For an hour or so at Ronnie Scott’s last night, I had the illusion of being in a different place and time: the Middle Earth club in Covent Garden, perhaps, or Implosion at the Roundhouse, or the Temple (formerly the Flamingo), back at the end of the 1960s or the very dawn of the ’70s. Once or twice I had the feeling that if I looked around, John Peel would sitting nearby. The creators of this sensation were a Norwegian trio called Elephant9, who find their inspiration in that era’s jazz-influenced progressive rock, as exemplified at its best by the three-piece version of Soft Machine or Tony Williams’s Lifetime.
Their keyboardist is Ståle Storløkken, a graduate of the celebrated Trondheim conservatory, and better known to me as a member of the improvising group Supersilent. The last time I saw him, a few years ago, was in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, where he was playing the pipe organ in a duo concert with his Supersilent colleague, the trumpeter Arve Henriksen (about whom I wrote, quite coincidentally, here last week). The drummer is Torstein Lofthus, a graduate of the Norwegian academy of music in Oslo, and the bass guitarist is Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen, who is also a member of BigBang and the National Bank.
Maybe the best way of describing Elephant9 is to say that if you took Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Atomic Rooster and replaced their personnel with more interesting musicians playing more interesting compositions, you’d have something close to what we heard in Soho last night. I knew them only from their first album, but that record — Dodovoodoo, released on the Rune Grammofon label in 2008 — made me want to go and see what they were like in person.
Shaggy-haired and dressed-down in the style of the typical early-’70s jazz-rocker, they certainly looked the part. They were ferociously loud from time to time, and the structures of the music were sometimes relatively unsophisticated (even when they were playing in 10/4), but the volume and the simplicity were for a purpose, and there was always a feeling of substance and variety. The serpentine melodies seemed designed to lead somewhere, the thundering rhythm patterns were never merely bludgeoning, and the riffs provided an effective launching pad for Storløkken (playing Hammond B-3 organ and Fender-Rhodes electric piano, with the occasional use of heavy distortion on both) to build lengthy solos of genuine excitement. Impressionistic solo keyboard interludes added contrast to a set built around extended medleys of original material.
All in all, they provided an enjoyable and surprising reminder of why, in such bands as Egg and East of Eden, the jazzier end of British progressive rock once seemed to hold out hope for the future. Sincere congratulations, then, to Elephant9. Finding a way out of what once seemed like a dead end is quite an achievement.
* In the photograph above, from left to right: Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen, Ståle Storløkken and Thorstein Lofthus.