“Sangam”, means “coming together”, “confluence” or “learned gathering” in Sanskrit; sometimes it is taken to signify “the meeting point of three rivers”. Interpret that literally in Trygve Seim’s case and the different rivers might symbolize the cross-referencing of jazz, contemporary composition and diverse world folk traditions in his work. On the second ECM album issued under his name, the Norwegian saxophonist draws inspiration from musical and non-musical sources both local and far-flung, bringing these influences to bear on compositions and arrangements that are uniquely personal. “Sangam” is also a term used for ancient Tamil love poetry which explores, as one writer put it, “the vortex of love, longing and loneliness”; the emotional landscape of Seim’s disc is not unconcerned with such themes.
Although Seim has been heard recently with The Source, the improvising group he co-leads with Øyvind Brække and Per Oddvar Johansen (both featured here), and has guested on Christain Wallumrød’s “Sofienberg Variations”, “Sangam” is far closer in spirit to “Different Rivers”, the ECM debut that overwhelmed international critics in 2001. “Different Rivers” won the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik Jahrespreis, the Album-of–the-Year Award of the German Music Critics, appeared on numerous Best-of lists, and received almost unanimous accolades from journalists everywhere.
“Destined to be one of ECM’s classic,” John Fordham predicted in the Guardian. “At times Trygve Seim sounds like no sax player you’ve ever heard – more like wind in the trees, or wooden flutes... An extended band delivers a remarkable sequence of tone trances, at times faintly suggestive of Carla Bley and Gil Evans, but based on small melodic motifs, given strength and mesmeric fascination by progressive harmonic overlays and tonal variation”.“An astonishing ECM debut,” Richard Cook concurred in Jazz Review. “In this age of rhythm, Seim’s music takes an almost contrary stance, dedicating itself to melody, timbre and the utmost refinements of tone and weight….A masterly, uncompromising jazz record.” In the International Herald Tribune, Mike Zwerin wrote that “Seim presents the wind instrument chamber ensemble, a sort of slow-floating, pianissimo little-big band with occasional understated kicks. The shadow of Gil Evans hovers. The horn blowers finesse their personal, breathy, non-symphonic textures from behind the beat.”
The apposite match between Seim’s musical values and the label’s was noted by many reviewers, and is not coincidental. “ECM’s productions have been a huge influence on me,” Seim told Morten Nilsen of Scanorama. A central figure in the ‘second generation’ of Norwegian musicians who have taken their artistic lead from the directions ECM signposted in the 70s and 80s, Seim was just 13 when he experienced a musical awakening after hearing Jan Garbarek’s “Eventyr”: “I couldn’t believe a saxophone could sound like that.”
He immediately began playing sax – taking up (like Garbarek) both the tenor and the curved soprano – but was soon quickly moving beyond his initial inspiration. If the now-characteristic “Nordic” cry is part of his sound, many other elements have been assimilated. The free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler had a major liberating impact while he was studying in Trondheim, where The Source was founded. Amongst players of the North Seim was strongly drawn to Finnish drummer Edward Vesala’s idiosyncratic concepts, and worked intermittently with him over a four-year period, 1995-1999. After Vesala’s death, Seim continued to collaborate with Edward’s widow, harpist-pianist-arranger Iro Haarla (and is part of her new quintet with Jon Christensen, Mathias Eick and Uffe Krokfors – ECM album in preparation).
Seim also acquired a passion for the music of the Far East, especially the flute traditions of Asia (the duduk, the shakuhachi) and Eastern vocal music generally. An interest in Buddhism, too, has left its imprint on his music – the idea of breath is central to the pieces. As in meditation, breath is the motor here, the energiser. And yet the music is strong, not fragile, for all its sensitive arrangements, as audiences who have seen the Seim Ensemble on tour in the last three years will confirm. There is also increasing concern with form, with structure. The Source incorporated music of Lutoslawski on their ECM recording, “The Source and Different Cikadas”, and Seim has cited the influence of Terje Bjørklund, Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki on his writing of recent years.
Trygve Seim has made some changes in his orchestra’s line-up since “Different Rivers,” the most significant of which may be the addition to the band of Frode Haltli on accordion. Haltli dazzled last year on his multi-prize winning debut “Looking on Darkness” (Norwegian Grammy “Spelemannprisen”, Norwegian Soloist of the Year Award, French Prix Gus Viseur). The young accordion virtuoso is a unique figure, a new music interpreter with a strong feeling for improvisation, who is also at home in Norwegian folk music – he moves between the idioms with uncommon ease. On cello, Morten Hannisdal is another musician breaking free of the limits of the “classical” tradition. A member of the Cikada Quartet, important advocates of contemporary music he has been heard on the New Series playing music of Bernt Sorensen on “Birds and Bells” (further New Series recordings with Cikada are on the way), and on ECM jazz discs with Annette Peacock, and Arild Andersen, as well as with The Source.
The ensemble’s strong front line includes trumpeter Arve Henriksen, gradually being recognised as one of the most individual voices in contemporary jazz improvisation. Henriksen has some stunning moments on this disc. If Seim, Henriksen and Haltli most often appear in the arrangements’ spotlight, the underrated Håvard Lund on clarinets also helps shape the tone of the music as a whole. In his writings for the ensemble, however, Trygve Seim is challenging the notion of jazz arrangement as mere backgrounds as soloists. Texture and melodies are highlighted in new ways, the individual voices of the band are often blended, to create new colours, and the distinction between the written and the improvised is constantly blurred.
Widening the Seim orchestra’s sonic palette still further is the addition, on the four-part “Himmelrand i Tidevand”, of a string ensemble conducted by Christian Eggen. Highly respected as a conductor of new music – he has collaborated closely with John Cage, György Kurtág, Kaija Saariaho, Helmut Lachenmann, Brian Ferneyhough and others - Eggen has also recorded ECM with Terje Rypdal (“Undisonus”, “Q.E.D.”, “If Mountains Could Sing”, “Skywards”).
Trygve Seim celebrates the release of “Sangam” with a special concert as part of Oslo’s Ultima Festival for Contemporary Music, on October 14th.