determined path, cross-hatching little melodic marks. Thus begins the journey of one of today's most progressive musicians; a musician that subverted, by the sheer force and beauty of his music, the traditions of Europe's most revered jazz label, to produce an album of bold organic-electronica, recasting the acoustic electro-clash of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew for a new generation and a new century.
As the 1990s are perhaps best remembered for both the burgeoning grunge guitar scene and the incredible explosion in dance and computer-driven music, for a jazz musician to be looking over his shoulder at the past, or to be caught up in the present was to miss the opportunities that Molvaer seized when he created his new form of music on 'Khmer' in 1997. With solid jazz credentials under his belt, Molvaer embraced a new way of working, and with the detachment from any particular scene, aside from the sparseness of his native Oslo's cold beauty, his music possesses a clarity and directness that only increases its impact. Where the lesser artists simply added a break-beat under their '70s funk riffs or swinging jazz grooves, Molvaer took his electronic textures to new depths, without losing any live interaction or improvisation, retaining an expressive quality and freshness at every point in every song.
With the melancholy African sounds of 'Khmer' (the word itself meaning a dialect of Cambodian language) setting the tone, things continue with a disturbing yet compelling theme, 'Access / Song Of Sand I' featuring one of the album's hardest rhythms, coupled with one of its most cathartic chord-melodies, played by the master of guitar textures and NPM's right-hand-man, Eivind Aarset. The latter's guitar throughout this album makes that direct connection between rock, blues, grunge, jazz and ambient sounds that one minute remind you of a tortured Jimi Hendrix or the blissed-out, horizon-less sounds of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. 'On Stream' is the perfect example of this, with an insistent but muted percussion track below, Aarset's guitar spills fluid chords over which Molvaer pours his own personal stream of notes, the results achingly beautiful, yet melancholy. 'Platonic Years' suggests a lighter mood, a sense of travelling, a free momentum again driven by Aarset's simple strummed chords, as Nils takes the listener across another icy, melodic tundra. 'Phum' finds Molvaer carving a haunting solo line above the lowly whines of Roger Ludvigson's acoustic guitar, his effects pedals creating an otherworldly vista of notes. This feeling of weightlessness is all Molvaer needs to leap headlong into the chasm of 'Song Of Sand II', with its dark, brutal sounds accompany the thick dub bass and beats. This crushing end to NPM's first foray into a new sound universe then closes with 'Exit', a strange echoing whale-song cry, with a gently-thumping heartbeat of percussion leading the listener off into the night.
For all its rough edges 'Khmer' was and is an unparalleled success, for both label and artist, and saw ECM go one stage further and for the first in its history release two singles from the album. The most pertinent of these was 'Khmer: The Remixes' and featured three mixes by The Herbaliser, Mental Overdrive and Rockers Hi-Fi, each extracting something new from the sound tools NPM provided in the original. In this one prescient move, the single became the precursor to his next-but-one album 'Recoloured', that was based on remixes of his next full studio work, 'Solid Ether'.
'Solid Ether' saw Molvaer gain a higher profile, as he found himself rightly cited as one of the leading Norwegian musicians in the new electronic movement that was gaining pace in Northern Europe at the time. Alongside Molvaer, the likes of keyboardist and producer Bugge Wesseltoft (also the founder and boss of Jazzland records), French trumpeter Erik Truffaz, and Swedish band E.S.T., all shared a not-purely-jazz aesthetic; shifting the perceptions and limitations that had been stifling the music's growth for so long. In fact 'Solid Ether' saw Nils leaving the 'jazz' form further and further behind, as he employed more beats and bass lines that took drum and bass and jungle beats as the jumping off point, while retaining his ability to create haunting melodies and hypnotic grooves. The album also saw Molvaer utilising the increasingly sophisticated yet more malleable sound technology to create new layers of depth and sheen to his recordings.
