With the arrival of the long-playing record almost 70 years ago, the art of shaping an improvised solo took a serious hit. All those perfectly proportioned solos of eight or 12 bars turned into 10-minute soliloquies, for good and ill. It’s not a lost art — enough of today’s players have listened to Wayne Shorter to understand the powerful effect of concision — but one of the reasons I’m so fond of the playing of the Norwegian saxophonist and composer Trygve Seim is that he seems to have an inbuilt self-editing mechanism which makes his improvisations all the more powerful and memorable.
Born in Oslo 45 years ago, Seim released an album called Different Rivers in 2000, featuring a variety of line-ups, from two to nine musicians, including the trumpeter Arve Henriksen and the drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. This was patient, luminous, ego-free music, finding a perfect balance between composition and improvisation; it sounded to me then like a modern classic, and it still does.
Since then I’ve looked out for his name on records (usually, like Different Rivers, on ECM) and have seldom been disappointed. I’ve seen him live twice, with Manu Katché’s quintet in Paris a few years ago and with the Oslo Festival Jazz Orchestra (also a quintet!) at Ronnie Scott’s last year, and his playing had even more presence in person than on record. Now there seems to be a flood of Seim: he’s on four new albums from ECM, three of them — Sinikka Langeland’s The Magical Forest, Mats Eilertsen’s Rubicon and Iro Haarla’s Ante Lucem — as a sideman.
Ante Lucem is a majestic piece of writing for symphony orchestra and jazz quintet, a fully realised piece in the spirit of the old Third Stream: not so much a blend of jazz and classical practices as a juxtaposition, but a successful one. In my view it also achieves Haarla’s aim of spiritual transcendence. Rubicon is a sequence of well organised pieces for septet, with Olavi Louhivuori from the excellent Finnish band Oddarrang on drums and Eirik Hegdal playing saxophones and clarinets alongside Seim in a two-man front line. The Magical Forest features delicate and often beguiling settings of Langeland’s songs, in some of which she is joined by the three female singers of Trio Mediaeval.
The fourth and last album is Seim’s own Rumi Songs, in which he arranges nine poems by the 13th century Sufi poet for the pure voice of Tora Augestad, the accordion of Frode Haltli and the cello of Svante Henryson. His use of the modern translations by the American poet Coleman Barks will please those who love Barks’s The Essential Rumi, a hugely successful anthology, although I prefer the more traditional renderings of R.A. Nicholson and the more recent and less decorative ones of Nader Khalili.
This is a chamber recital, in which jazz makes its guiding spirit apparent only in the sonorities of Seim’s soprano and tenor saxophones and in the flexibility of the interplay. A tenth track, “Whirling Rhythms”, is an instrumental piece that captures, in less than three minutes, the non-verbal essence of the project, as well as demonstrating the rewards of Seim’s trips to Egypt and the poet’s birthplace in Anatolia.
It would be a mistake to assume that Rumi’s verses are not suited to the Nordic atmosphere in which these fine musicians operate. If you’re in the right mood, the track called “There Is Some Kiss We Want”, with which the album closes (and which is featured in a little promo clip), might be one of the loveliest things you’ll hear this year.
* The photograph above, by Knut Bry, shows the Rumi Songs band: (from left) Frode Haltli, Trygve Seim, Svante Henryson and Tora Augestad.