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Album Review

There is an art to the duo performance — many jazz artists have tried it and accomplished it beautifully in many settings, live and in the studio. That said, there are very few recorded live performances between an electric guitarist and a pianist. Life in Leipzig is one. Recorded in 2005 by Germany's MDR radio as part of its broadcast of the city's jazz festival, this marks the debut live offering by pianist and composer Ketil Bjørnstad (and his first recording for ECM since 2000). It is also the first time this wonderful duo with guitarist and composer Terje Rypdal has been documented on tape for release. These two artists have been working together since the 1993 when Water Stories, Bjørnstad's debut recording for ECM, was released. They have also traveled and performed together as a duo extensively; the depth of shared language that such familiarity and rapport brings is displayed in spades here. The material comes from both volumes of Bjørnstad's The Sea as well as Water Stories and Rypdal's Skywards and If Mountains Could Sing. There is also a fragment from Edvard Grieg's Notturno. As evidenced here, this was a magical evening: the sound is pristine, the instruments seem to remain in tune (Bjørnstad considers himself a hard hitter and was worried the Bösendorfer wouldn't hold his attack — perhaps he's never heard Cecil Taylor's performances on this type of piano), and the communication between the two musicians is almost out of this world in its warmth, beauty, ferocity, and intensely emotional melodicism. If music can approach poetry — and the pianist is a fan of the art form, even recording a tribute to Paul Celan — then there is no doubt, the gorgeously recorded studio efforts within the Bjørnstad quartet on the aforementioned records notwithstanding, that this live set gets there seemingly effortlessly.

The set begins with the dark, low-register rumble on the piano (the Bösendorfer has extra keys at the bottom) of "The Sea V." It is an ominous, dissonant way to begin a show — to begin any recording, really. Rypdal allows his pedaled Fender guitar and twin Vox AC30 amps to offer some controlled feedback, a few razor-sharp notes, and then, as Bjørnstad begins to articulate the melody, the guitarist lightens also, still hovering in the background, offering texture and atmosphere as the theme of melody is asserted pensively and the blend of middle and higher registers articulates the song itself. Over eight minutes, the pair uses a rather simple melodic form to examine and sing in numerous harmonic registers, offering tension and release over and over, carrying the listener along through waves and stillness, yet each passage is different than the last. Rypdal, who has been writing plenty of classical music in the last decade or so, has lost none of his power as a jazz and rock guitarist. His sound is instantly recognizable, and all his notes and scales sting and climb before just pushing the melody through the noise. He is seldom talked about as a "guitar hero" in the same way some of his peers are, but he should be. His is one of the most original voices on the instrument in its history. As "The Sea V" exhausts itself after eight minutes, it is replaced seamlessly with "The Pleasure Is Mine, I'm Sure" from Rypdal's Skywards. The transition is seamless, though listeners have traveled a great distance already. The pianist asserts the melodic theme in expanded chord voicings, filling the entire range of the keyboard. But it's Rypdal with his sparse raging high notes who is actually articulating its finer points even as he attacks them. The beauty in his playing is that he doesn't need a flurry of notes or dashing up and down the neck with blinding speed to get his point across. He lets one fly every once in a while, but only as the tension and drama in a particular piece dictate.

"Flotation and Surroundings" offers some of that intensity and fury, though it never loses sight of the tune. This startling performance marks the end of the first half of the gig; the music has been continuous, as in a suite, for half an hour. A breath is taken and then Rypdal's "Easy Now" commences the next segment, whispering, halting, spacious, and springlike. The skeletal lyric lines go between the pair and eventually come into the clearing fully formed, and as sweetly sung as anything that is emotionally honest can be. Grieg's Notturno and Bjørnstad's "Alai's Room" are both less than two minutes in length and offer a kind of pastoral lull before the tension ratchets up again, but this time rapturously on "By the Fjord," which is almost a hymn. "The Sea IX" is a return to the lithe, languid beauty of an indescribable contradiction: that something so beautiful and majestic is also potentially terrifying, as a place of creation and destruction. The album ends with Rypdal's compositions "Le Manfred/Floran Peisen" and the scorcher "The Return of Per Ulv." The former is a guitar solo; it uses all of his effects pedals to paint the sound of a string orchestra as accompaniment to his feedback, loops, and open ringing drones. It begins with shimmers and whispers and becomes a tour de force, like the chorus of drunken angels singing in one gloriously rich yet riotous harmony, and then hushes itself before coming to a close. The latter is a sound rocker between piano and guitar. Both players allow this song to bring out the best of their collaboration. Easily identifiable changes and choruses are forcefully put forth, but there is no loss in the lyricism and grandeur of the song itself. Bjørnstad's solo is truly beautiful; it's all chords and theme. Rypdal paints around them, playing the melody and digging through it to find its nooks and crannies and prying it out of the inherent lyricism. His own solo goes against the grain and brings it down for a moment before letting it all fall out, and the intensity and communication is transcendent. The most amazing thing is that the entire set takes place in 54 minutes! What a contender this record is for one of 2008's finest recordings, and what a solid entry it is in the catalogs of both men.

Biography

Born: 25 April 1952 in Oslo, Norway

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

A classically trained jazz pianist with a bent toward avant-garde improvised music, Ketil Bjørnstad is a well-known musician and writer in Europe. With his cerebral, atmospheric style that belies a palpable inner passion and an inclination toward genre-crossing compositions, Bjørnstad helped develop and popularize the "European jazz" aesthetic. He is also a writer and poet and has published over 30 works beginning with his 1972 poetry collection Alone. Born in Oslo, Norway, Bjørnstad studied classical...
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Life In Leipzig, Ketil Bjørnstad
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