The innate sense of movement, of an otherworldly time and place, of a rich sci-fi soundscape that is created by the lone voice of NPM's trumpet, supported and surrounded by ghosts from another sound-universe also continued. The title itself 'Solid Ether' tries to defy the normal laws of physics, by attempting to freeze the ephemeral. Yet the beat very much goes on with 'Dead Indeed', 'Vilderness I', 'Ligotage', 'Trip' and 'Solid Ether' all offering distracting, groove-laden forays into an alien suburbia; disjointed yet complex, fuelled with a sadness and joy that can only relate, ultimately, to the sadness and joy of the human condition. As before NPM is joined by a cutting-edge crew of sound-smiths; guitarist Aarset leading the way, but with bassist Audun Erlien, sound-sculptor Paal Nythus a.k.a. DJ Strangefruit, and live-lynchpin, drummer Rune Arnesen creating a vast array of fresh sounds. The one anomaly here is 'Merciful', a crushingly delicate duet between Molvaer on piano and singer Sidsel Endresen that is both pure and unapologetically poetic. Offering a sad yet compelling insight on human fragility, the two minute song, appearing once early on in the album and then at the end, in two marginally different forms, offers an unresolved sense of comfort to the listener:
2002's 'NP3' seems to be something of a close of one chapter and the opening of another for Molvaer. Constructed through editing fragments of ideas, sounds and melodies 'NP3' lets more chinks of light through the wall of sound than on his previous albums. The pristine sound has mutated once again, stripped down and lean, the likes of 'Marrow', 'Frozen' and 'Hurry Slowly' are sinewy, virile creatures compared to the brute force of early songs. 'Axis Of Ignorance' turns the W. Bush sound bite "the axis of evil" on its head, NPM giving vent to his feelings post 9/11 of frustration and anger with a biting drum and bass attack of his own. The feeling of cybernetic, biodynamic forms and the streamlined feeling of cyberspace, as referenced in the title itself (the download revolution has not gone unnoticed in jazz circles either) is all part of NPM's continual search for something new yet organic, the fact that he's recently started playing to live art installations is also indicative of his need to interact in real time to events around him, musical or otherwise. Yet Molvaer's sense of the tender and poetic is still with him on the gorgeous piece 'Little Indian', dedicated to his daughter, the slow dub feel taken literally with baby steps. 'Nebulizer' the razor-sharp parting shot that also became the final battery of beats, almost vicious in its intent, the air-raid siren of Molvaer's trumpet sounds as the apocalypse begins, then the calming aftermath, a new dawn with hope springing up to replace despair.
Finally Nils Petter Molvær is back with a new studio album!
The new album has been given the name "ER", and contains eight new compositions. From his debut album as a leader with "Khmer" to his latest live album "Streamer", Nils Petter Molvær is well known for his distinct sound and personal trumpet playing.
"ER" contains a wide spectre of music expressions from the soft and downbeat productions to the strong and powerful ones. Nils Petter Molvær has taken a new direction with "ER" even if the soundscapes will be recognised from "Khmer", "Solid Ether" and "np3". This time he has given more creative space to programmers like Knut Sævik, DJ Strangefruit, Reidar Skaar and Jan Bang. "It's important to use people in what they're good at."
We have heard vocal tracks also on Nils Petter Molvær's previous releases; in "ER" they have been given more space. In the beautiful vocal track "Only These Things Count" we can hear Sidsel Endresen's characteristic voice together with Eivind Aarseth on guitar, Magne Furuholmen on acoustic piano, Ingebrikt Flaten on acoustic bass and Nils Petter Molvær's trumpet in a strong and emotional ballade.
Common for the eight tracks is Nils Petter Molvær's strong visual melodies and his personal and distinctive trumpet playing, which is even more in focus than on his previous records. Some of the productions are slightly 'toned down' to give space for the trumpet and the melodic structures.
Nils Petter Molvær has once again gathered a strong team of musicians and contributors. Eivind Aarseth, Sidsel Endresen, Magne Furuholmen and Ingebrikt Flaten are already mentioned. In addition Rune Arnesen, Erik Honore, Helge Nordbakken and Elin Rosseland participate. DJ Strangefruit, Knut Sævik, Jan Bang and Reidar Skaar have, as mentioned, all played a very important role in the production of "ER".
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