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Terje Rypdal at 70

Terje Rypdal 1If 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.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Most affecting guitarist I’ve seen live, reduced me to tears by creating the most wondrous soundscapes, he was touring as a duowith Ketil Bjornstad

    August 27, 2017
  2. Mark Farrar #

    I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with Terje in 1996 in Oslo when recording interviews for a Radio 3 series on ECM and along with discovering that we shared a passion for the Shadows, I owe him a debt of gratitude for introducing me to Norwegian brown cheese

    August 27, 2017
  3. Mick Steels #

    The ECM recordings from the early 70s represented a peak in the company’s history. Particularly noteworthy were Rypdal’s collaborations with his contemporary Jan Garbarek who has never played so passionately. The recording “Sart” is arguably the pick with “Afric Pepperbird” not far behind

    August 28, 2017
    • Saverio Pechini #

      Yes , those albums are still engrossing . I’d add his solos on John Surman’s Morning Glory and Ketjl Bjornstad ‘ s The Sea . I can do without his ” classical ” works .

      August 28, 2017
  4. Happy birthday to a seriously underrated guitarist/composer and an interesting link to Miles – I always thought Terje’s album ‘Waves’ was damn close to what Miles might have done later in the 1970s. It also looked ahead to ‘Aura’ – of course both featuring the brilliant Palle Mikkelborg.

    August 28, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      …. errr … not even in the same ballpark never mind damn close . Miles got soul regardless of what he was doing . Terje’s got chops , rich texture and the occasional moment of emotion but is totally devoid of anything resembling … soul . More like ice cold Nordic stoicism . Now don’t get me wrong . I love TR for what he is and does . Got a boatload of his albums / CD’s in my collection . But he aint and never will be … Miles

      August 29, 2017
      • I’m not talking about ‘soul’ or Terje trying to ‘be’ Miles. I was commenting on the album being totally informed by Miles’s ’70s soundworld – mainly due to Mikkelborg’s contributions – of course with some deviations.

        August 29, 2017
  5. Paul Crowe #

    Another great piece, Richard. I am not very familiar with TR’s work, even though I was introduced to it by Melody Maker reviews (Max Jones, Steve Lake and yourself, I think) waybackthen. Thanks also for tribute album recommendation.

    August 28, 2017
  6. Sedat Nemli #

    I will never forget Rypdal’s wonderful work on Michael Mantler’s “The Hapless Child” (1976), music set to the words of Edward Gorey, with a stellar ensemble that also included Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Jack de Johnette and Robert Wyatt.

    August 28, 2017
  7. Rypdal also provided the music for Alan Rudolph’s much underrated film Equinox.

    August 28, 2017

    Thanks – a lovely piece; the concert in Oslo sounds as though it must have been quite a night. I’ve only seen Terje Rypdal live once, at an evening of Norwegian music at the Barbican a few years ago, when he appeared for a brief set with Supersilent – short but memorable.

    One of the (many) benefits of following your posts is how often I am prompted by them to play recordings that I have not listened to for a long time. In this instance, it wasn’t the earlier ECMs – ‘Odyssey’, ‘Waves’, ‘Descendre’ – that I went back to (albums that I love and know almost off by heart) but a live recording from 2003, ‘Vossabrygg’. I probably didn’t listen to this album as carefully as I should have done when I first bought it – a consequence of too many things to listen to and not enough time to keep pace with it all – and therefore hadn’t fully appreciated what a fine recording ‘Vossabrygg’ is.Recorded at the Vossa Jazz Festival, and inspired by Miles Davis’s ‘Bitches Brew’ – and quoting directly from Joe Zawinul’s ‘Pharoah’s Dance’ at one point – it offers a wonderful soundscape of electric and acoustic instruments (Rypdal is accompanied by a superb band including Palle Mikkelborg, Bugge Wesseltoft, Stale Storlokken, Bjorn Kjellemyr and Jon Christensen), complemented by subtle use of electronics and sampling. It’s a fantastic set and is powerful evidence in support of your view that Rypdal would have been an ideal collaborator with Miles. Many thanks, then, for encouraging me to seek out and (re)discover a neglected item from my own collection.

    By the way, I may be incorrect but I think that the new Rune Grammofon ‘Sky Music’ CD is accompanied by a second volume of additional material on vinyl; apologies if I have got that wrong.

    August 29, 2017
  9. GuitarSlinger #

    Suffice it to say having known Mile and being familiar ( and appreciated ) with TR’s music since his inception on ECM the two of them together would of been an absolute abject disaster . Fact is just thinking about it I can hear Mile’s voice in my head saying ;

    ‘ Yeah the boy’s go some chops but he aint got any soul ‘

    PS; Richard . I’m seriously confused . You give TR all this space to a cult icon at best little know thru out the world for his 70th birthday … and yet neglect to even mention the passing of one of Jazz and ECM’s greatest guitarists .. John Abercrombie ? To paraphrase the line from ” Deliverance ”

    ” That aint right “

    August 29, 2017
    • The Blue Moment is a vehicle for my enthusiasms, which you are liberty to share or not. It’s not intended to be a forum for debate, and I’m afraid I’m not very interested in your negative opinions. I had enough of arguments like that earlier in my career. Life is now too short. Maybe you’d consider creating your own forum for your views. Neither is my blog a comprehensive news service. If I had something to say about John Abercrombie beyond what John Fordham said in his excellent Guardian obituary, I’d say it. I don’t, so I’d rather devote my not unlimited time to something else.

      August 29, 2017

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