Review: Arve Henriksen at Gateshead




Fred Grand finds that despite comparisons to old hand Jon Hassell, the Norwegian trumpeter's band has originated an entirely new dialect

Between the marquee names of Jay Rayner, Ruby Turner and Georgie Fame and dedications to such jazz legends as Sun Ra and Art Blakey, there was surprisingly little to capture my imagination at this year’s Gateshead International Jazz Festival. Of course, the line-up was no less stellar than usual, and there remain few UK venues with the sheer range and quality of performance spaces as those found at Sage Gateshead.

Yet it was only the final concert of the programme, featuring Arve Henriksen’s latest ensemble (pictured right), which really struck me as a “must see”. On that basis I took the unusual decision to pare back my 2018 festival experience to this single event, and it turned out to be a decision that rewarded me with handsome dividends.

Before the main event got underway there was an interesting hors d’oeuvre from Belgium. SCHNTZL, a quirky duo of pianist Hendrik Lasure and drummer Casper Van De Velde, found some refreshing perspectives on that well-trodden territory between composition and improvisation. Given the rave notices from mainland Europe I was surprised to learn that this was their UK debut, and as if to add to the intrigue surrounding the group’s name Van der Velde’s hi-hat bore an uncanny resemblance to a vertical kebab rotisserie.

With a shared musical history stretching back to their pre-teen years, the duo’s close musical rapport was in evidence at every twist and turn. Taking listeners down some unexpected musical tributaries, they drew on wide ranging but loosely related influences including the classic minimalism of Steve Reich and Charlemagne Palestine, the early electronic music of John Cage and Morton Subotnick and the contemporary jazz minimalism of Nik Bärtsch and Don Li. Although not entirely without its longeurs, I found the single 40-minute piece which accounted for the bulk of their short set strangely compelling and would love to hear more.

If SCHNTZL could be said to be followers of some well-established traditions, Henriksen’s group can justifiably claim to be the originators of an entirely new dialect. No longer a rising star of new European jazz, the trumpeter recently turned 50 and has now been expanding the music’s horizons for close to two decades. From edgy post-rock with Motorpsycho and Supersilent to forays into early music with Trio Mediaeval and numerous collaborations with art-pop hero David Sylvian, Henriksen’s burnished ethereal tone is unmistakable. He and Jan Bang (electronics) both appeared at the very first GIJF in 2005 for an "in the round" performance which is still fondly remembered by those who attended, and this time around Erik Honoré (electronics) and Eyvind Aarset (guitar, electronics) joined the cast.

The clear sight-lines and relative intimacy of Sage 2 provided an ideal space in which to appreciate the group’s dusky and intricately textured soundscapes. Henriksen’s otherworldly timbres - somewhere between the woodiness of the Japanese shakuhachi and the pitch-bending of the ocarina - are perhaps the feature of his music that most divides the jazz audience. Comparisons to Jon Hassell and Ben Neill often seem inevitable, and to perhaps an even greater extent than compatriot Nils Petter Molvær. Henriksen’s music embraces that particularly influential brand of ambient music which followed Brian Eno’s groundbreaking On Land (1982). Yet for all of the group’s undisputed mastery of electronics, several powerful passages of pure acoustic magic stood in stark relief. Henriksen’s lyrical pocket trumpet phrasing carried the human warmth of the late Don Cherry, a brief passage of muted trumpet balladry couldn’t have come from anywhere other than classic 50s Miles, and although an acquired taste Henriksen's soprano vocalising never fails to move me.

They didn't rigidly follow the running order of the recent album Towards Language (Rune Grammofon, 2017). The soothing sonic balm of opener Patient Zero was instantly alluring and elsewhere the languid bass-driven grooves of Groundswell and the melancholic balladry of Hibernal were particularly good. But it was the improvised passages that held the stronger fascination, and whereas the album was a polished and nearly flawless product, this performance was more roughly hewn.

Special mention needs to be made of Bang and Honoré, musical directors of Norway’s prestigious Punkt festival and masters of the dreamy and mildly disturbing sound collage. It is only by seeing them up close that you begin to fully appreciate their alchemical art. Perched behind a mass of wires, screens and mixing boards, the pair fervidly sampled and processed the source material which was being provided in real-time by Henriksen and Aarset. Snippets often echoed the soloists instantaneously, before being deliberately degraded and re-contextualised in a process of continuous regeneration and renewal.

It struck me that to a much greater extent than "old school" improv or free jazz it is the creative use of live electronics which is now improvised music's real frontier. With seemingly limitless new universes of sound waiting to be harnessed, the only limiting factor is the imagination. Henriksen’s band showed no shortage of either skill or imagination, and despite this being my only exposure to the 2018 GIJF, the concert will rank amongst the very best I’ve heard.

Photo by Tim Dickeson


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