"Solid Ether" is a continuation of the work begun on 1998's "Khmer", the first album trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær made as a leader for ECM after many years as a valued sideman in projects ranging from Arild Andersen's jazz group Masqualero to Jon Balke's Norwegian big band Oslo 13 to Sidsel Endresen's discs of sung poetry, and new music percussionist Robyn Schulkowksy's "Hastening Westward".
"Khmer", with its brash and bold cross-referencing of idioms, bringing "jazz" improvisational skills to bear on a multiplicity of pop's sub-genres - including drum'n'bass, techno, ambient and jungle - and using rock's sound and energy to propel Molvær's solos over thunderous beats, met with a chorus of critical acclaim. The disc won, among other awards, the annual prize of the German Record Critics (Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik), and a Norwegian "grammy" and was voted Jazz Record of the Year in the L.A. Times; the record also led to Nils Petter's nomination for the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize 2000. On the club and festival circuit, too, the Molvær band has proven a potent force, both attracting listeners from previously demarcated musical camps and drawing the experi-enced jazz listener closer to NPM's brave new synthesis. "Khmer" has also opened doors for other musicians in Scandinavia and elsewhere attempting to embrace both the experimental and the populist in a single arc.
For Molvær, "Khmer" was something like a coming-out. Previously associated - at least beyond Nor-way's borders - almost exclusively with "nordic" improvisation and its gestural implications, he had long felt this to be an inadequate pigeonholing. In fact, Nils Petter played pop and rock before he played jazz and, from age 13, worked local venues and dance halls in and around the Norwegian island of Sula (where he was born in 1960) playing bass, drums and keyboards, before finally settling on the trumpet.
At the same time, he was also influenced by the example of his father, well-known as a local jazz mu-sician. The two streams, jazz and rock, were fairly even matched as inspirational sources. By his mid-teens the younger Molvaer was an enthusiastic admirer of the "electric" Miles Davis and still feels connected to the (under-rated) music Miles made from the late 60s to the mid 70s, between "Bitches Brew"and "Agharta". As other consistent influences he cites Don Cherry and Jon Hassell, also amongst the least "brassy" and aggressive of trumpeters. Molvær's liquid trumpet tone testifies to his wish to be considered "in my best moments, a singer"; preferred vocalists including Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell. For the musical collision-course manifesto of "Khmer" and now "Solid Ether", the ex-amples of Brian Eno and Bill Laswell have been significant. As a listener as well as a musician, NPM remains cheerfully open-minded: he is almost certainly the only man to have worked with George Russell, Elvin Jones and Gary Peacock who is today listening appreciatively to Portishead, Massive Attack, Maurizio and the Basement Jaxx - to mention just a few of his current pop/nu-house/club en-thusiasms.
Yet in the two years since "Khmer", Molvaer's music has also become self-perpetuating. As he says, "Outside sources are much less important now than what's happening inside the group. I feel very positive about the way the band is working, and I get a lot of ideas from where the music takes us when we play live"
"Solid Ether", however, opens with a piece that is almost entirely a solo performance. On "Dead In-deed" Molvaer plays piccolo trumpet (a debut on this particular instrument, borrowed from a local music shop for the purpose), trumpet, basses, and electronics -including clattering percussion loops - with Eivind Aarset adding overdubbed guitar. "It's basically all either played or programmed by me. At the beginning I'm playing the piccolo trumpet very softly, with the fourth valve down to get that slightly 'off-tune' effect." The track title is a random borrowing from a book of poems that happened, untypically, to be lying around at Rainbow Studio (alongside copies of Billboard and Studio Sound magazine).
"Vilderness", which appears in variant versions on the disc, is named for Nils Petter's daughter Vilde. "So for me 'Vilderness' is a word like 'tenderness'. (pause). Of course if anybody wants to hear the wilderness there, that's also OK with me. The piece started out with me playing on a delay on a paral-lel-effects processor. A sound without a tonality that I was using percussively." Eventually the band was added. "And then I cut them to pieces, and reassembled them. There's a lot of layering and very many sound-files on this piece."
