If you were to draw a straight line connecting Hank B. Marvin to Jimi Hendrix and then extend it a bit further, the next point on the line would be Terje Rypdal, the Norwegian guitarist and composer who celebrated his 70th birthday this weekend with a couple of concerts at Oslo’s Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene, an old cinema converted into a 300-capacity theatre for improvised music. I went to the first of the concerts, in which Rypdal was joined by the trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and the drummer Pål Thowsen. It was an unforgettable evening, and a reminder of his singular importance.
When I first heard Rypdal, in Berlin in 1970, I had no idea that he would become one of the most interesting and influential musicians of my lifetime. Not long after that, however, I wrote a piece in which I ventured the opinion that if Miles Davis were looking for a really interesting new accomplice, he need look no further than a young guitarist who seemed to have a wholly original approach to things — and to tone and texture in particular. Perhaps attempting to give Miles Davis advice was not the smartest idea, but I still think it would have led him in a rewarding direction. After John McLaughlin, Rypdal would have brought something different to Miles’s world.
The son of a classical composer, Rypdal spent his teenage years with a successful Norwegian beat group called the Vanguards. In 1968 he became a member of George Russell’s European band, and in 1971 he released his first album on ECM, the label with which he has spent his entire career as a leader. (Mikkelborg, who is five years his elder, was featured on several of those recordings.) Some of those albums featured a variety of small groups, while others included compositions for orchestras and choirs. In 1995 a couple of Rypdal’s more noir-ish pieces were borrowed by Michael Mann for the soundtrack to his great thriller, Heat. Some years ago Rypdal endured a period of poor health, but he came through it and, although he does not move around so easily, his playing is unimpaired.
The Victoria was built as a cinema in 1915 and, apart from the swap of a stage for a screen, appears little changed. On Friday night it was packed to hear Storløkken begin the set with one of Rypdal’s ethereal tone-poems, manipulating his Hammond B3 to produce piercing textures. With the exception of a delightful duet by Rypdal and Mikkelborg (on flugelhorn) on “Stranger in Paradise”, a melody by Borodin borrowed for the 1953 musical Kismet, the programme explored Rypdal’s themes, which alternated between ecstatic skycaps and outbreaks of wonderfully thunderous hooliganism. The guitarist, manipulating the sound of his Fender Stratocaster via effects units and his volume pedal, and sometimes using a bottleneck, found the perfect ally in the organist, whose bass lines, played on a small keyboard, made the building shudder.
If you were to extend the line that starts with Hank B. Marvin beyond Rypdal, you would find people like David Torn, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke, Hedvig Mollestad, Reine Fiske, Even Helte Hermansen, Raoul Björkenheim and Hans Magnus Ryan. All of those are involved in a new album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal, released on the Oslo-based Rune Grammofon label. Again, Rypdal’s themes provide the basis. Frisell opens with a lovely meditation on “Ørnen”, Cline creates a lyrical meditation on “What Comes After” with the cellist Erik Friedlander, and Torn displays his extended techniques to fine effect on “Avskjed”.
These are all wonderful. But it is the group performances that steal the show. Supported by Storløkken, the bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the drummer Gard Nilsen, the guitar squadron of Mollestad, Fiske, Kaiser, Hermansen, Bjorkenheim and Ryan — in various combinations, but mostly all at once — attack such pieces as “Silver Bird Heads for the Sun”, “Chaser” and a dramatic medley of “Tough Enough” and “Rolling Stone” with verve and devotion. My favourite track also carries the most appropriate title: “Warning: Electric Guitars”. The result is heavier, in every sense, than the heaviest metal, while being enormously creative and totally exhilarating.
The album was conceived by Kaiser in collaboration with Rune Kristoffersen, the founder of Rune Grammofon. I can’t recommend it too highly, particularly to anyone who has previously been touched by Rypdal’s work — or, more generally, to anyone with an interest in guitar music.