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Nils Okland Band – Kjolvatn – ECM

Nils Okland Band – Kjolvatn – ECM 2382, 49:25 6/26/15 ***:

(Nils Okland; viola d’amore, fiddle/ Rolf-Erik Nystrom; saxophones/ Sigbjorn Apeland; harmonium/ Mats Eilertson; double-bass/ Hakon Morch Stene; percussion, vibraphone)

A November open-boat journey with ECM.

Here we have an ECM production in the by now well-established Nordic folk-jazz genre. The cover features the inevitable crepuscular seascape with clouds receding. There is not a bird in sight, nor any artifact of the human or animal world. It is the watery element raised to a metaphysical principle. Eicher and his staff spend much time choosing the ECM covers.

The group features an intriguing line-up of instruments. The leader, Nils Okland, plays the Hardanger fiddle, with its extra deep resonance from the sympathetic strings on the back, as well as viola d’amore. Rolf-Erik Nystrom is on alto saxophone. Mats Eilertsen is on double-bass. There is a wide assortment of percussion in addition to vibraphone from Hakon Stene and harmonium by Sigbjorn Apelsand.

All predictions by experienced ECM fans will prove correct as to the general drift and mood of this recording. It was recorded in a stone church; deeply resonant and dark hued, giving excellent presence to the strings and percussion. Perhaps, rightly, one asks oneself: Will there be any surprises at all?

The first track “Mali” announces itself with a compelling but light percussion played against a roiling harmonium and fiddle. A simple figure ebbs and flows and builds a sombre assessment of things. Then, suddenly, comes a short upward modulation on the bridge, and we feel rays of hope. The first sign of bird-life comes in the form of the saxophonist, whose upper register tootling avoids the enormous and far reaching influence of his Nordic ECM predecessors. In this thick textured piece not much is asserted.

The second track, “Undergruun,” as well as the third, “Drev,” are constructed on even simpler melodic principles. On the first, two eigth-notes phrases play on the fiddle against a static drone. We feels truly out of sight of land now. The string sound is so close, vibrato-less and icy. The saxophone seems to have no real chore and simply adds to the sombre textures while the bass suggests colder waters deeper down. “Drev” sounds more like a commentary on the previous tune. The fiddle inverts the theme, and then, as it loses interest, the piece drifts on a number of minimalist effects of cymbals and reed.

The third track, “Kjolvatn,” gives up the notion of melody altogether as if the first three numbers proved the impossibility of the thing. The pulse drops off to nothing. Bass and viola sleep-walk through a two-chord sequence. There are moments when we feel like we are surrounded in a refulgent mist; each major triad arrives as a mercy.  Mostly, one feels bored.

On subsequent tracks, there are moments of nicely achieved musical textures. In “Start,” one gets an intimation of the lovely Swedish folk tradition. But by this time attempt at movement seems condemned rather than inspired by repetition and the obligatory wind howling through a hollow bone. Only the simple bass passages in “Skugge” evoke a world where people cheerfully go about work and play. By “Amstel,” on which the violin plays with much deferred affection, our dampened spirits are already seeking refuge at some hospitable hearth.  Of course, my mother’s German adage “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing” suggests to me that some better-fortified person might find within this chilly music a spacious and still beauty. To me, it was artistically muted and adrift.

TrackList: Mali; Undergrunn; Drev; Kjolvatn; Puls; Fivreld; Start; Skugge; Bla Harding; Amstel;

—Fritz Balwit

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