Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Get To Know: The Helge Lien Trio

This is an interesting piano trio, led by Helge Lien on piano, Frode Berg on bass, and Knut Aalefjær on drums, whose third major CD, "Kattenslager"   (Ozella 2012) will be released shortly, following "Natsukashii" in 2011 and "Hello Troll" in 2008, also on Ozella, a German record label.

Norway has a major  jazz tradition and this trio just adds to the range of voices from there. They balance jazz traditions, classic backgrounds, and the new European modernism/chamber jazz sensibilities into a mix that can only be called their own. They are one of the handful of European trios that find roots in these traditions and in the sounds that many associate beginning with E.S.T. and being practiced by Marcin Wasilewski, RGG, and others, although they are much more about original compositions than combining them with reimaging pop songs. Relatively unkown in the U.S., they have six albums to their name, the last three on Ozella that are easily obtainable, and have won major awards for thier work in Germany.

KattenslagerHelge Lien has a distinctive sound that uses a lot of short phrases and open spaces, that provides imressionistic snippets to dwell on, and that relies on a great deal of subtlety with his partners, who provide modest coloration to the tone poems that make up this chamber jazz. The sound is lyrical though not necessarily contained in continuous melodies or long legato passages; and the sound requires one to listen to subtleties and distinct moods. When the music is moving at mid-tempo speeds, it does not swing in the traditional sense, with the movement more created by the use of tempo variations in rubato passages. Working with classic-impressionistic patterns and rhythmical-melodic jazz, this trio’s range and depth of feeling is growing with each release. It is this use of elastic time and improvisation that distinguishes the group as tied to European models rather than those of its American counterparts. 

The new CD, "Katenslager" is more of an outing for Lien, with frankly little input from the bass and drums as on previous CDs. This makes the CD no less wonderful to hear, and the compositions follow the framework discussed above --- a mix of classical and chamber jazz music with some jazz elements -- but in this case the emphasis has shifted to a more impressionistic set of pieces led by Lien, who plays a fantastic piano here with all sorts of range in emotions and play. Lien uses space to great purpose, on many pieces setting off short bursts of melody that allow the phrases to sink in. "Furulokk" is a particularly good example, where Lien plays short, staccato lines as if he is just thinking them up as he goes along, with major pauses as if considering where to go next. Still, the piece holds together beautifully, and legator runs interspersed with the short bursts serve to unify this piece, which relies almost entirely on the right hand. In contract, a number of pieces has significant left hand parts, in some cases like "Knyl Og Kann" these left hand notes can sound ominous as they are rolled in a thunderous undertone and propel the music forward. In "Kattinslager", the title piece, it is hard to determine if the piece opens with a strong accoustic bass line or a piano bass line, but gradually the piano bass hand emerges in a modernized boodie woogie-like setting that moves the piece along. Lien plays inside the piano at times as well, as on "Grusviavanderer" a moody outing that opens the CD rather unusually with heavy thrumming from the bass lines and only occasional tinkles of the right hand on the piano keys themselves. 

NatsukashiiThe CD ends more delicately than it begins, with "Oy", a quiet pastoral piece of exquisite chamber jazz for solo piano, preceded by "Ur" a moody, eerie outing for piano as well that is delicate, unrushed, and thoughtful.

HelloTroll.jpgThis outing is leans more to the maniplation of sound and space and away from some of the more melodic outpourings of the two previous albums, but in doing so it links all of the pieces as a wonderfully thoughtful and impressionistic whole. It never plays at more than a slow to mid-tempo speed, it has no distinctive pieces that interpret modern pop songs like e.s.t and others, there are no electronics or overdubbings. and it creaates a single fascinating ambience. It is for those who like European chamber jazz, ECM recordings, and slow and thoughtful piano trios, and for those folks this and the previous two CDs by Helge Lien should not be overlooked.

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