Monday, August 04, 2008

Leipzig Live

Life in Leipzig
By Ketil Bjørnstad and Terje Rypdal
ECM Records 2052

With thirty published books and novels to his credit, Ketil Bjørnstad is certainly a literate jazz artist. While his only volume currently available in English is a biography of Edvard Munch, the influence of his fellow Norwegian artist is not readily apparent on Life in Leipzig, his new live duet release with frequent collaborator Terje Rypdal. However, the pianist and guitarist do create music of a vivid, darkly-hued nature, not totally foreign the spirit of some of the painter’s work.

Bjørnstad immediately serves notice of the dramatic program to come through the deep resonance of the Bösendorfer’s added low-end, as “The Sea V” rumbles to life with the sound of ominous foreboding. Bjørnstad slowly releases the tension and lightens the tone while Rypdal simply adds starkly atmospheric distortion effects, until entering in well past the track’s halfway mark, swooping and soaring over Bjørnstad’s piano, until they seamlessly segue into the next tune, “The Pleasure is Mine.”

As a set, Leipzig has a seductive ebb and flow that matches Bjørnstad’s frequent water music motifs. While their concert repertoire drew largely from Bjørnstad’s The Sea, his thematically related Water Stories, and several of Rypdal’s releases, it sounds almost like an extended suite, so subtle are the transitions from piece to piece. Bjørnstad alternates his rhapsodic runs on the keys with Rypdal’s squealing and shredding guitar through “The Sea V,” “Pleasure,” and “The Sea II,” finally giving the audience space to applaud with the conclusion of “Flotations and Surroundings.”

While “Easy Now” is more restrained and delicate, it could have been a coda to the preceding suite-but-not-a-suite. Grieg’s “Notturno” is a palate cleaning feature for Bjørnstad, as is the lovely miniature “Alai’s Room,” which leads directly into majestic “By the Fjord,” an ode to Norway if ever there was one.

As one of the greatest hits of Scandinavian jazz, the first audible notes of Rypdal’s “The Return of Per Ulv” brings appreciative applause from the audience. It is actually a tribute to the Warner Brothers’ character Wile E. Coyote, known as Peter Wolf in Norway, as the “Wile E.” presumably would not translate. It is a catchy melody here performed with gusto by both Bjørnstad and the composer, closing out quite a concert.

Although Leipzig is a live recording in the East German city’s Opera House, it often sounds like a studio production. While Bjørnstad might in his words: “not always be the softest pianist,” it is still a real trick balancing piano and electric guitar, so neither sounds overwhelmed or muffled, but no such worries here.

The sound is indeed fantastic and the music is compelling. Having performed together as a duo and in The Sea Quartet, Bjørnstad and Rypdal show a remarkable level of musical empathy in a powerhouse concert, the sonic currents of which listeners can willingly lose themselves in, until the rousing finale breaks the spell.