“Time” is a guiding principle in any drummer’s ensemble, not least when it is subtly subdivided or extended as it is in this debut by Thomas Strønen’s acoustic group. The name derives from a literary source, “Time is a blind guide” being the first sentence in Canadian author Anne Michaels’s 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces.
The band ‘Time Is A Blind Guide’ was formed rather spontaneously, following an invitation from UK broadcaster Fiona Talkington, an early supporter of the Strønen/Iain Ballamy group ‘Food’, who commissioned Thomas to write music for a combination of Norwegian and British musicians for Conexions, a concert series she was curating at Oslo’s Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene. Thomas Strønen: “We were talking about different musicians and she put forward some names – one of them was [pianist] Kit Downes, a very good recommendation – and I put forward some names. Then I wrote music for the ensemble and put the band together for the concert. It went really well, and I realized right away that we couldn’t stop at this point. We needed to develop the music further, we needed to play more. I’d had no intention of starting a new band – at that point I was playing in loads of different groups – but the musical potential was so evident that we needed to pursue it. So I began to cut back on other activities, making ‘Time Is A Blind Guide’ a priority, so we could get the music really strong and solid.”
The group played concerts over a two year period before going to the studio. The album Time Is A Blind Guide was recorded at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio in July 2015, with Strønen and Sun Chung producing. The leader’s vision of a strongly melodic and energetic music underpinned by unorthodox time signatures and fluid rhythms is fully borne out. “I like that feeling of melodies so accessible you can sing them, yet it’s challenging to clap your hands or stamp your feet to the music. It’s melodic music with a twist.”
The band was built to include a number of overlapping musical sub-groups. “Almost every drummer and every pianist loves to play in piano trios, and there is a kind of enhanced piano trio at the centre of ‘Time Is A Blind Guide’. And there is a string group with violin and cello and bass – over the years I’ve written lots of music for strings. And there’s also a drum ensemble with me and Siv Øyunn Kjenstad and Steinar Mossige…” For smaller gigs, the band contracts to quintet size, minus its percussionists, but their presence is important here. “I wanted to have this group be completely acoustic, and avoid electronics in this context, but in a way the percussionists have a role a bit like my sampler in Food. Not that I ‘programme’ them [laughs], but they have specific tasks between the tunes, and they play solid grooves so I can either play very freely on top, or simply play less when I choose to.” Together drums and percussion have a detailed grip on the subtly shifting rhythms. Strønen traces his involvement with unorthodox time signatures back to his years in Trondheim. “Both at the Music Conservatory and the Jazz Academy I started working on odd signatures and polyrhythms and studied music of many different traditions – Gamelan music, West African music, Japanese music and more. And I had a long period of listening to Minimal music, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and so on. In younger years I played in a number of bands where the music was based around advanced rhythmic ideas. At a certain point I let it go and played more free and open music, but it has come back, transformed, in this ensemble.”
Håkon Aase recently replaced ‘Time Is A Blind Guide’s’ original violinist Nils Økland – Strønen: “I heard Håkon play at the Royal Academy of Music in Oslo a couple of times. He’s really young and his musical potential is enormous. I thought: he could be just the force we need for this band with loads of energy and good ideas.” In the ensemble’s string section he joins gifted UK cellist Lucy Railton, one of few contemporary classical players equally at home in the worlds of improvised music and jazz. She’s played in duo with Kit Downes and in his quintet, and recorded Giancinto Scelsi’s Duo for violin and cello with Aisha Orazbayeva.
Kit Downes, widely-acclaimed UK pianist, makes his ECM debut with Time Is A Blind Guide. Downes also leads his own trio, and plays regularly with the electric trio Troyka, with Stan Sulzmann and many others.
Bassist Ole Morten Vågan founded the band Motif in 1999, a group which gave early exposure to Mathias Eick. He has composed for the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and collaborated with numerous free improvisers. In ‘Time Is A Blind Guide’ his muscular bass has a significant centering role.
Thomas Strønen’s wide ranging compositions here include a melancholic drum piece, “Everything Disappears II (Ode to JT)”, the dedication being to John Taylor, with whom Thomas worked in the trio Meadow, with Tore Brunborg. “I could as easily have dedicated everything to John,” Strønen says. “He was such an inspiring and positive musician to be around.”