Review: Nils Økland at Turner Sims

Norway's Nils Økland Band enjoys the freedom of playing unamplified and gives Michael Tucker an evening of consistently arresting music

You've got to hand it to the Turner Sims Hall at Southampton University: no matter how tough the economic climate might be, the organisers there continue to come up with programmes rich in the best of jazz, folk and classical music. This November has stellar jazz – or jazz-inflected – gigs from the Nils Økland Band from Norway, America's The Cookers and Økland's compatriot Marius Neset with the London Sinfonietta.

Økland's appearance on Friday 11 November followed a well-received night at King's Place, London: interestingly, Økland (pictured right) volunteered that while the London gig had been really enjoyable, he preferred the hall at Turner Sims because the musicians were able to play without any amplification. Promoters, please note!

The violinist, who used three instruments on the night and a variety of tunings, was joined by the musicians featured on his recent, critically acclaimed album Kjølvatn, released on ECM: Rolf-Erik Nystrøm (as, ss), Sigbjørn Apeland (harmonium) and Mats Eilertsen (bass), with Torje Jamne taking the place of Håkon Mørch Stene on percussion and vibraphone. Two sets, one of around 40 minutes and the other nudging an hour, featured plenty of material from Kjølvatn (the title signifying the wake left by a boat) but also a further diversity of material, old and new – some of the last, Økland revealed, coming out of a trip he had made to the New Forest in autumn 2015 in order to play with local musicians there.

If Kjølvatn's Mali exemplified the leader's ability to cut a deep, dance-inducing groove into minimal yet mesmeric archetypal folk melody, a tone poem dedicated to the troubled Norwegian visionary painter Lars Hertervig (1830-1902) served affecting notice of Økland's complementary capacity to explore rubato mood and delicately cast voicings. Throughout, Eilertsen's mobile yet judiciously employed bass lines brought a distinct jazz flavour to the proceedings, and many a phrase from the leader conjured transmuted echoes of the blues. Økland's previous ECM release, Lumen Drones, featured some tough interaction with electric guitar. Early on, he studied with the legendary Hardanger fiddle master Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa and while many such teachers take an unbending traditional line on how this magical instrument, with its shimmering supplementary resonating strings, should be approached, Økland revealed that when he told Osa he wanted to travel to Chicago to learn how to play the blues on the Harding fiddle, Osa said simply: “That's a good idea!” And it was exactly such open-mindedness which characterised the consistently arresting music.

If Apeland's harmonium conjured images of far-off country churches, Nystrøm's extraordinary, ultra-disciplined technical command ranged equally across soundscapes and genres, with the evocative timbres of flute and whistle, pipe and drum as available to him as jazz-smeared line or classically infused counterpoint. Jamne's rhythmic and textural sensitivity was such that the music seemed at once bare-boned and delicately wrapped in many a magically woven atmosphere, perfect complement to the leader's wide-ranging dynamic and rhythmic sensibilities, set always in the service of melody. A superb evening, with the deeply attentive and appreciative audience rewarded with a lovely waltz for an encore, as lilting as it was driving.

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