Recorded live October 2005
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 Bjornstad (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, Bjornstad'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 Bjornstad'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 (Bjornstad considers himself a hard hitter and was worried the Bosendorfer 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 Bjornstad 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 Bosendorfer 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 Bjornstad 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 Bjornstad'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. Bjornstad'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.
All Music Guide
Ketil Bjornstad and Terje Rypdal's ECM recordings together have included Bjornstad's "Water Stories" and albums with The Sea, the quartet whose line-up was completed by cellist David Darling and drummer Jon Christensen. In 1999 they made their first experiments with duo playing, and have since toured the world with their highly unorthodox format of cranked-amp guitar and acoustic piano. This constellation has surprised its participants by becoming the primary touring focus for both players, taking them, as Bjornstad notes, "from Taiwan to Canada, from Italy to the Shetlands, from Lanzarote to the North of Norway. Terje is now the musician with whom I've worked most extensively."
"Life in Leipzig", a concert recording made by German radio station MDR at Leipzig's Opera House, during the city's jazz festival in 2005, is the first documentation of the duo's progress. It is also Bjornstad's first live recording for ECM, and his first release for the label in almost a decade ("Epigraphs", a duo with David Darling, was recorded in1998, and released in 2000). Repertoire on "Life in Leipzig" revisits, rearranges and transforms pieces previously played on The Sea's two albums and on "Water Stories", as well as tunes from Rypdal's "Skywards" and "If Mountains Could Sing", including the hard-driving concert favourite "The Return of Per UIv", and Edvard Grieg's "Notturno".
Ketil Bjornstad sets the scene for the music to follow with depth soundings at the bottom end of the Bosendorfer on the opening piece, "The Sea V", and Rypdal responds accordingly. The duo setting is one that clearly appeals to the guitarist, who lets rip with very outgoing playing throughout. Bjornstad, too, plays more forcefully than on his duo discs with David Darling. A question of pitting acoustic against electric energies. "I am not always the softest pianist, and especially not when I am working with Terje", he remarks in liner notes which are both a tour diary and a chronicle of a friendship. In the book "Horizons Touched" (Granta 2007), Bjornstad analyses the essence of Rypdal's originality as guitarist:
"Not much equipment is needed to get the Terje Rypdal sound. All you need is some pedals (overdrive, volume pedal and an echo system), two Vox AC30 amplifiers, one of his few favourite guitars [usually a Stratocaster or a Fender Squire] and the man himself. His guitar sound is closely allied to his melodic imagination. When I first worked with him, on the suite I wrote for him - released by ECM as 'Water Stories' - he raised the melodic concept to a higher level through his sound and timing and his ornamental phrasing. He believes in those melodies. He has to tell the story first, in the best way and then begin to paraphrase it. He loves Grieg as much as Ligeti. It is a rare combination. And in between he finds his own identity..."
One of the Big Four of Norwegian jazz musicians introduced by ECM in 1970 (the others being Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen), Rypdal made his label debut on Garbarek's "Afric Pepperbird" soon followed by his own album, called just "Terje Rypdal", and recorded in August 1971. Since then he has issued 22 albums as a leader for ECM and appeared also on albums by Barre Phillips, Tomasz Stanko, Edward Vesala, Michael Mantler and Heinz Reber. Rypdal on ECM represents a lot of creative options, from the hard rock- inclined recordings with the Chasers ("Blue", "The Singles Collection") to symphonic and choral music ("Double Concerto/5th Symphony", "Lux Aeterna") to the recent, and widely acclaimed, tribute to Miles Davis "Vossabrygg". Already recorded and planned for release later in 2008 is "Melodic Warrior", featuring the Hilliard Ensemble, the Bruckner Orchester Linz under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies, and Terje's electric guitar.
Ketil Bjornstad is amongst the most prolific of contemporary artists, "a cultural prodigy" in the words of The Guardian's John Fordham. In addition to being a pianist, composer-arranger, improviser and interpreter who has released 50 albums since 1972, and whose music has been included in films by Jean-Luc Godard, Lea Pool, Ken Loach and Witold Adamek, Bjornstad has published more than 30 books in his homeland - novels, poetry, collections of essays. For 25 years he was music and literary critic of Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. His work has been widely translated. In Germany his novel "Vindings Spiel" was a best seller (UK publication, as "To Music", is scheduled for 2009). April 2008 sees the German translation, at Insel Verlag, of his novel "Oda", about painter Oda Krohg (1860-1935), and another reading tour for its author.
See also: www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=28846