Nils Økland is a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle master. Often identified with music rooted in his instrument’s folk dance and church traditions, he always tests and stretches that ambit.
1982, Økland’s trio with harmonium player Sigbjørn Apeland and drummer Øyvind Skarbø, plays acoustic folk form vignettes with the formal expressivity of improvised music. By contrast, last year’s Lumen Drones (ECM), was a muscular, serpentine, and cleanly contemporary-sounding trio recording by Økland, guitarist Per Steinar Lie and drummer Ørjan Haaland.
For Kjølvatn (ECM), Okland reunited with 1982’s Apeland and three other members of a quintet that recorded Bris for Rune Grammofon in 2004: only drummer Per Oddvar Johansen is out, leaving Håkon Stene as sole percussionist alongside bassist Mats Eilertson and incoming saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nylstrøm.
Økland says that the group’s working methods were influenced by baroque music, for which “it was common to have sketches as (a) basis.” All compositions are by Økland, with the rest of the group credited as arrangers.
The first thing that strikes me is the fullness of the group sound, and particularly Eilertson’s bass on lead track “Mali”.
The album was recorded at the Østre Toten stone church outside Lena, Norway, a venue with evidently expansive acoustics. On “Maili”, Eilertson’s pliable sound thrusts through the taut plumes of Stene’s opening percussion hits, producing a muscular, vaunting and elastic rhythmic framework over which Økland’s fiddle describes a gorgeous folk melody. Later, Eilertson sets up a pulse, adding a jazzy dimension to Nylstrøm’s own short but lyrical solo.
While Økland’s strings carry the album’s primary narrative and emotive impetuses, Nylstrøm is subtly but remarkably sensitive throughout, adding nuanced textures and filigree touches, and taking only brief, exquisitely jewel-like solos.
Notwithstanding the fuller group sound, there are similarities here to 1982’s detailed vignette approach: individual contrasting pieces shading into one another without definite borders. On “Undergrunn”, Apeland’s harmonium hovers at first like a sea mist around Økland’s bowing, then Stene’s vibraphone shimmers, light-like against supple contrabass. “Drev” expands the mood, marrying an ominous, muffled bass drum pulse to listless double bass and muzzy, breathy soxophonics. Both the title piece and “Puls” maintain a likewise dreamlike, depthless ambience.
Eilertson’s rhythmical throbbing solo bass, exposed as the centrepiece of “Puls”, acts as a fulcrum for the other instruments. Økland seems distant, but absorbed, as if soaring, observant, with a vertiginous, bird-eye perspective over the musical terrain.
“Fivreld” is flightier, with seesaw fiddle bowing over deep arco bass, percussive tintinnabulation and fluting saxophonics. It marks a watershed. “Start” is tense and vigorous, with timpanistic percussion driving a mid-paced gyre of spiralling tension. Nylstrøm’s baritone sax playing is vividly abstract here, evocative of wind and spume.
“Skugge” restores the calm, just Hardanger and bull fiddles entwined in a pas de deux adagio; and “Bla harding” is a light reflection of “Undergrunn”, fiddle and harmonium in counterpoint, flexing together, tracing and shading a sinuous unfolding.
The last piece, “Amstel”, flirts with sentimentality. After the shadowed depths of what’s gone before it’s almost excessively tasteful; kitsch, even. Nylstrøm’s alto sounds like a fipple flute. But everyones’ playing is subtle and finely tuned.
Every piece on Kjølvatn has been immaculately crafted and recorded, and it’s a perfectly balanced album. Maybe too perfectly balanced, for those of us with a taste for radical or elemental expressivity. But it has its tensions and depths, and those depths are fecund.
Nils Økland: viola d’amore, hardanger fiddle, violin; Rolf–Erik Nylstrøm: saxophone; Sigbjørn Apeland harmonium; Håkon Mørch Stene percussion, vibraphone; Mats Eilertsen double bass.
Buy Kjølvatn direct from ECM.