Norwegian saxophonist and composer Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg‘s debut album as a leader is a self-titled two-CD set, Mette Henriette, on ECM. (Get it from Amazon.) She’s also a member of the group Torg, whose album kost/elak/gnäll is out now on Jazzland.
Rølvåg has been composing since she was a teenager; she played trumpet as a child, but switched to saxophone and came up in an environment that was focused more on free improvisation and original compositions than learning jazz standards. This has the effect of making her own music free of the usual influences heard from young jazz players. There are no echoes of John Coltrane (or Jan Garbarek) in her playing. Her compositions are diffuse vignettes, often extremely short, focused more on harmony than melody, and she essays her lines with caution and focus, using the horn not like a battering ram, but rather like a small flashlight jabbing into an unlit room.
The first disc of the set is arranged for trio, and features Henriette, pianist Johan Lindvall, and cellist Katrine Schiøtt. It contains 15 tracks in 42 minutes; the longest runs 4:27, the shortest only 54 seconds. As might be expected given the instrumentation, it’s more like chamber music than jazz, and demands focused listening. Rølvåg’s saxophone playing is extremely delicate; the ultra-close microphones render the crackle of the reed and spit flowing through the horn almost as loudly as the notes sometimes. The intimacy of this is matched by the soft scrapes and drones of the cello, and the way individual piano notes are allowed to ring out and fill the room. Rølvåg met ECM producer Manfred Eicher at a Dino Saluzzi performance in Oslo, and it’s clear why they work together—his style meshes perfectly with hers, permitting the creation of a sustained mood, like a single long piece broken into 15 fragments, then reassembled, whole but with the seams showing.
This isn’t to suggest that the whole thing is made up of diffident murmurs, of course. On the disc’s penultimate track, “I Do,” Rølvåg blows with great force, rising from an almost imperceptible hiss to a lush, reverberant ballad melody, as Lindvall and Schiøtt lay down patient, sensitive chords behind her.
The music on the set’s second disc, which offers 20 tracks in just over an hour, is frequently much fuller and more composed-feeling, as it would have to be: the total number of players more than quadruples, to 13, including everyone from the first disc as well as trumpeter Eivind Lønning, trombonist Henrik Nørstebø, bandoneon player Andreas Rokseth, three violinists (Sara Övinge, Karin Hellqvist and Odd Hannisdal), violist Bendik Bjørnstad Foss, second cellist Ingvild Nesdal Sandnes, upright bassist Per Zanussi and Per Oddvar Johansen on drums and musical saw. Not everyone plays on every track, though. “Pearl Rafter” is a surging string quartet piece that ends abruptly after a minute; “Unfold” is a 41-second fanfare for the horns.
“Wildheart” is the most intense of the disc’s 20 tracks—indeed, it’s the most intense piece of the entire set. Rølvåg’s saxophone is fierce and harsh, rocketing to Charles Gayle-esque heights of passion as the drums erupt behind her, and the strings and piano surround her with ominous, rumbling chords; at its emotional peak, it almost sounds like one of Alan Silva‘s late ’60s albums on the BYG Actuel label. Meanwhile, on “Late à la Carte,” Johansen sets up a martial beat, over which the strings and Rølvåg writhe like a drunken parade band out of a Tom Waits album. And on “?” the three horns growl and murmur at each other like the Art Ensemble of Chicago‘s Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell at their most abstract.
The breadth and scope of the music on Mette Henriette marks it as an exhilarating debut from a highly assured performer and composer. Rølvåg’s work is beyond category—it contains elements of jazz and classical, but explores pure sound with just as much avidity and depth. It’s a remarkable album, well worth any open-minded listener’s attention.