Nils Petter Molvær has been a hard man to pin down on his eight previous ECM sessions – with new music percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, with the Norwegian big band Oslo 13, with singer/songwriter Sidsel Endresen, with jazz group Masqualero – and the thunderous beats, industrial-rock sounds and ambient/dub textures of Khmer, his first album as a leader, are unlikely to make definitive characterization any easier. As the liner photo of Khmer indicates, the trumpeter remains a shadowy figure. Molvær himself finds no contradictions in his diverse endeavours, insisting that he is interested in improvisation in all of its manifestations. "I didn’t grow up playing jazz standards. I started out with electric Miles Davis when I was 16 and grew up following the developments Miles established from Bitches Brew to Agharta . I still love all that. Khmer, to me, is in some ways still connected to that part of the ‘tradition’, if you can call it that, and so is a lot of the music I’ve been listening to over the last decade," The full range, however, has included the "collision-course" productions of Bill Laswell, the pop music of Massive Attack and "various drum’n’bass and jungle and techno things coming out of England", as well as the collective tribal pulses of the non-Western world.
Electric and acoustic musics have been parallel interests for Molvær (born in Sula, on the northwest coast of Norway) since he began playing in public. His facility with the conventions of modern jazz technique has enabled him to play with Elvin Jones, George Russell, Gary Peacock and most of the leading Scandinavian improvisors but he has also always heard "a harder sound and a heavier beat" in his mind. "I’ve worked on very many rock sessions in Norway and always felt at home in that world, too. And back in 1982 I had a band of my own that was playing a very energetic, very tough, Joe Bowie/Defunkt type groove…"
Molvær began sketching ideas for Khmer back in 1993, working by himself with a computer. The material began to take more concrete shape with the involvement of co-producer and engineer Ulf W. Ø. Holand. Holand runs Lydlab, on the third floor of the Rainbow Studio complex ("the musicians call it ‘Over The Rainbow’"), and let the trumpeter have any available studio time. "We recorded an enormous amount of material in blocks of two days here, two days there. The big job was to sift and edit it."
Of the musicians rounded up for the Khmer project, only one, guitarist Eivind Aarset, has previously recorded for ECM. He can be heard on Marilyn Mazur’s Small Labyrinths. Aarset works extensively with Arild Andersen and Bendik Hofseth in Norway and also leads his own stylistically-eclectic group, Ab und Zu. Molvær: "Eivind was playing in a heavy rock band when I first heard him, 18 years ago, but developed into into the most versatile guitarist I know." Second guitarist Morten Molster is also a player whose work has undergone extreme transformations. A decade ago he was a "Norwegian rock and roll star" in a band called The September When. These days, inspired by Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock, he prefers to play free improvisation. When Molvær first gave the Khmer material its test run on the road he used just the contrasting styles of the guitar players and his own trumpet to define the music’s direction, backed up "by samples running freely."
Roger Ludvigsen, on loan from Mari Boine’s touring band, is the third guitarist on the session. His preference for acoustic instruments should not be confused with an unbending allegiance to "folk", however. He plays prepared acoustic guitar with a bow, for instance, and makes unconventional use of the dulcimer, too. According to Molvær, drummer Rune Arnesen has specialized in playing with country-rock bands but has nonetheless acquired an ability to play an idiosyncratic groove, at times nudging the margins of techno, which the trumpeter describes as "sexy" (n.b.: first use of this adjective in an ECM press text.) The recording line-up is completed by sound treatments man Reidar Skår, who is, henceforth, Molvær’s partner in all live Khmer realizations, alongside Rune Arnesen and Eivin Aarset (the basic group will be augmented for larger concerts). Trained as a keyboard player, Skår also works as a rock producer and is expert in the creative manipulation of sound samples.
Nils Petter Molvær on the Khmer material:
Khmer (title track): "Kmer is built around the dulcimer part. My basic idea was to make a piece of music that was rhythmically ambiguous. I wanted to take away the ‘one’, the feeling of a down beat. So the dulcimer is playing in seven, there’s a bass drum in five, other instruments are in two and three, and there’s a sample in 6/8. Then there’s a trumpet theme that’s kind of Don Cherry-ish. It’s basically something that moves and floats away without you knowing where the ‘one’ is. Originally, it had no ‘Asian’ connotation. As with all the tracks, the title is an afterthought. But a long time ago I’d played Eivin a record called Hybrid by Michael Brook and he came in with a melodic line that had that kind of a feel to it. The piece as a whole came out of playing together live in the studio, and then fitting elements together – such as the percussion, which Roger and I added. It’s an architectural kind of construction."
Tløn: "This our techno song. It started out with a loop I picked up on from Coldcut’s Kleptomania, a CD of free samples. It’s a slowly building thing that finally leaps ahead with a groove of something like 175 beats per minute. On top of the heavy beat, as extreme contrast, I’m playing a melancholy improvisation that’s translating flutelike ideas onto the trumpet."
Access: "This is a fragment of a much larger piece I wrote for the Vossajazz festival in Norway. A tiny theme that Reidar helped me out with. It’s intended as a link, to provide access from ‘Tløn’ into ‘Song of Sand’."
Song Of Sand I: "A radical Manfred Eicher remix, which removes the theme and emphasizes the groove . Basically what’s left is the big beat plus Eivind’s guitar. The harmonic structure of the song doesn’t become apparent until your hear the second version later in the album. Manfred was important for the album as a whole. Very early in the process I played him some of the material and he said ‘It needs more focus.’ And that was very definitely true. Finding focus became my goal. Later when I couldn’t see how the whole project should hang together, Manfred came in and did some drastic reordering of the material, and suddenly the album worked as an album…"
On Stream: "A ballad, with discreet use of samples. There’s a tabla in there, for instance, that we took down to almost nothing, so it’s a near-subliminal, barely moving thing. ‘On Stream”s a lyrical piece, a song with solos for guitar and trumpet."
Platonic Years: "This is built on loops and on a simple theme which has some African influences. Bill Laswell kindly let us use a loop from his Lost In The Translation album, and there’s also a loop from Eivind Aarset’s band Ab und Zu. With the loops as a basis we just structured the piece spontaneously in the studio. The floating guitar that drifts in and out is Eivind making ambient use of his Eventide machine."
Phum: "A duet for trumpet and acoustic guitar, concepted to put some breathing space into the album. Some air, y’know, a place to pause between the heavy beats."
Song Of Sand II: "This is the big ‘Song Of Sand’. You get to hear more of the structure, the trumpet is pushed out front now, and there are longer stretches of improvisation. It’s more edgy than the first version."
Exit: "A little feature for Roger and Eivind, leaving the album with an open-ended feeling."
Molvær’s album is being supported, at club level, by a vinyl maxi-single of remixes featuring the input of Herbalizer, Mental Overdrive and Rockers HiFi – the first time an ECM production has been subjected to such treatment. Nils Petter is enthusiastic about the process. "Most of the guys in the remix world have a brilliant feeling for beats and putting together grooves. I like this feeling of just letting loose all the elements of the work and then being confronted with them again, reassembled from the point of view of somebody else’s aesthetic consciousness."