"Kakonita" derives from the soundtrack of the film "Frozen Heart" (original title: Frosset hjerte), Stig Andersen and Kenny Sanders' biopic, based on the biography by Tor Bormann-Larsen, which takes a very caustic view of the life and achievements of polar explorer Roald Amundsen. "We've kicked Amundsen off his pedestal in Norway," Molvær notes with some satisfaction. The film dwells upon Amundsen's human failings. "Amundsen went to Alaska and brought back two Inuit girls and went to parties around the world posing with them: Inuits in Hollywood, Inuits in high society in London. He wanted the world to see him as this caring, father figure. But when his money ran low he just sent the girls back to the ice and snow. 'Kakonita' is from the scene where they go back - the saddest scene in the movie."
Sidsel Endresen and Nils Petter Molvær have a long musical relationship, and the trumpeter appears on both of the singer/poetess's ECM recordings, "So I Write" and Exile". On "Merciful", Endersen adds a lyric and her understated vocal to an older tune of Molvær's, played very sparsely by the com-poser at the piano. "I've always liked Sidsel's voice, and I also wanted to include some colours that might not be expected on an album after 'Khmer'. But the main reason for wanting to include 'Merci-ful' is really the words, which I can relate to also philosophically - the idea that everybody tries to develop their work and struggles to make their personal statement, but in the end you just leave an echo, like a train going through a station."
There is nothing deeply philosophical about "Ligotage". This is a rawer, heavier version of the tune originally released as a single in the wake of "Khmer"'s runaway success. Ligotage is, Molvær in-forms us, a "particularly twisted kind of sex act" for advanced students of bondage. NPM claims not to have tried it: "I just imagined how it was." Musically the piece is built upon a pumping dub bass line, not far removed from Robbie Shakespeare's territory, although Nils Petter's slowly mutating trumpet solo and the encroaching, baying electronics - and DJ Strangefruit's off-kilter beats and samples - put a different spin on the matter. Strangefruit, aka Paal Nyhus, is credited by Molvær with keeping the sense of surprise alive in the band's music: "He's very important as an ideas man, especially when we play live."
"Trip" explores what happens when a trumpet is fed through that celebrated spectral cross-modulator called the Vocoder. On the one hand the piece is an experiment with timbre and texture, but the trans-parent nature of the production lets the listener learn something of the characters who make up the Molvær band. Of particular interest is the meshing of the beats of Per Lindvall and Rune Arnesen, the band's two drummers who, playing hand-made rhythm patterns (sticks on skins) amid the machines, help to emphasise the music's human touch. Per Lindvall first made a name for himself playing drums with pop group Abba, although he has since been reaching out to music of more improvisational na-ture. Rune Arnesen specialized, in pre-"Khmer" years, in folk, folk-rock and country-rock sessions and his credits include distinguished recordings with US singer/songwriters Rick Danko and Eric An-dersen. Latterly, Arnesen (and Molvær guitarist Eivind Aarset) have worked with ex Terje Rypdal trombonist Torbjørn Sunde's Meridians project.
"Tragomar", described as "a fairly straightahead ballad song", is titled after a restaurant on the beach of a fishing village in Northeast Spain. "I think the name means 'swallow the sea'" - if so, a nice metaphor for NPM's attempts to ingest so much of the ocean of sound. Eivind Aarset's sensitive use of electronics and delicate guitar shadings here emphasize just how far he has travelled since his days as a teenage heavy metal player. Increasingly important in Molvaer's line-ups, Aarset can also be heard on an ECM recording with Marilyn Mazur ("Small Labyrinths"), has worked extensively with Arild Andersen and with Bugge Wesseltoft in the Far North, and also drawn press attention for his leader project, "Electronique Noir".
The beginning of "Solid Ether"'s title track is inspired by a piece by the Brixton-based DJs and nu-house/new soul underground musicians the Basement Jaxx: "They have all these beats going on, stop-ping and starting all the time and they use delays to weave them together. It's an idea I like and have adapted. Then we go from there into the very long rubato theme, which is really several themes in one and contrasts wild sounds and quiet sections. Playing this live is fantastic, it puts you in a kind of trance."
Listeners will have a chance to share the experience when the Solid Ether band, now augmented by a second turntables artist - the mysterious Venezuelan/Norwegian DJ Darknorse -takes to the boards this spring with concerts in France, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway and Germany. The band will again be on the road through June and July with dates in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Iceland, Sweden, Italy and the UK. Consult the ECM website for the current tourdates.