Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg is a Norwegian saxophonist, composer and improviser. I first discovered her through this album, her debut as leader, which arrived without much fanfare from ECM. A double CD, it includes both a trio disc and another that features a 13 piece ‘sinfonietta’. Its cover art features not one of ECM’s customary darkling landscapes but a curiously staged portrait of the artist with a tenor sax lashed to her back, a pose inspired by Araki, perhaps, styled by someone with a shonky grasp of kinbaku. Whatever, it suggests ECM think they have a new star on their hands. And they might be right.
The press release even gifts us a prosaic creation legend. Mette Henriette tells how, at a performance by ECM bandoneon artist Dino Saluzzi, she “found a place on the stairs, by chance next to where Manfred Eicher was sitting. We spoke in the interval, and I told him about my project.”
And it’s easy to see why Eicher was quick to embrace it. In many ways, the subsequent recording sessions, held in Oslo in May and August 2014 with Eicher producing, have yielded a perfect encapsulation of his label’s aesthetic.
Mette Henriette’s music might be best described as chamber improvisation, though it’s all credited as composition. Close-focus writing and recording both stress the unique timbre of each input. The opening pieces set the tone, which is one of the musicians’ acute sensitivity to each other, to the balance of tensions between them, and to every sound and texture.
The first track on which the leader’s sax sounds with real pliancy is the well titled “All Ears”. The intimacy of her articulation is mesmerising, broken only by gently puckish cello and a few subtle taps of piano on the next piece, the minute-long notion-fragment “but careful”.
Across the whole set, track durations are brief. Nothing on the first disc, titled o—which features music by the trio Zerkalo: Mette Henriette, Lindvall and cellist Katrine Schiøtt CD—and only five of the twenty pieces on the second CD—Ø, for sinfonietta—exceed four minutes. The music’s pace and mood is typically ice-melt cool and serene, with just the occasional upswell of ardency and muscular flexion imparting heat and tension, bringing things alive.
This isn’t Mette Henriette’s first appearance on record, but it’s surely the first real showcase of her talent. She played on a 2008 live album by the Midtnorsk Ungdomsstorband big band; then there was the eponymous debut in 2012 of her Aella trio with fellow saxophonist Patrick Breinertrio and drummer/percussionist Max Goldman; and this year also saw the release of the Torg octet’s Kost/Elak/Gnäll, an album primarily dedicated to compositions by pianist Johan Lindvall, who is Mette Henriette’s pianist on the present album, and the only other featured composer.
Lindvall wrote three of the fifteen pieces on the first disc. His “.oOo.” is beautifully lucid, with strings and reeds feathering keyboard repetitions of minimalist limpidity, and his “3-4-5” is seductively lyrical – less obliquely so than anything written by Rølvåg, albeit she comes close with a vignette titled “the lost one”.
Of her pieces for the trio, “a void” is a delicate construction of pianism on an uneasy foundation of scoured cello, while “I do” is a thoughtful piece on which the saxophone momentarily soars in ecstasy, then teases out less clear-cut emotions. It’s disarmingly beautiful, as is the reprise of Lindvall’s “.oOo.” as “O”.
Disc two, titled Ø, features Rølvåg’s ‘sinfonietta’, a 13-piece ensemble that includes both Zerkalo and the Cikada string quartet – a group for whom Henriette has previously composed – plus a few other artists whose names may be familiar, including Zanussi Five’s Per Zanussi and Eivind Lønning and Per Oddvar Johansen, both of whom play in the ECM-recorded Christian Wallumrød Ensemble.
The sinfonietta pieces are fuller – Johansen’s brushed drums and Zanussi’s elastic bass on lead piece “passé” are subtly emphatic, and Mette Henriette’s lines unfurl with more melancholic expressivity here, while a relatively long duration – five full minutes – allows for the reprise of ideas with nuances modified. And “pearl rafter” may be a one-minute miniature, but it’s a sprightly and purposefully compacted minute that showcase’s the vivacity of the ensemble’s strings.
With a broader palette at her disposal, Rølvåg deploys resources sparingly, crafting a sequence of étude’s that showcase the qualities of individual players or sub-groups, holding others in reserve in order to highlight tonal contrasts, as with the sudden introduction of bold brass on the fourth fragment, “unfold”. The effect can be sketchy and episodic, as when “unfold” is followed by silence, and a slow intro to “wildheart” (5:54), preceding the album’s first real upsurge of pressure and tensity, brass-bolstered reeds wailing over roiling piano and drums.
Most pieces play off the mood of the last, the follow-ups here being the evenly-paced, pulse-founded “strangers by midday”, then a dramatic, almost Brechtian big-band number, “late à la carte”.
Over the full span, the ensemble’s shape-shifting is dramatic, heard to full jazzy effect on the turbulent “I”, the longest piece, but deployed as a chamber orchestra on “bare blacker rum” and “& the silver fox”.
On this disc you’ll also find some curious fragments such as “?”, an impressionistic interlude of embouchure exercise, and the likewise parpy “true”. They shouldn’t sit well in a sequence with the next, placidly shimmering “this will pass too”, but they do. Somehow the centre holds, and the album convinces fully as a whole, thanks to a prevailing mood of imaginative and occasionally playful experimentation under the leader’s incisively analytical direction.
The Mette Henriette website carries a strapline quote: “I always loved adventure and challenges”. She’s certainly met the challenge of her own-name debut impressively with this multifaceted offering. Now, what will she do next?
Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg saxophones; Johan Lindvall piano; Katrine Schiøtt cello. On disc two only: Andreas Rokseth bandoneon; Eivind Lønning trumpet; Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø trombone; Sara Övinge violin; Karin Hellqvist violin; Odd Hannisdal violin; Bendik Bjørnstad Foss viola; Ingvild Nesdal Sandnes cello; Per Zanussi bass; Per Oddvar Johansen drums, saw.
Buy Mette Henriette direct from ECM.