by Phil Freeman
Guitarist Terje Rypdal is one of Norway’s most famous jazz musicians. He made his debut as a leader in 1968 with the album Bleak House; a vinyl reissue is coming at the end of September. Since 1971, he’s been signed to ECM, recording nearly two dozen albums as a leader and more than a dozen others as a sideman with Kjetil Bjørnstad, Jan Garbarek, Tomasz Stańko, and others. His 1970s work in particular is some of the best fusion around; albums like Odyssey and Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away blend funk, rock, and jazz into a seamless music all his own, sometimes incorporating strings and other times delving into nearly dubby grooves, while some pieces from his self-titled album approach the power and fury of Miles Davis‘s A Tribute to Jack Johnson.
Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal is a kind of summit conference of amazing Nordic musicians and others, released on the Rune Grammofon label. The core band includes Ståle Storløkken of Humcrush and Supersilent on keyboards, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten of The Thing on electric and upright bass, and Gard Nilssen of Bushman’s Revenge, on drums, joined by guitarists Reine Fiske of Dungen, Even Helte Hermansen of Bushman’s Revenge, Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, who leads the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, and Henry Kaiser (who organized the project). Fellow guitarists Raoul Björkenheim, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, Jim O’Rourke, Hans Magnus Ryan, and David Torn, and cellist Erik Friedlander, appear on individual tracks.
The main album is available as a single CD or a double LP, with the CD version included as a bonus. (Get it from Amazon.) Bill Frisell is heard first, performing a delicate solo version of “Ørnen,” from Rypdal’s 1971 self-titled album. The gentle vibe offered by that track, though, is instantly sandblasted away by the next piece, a massively loud full-band medley of “Over Birkerot” from 1975’s Odyssey and “Silver Bird Heads for the Sun” from 1974’s Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away (the original track was actually called “Silver Bird is Heading for the Sun,” but never mind). So many guitarists are heard—Björkenheim, Fiske, Hermansen, Kaiser, and Thomassen—that the liner notes should list the solos in order, the way Judas Priest used to do on their albums. At nearly 15 minutes, this is the second-longest track on the album, and it absolutely rips, blending shredtastic ’70s fusion with powerhouse 21st century out-rock.
The album contains a second monster jam, welding together “Tough Enough” from the 1971 album and “Rolling Stone,” from Odyssey, for over 19 minutes of scorching abstraction (including some crushingly heavy bowed bass from Håker Flaten) and ferocious, stomping blues. Frisell isn’t the only player who opts for a softer approach, though. Nels Cline and Erik Friedlander perform the title track from 1973’s What Comes After as a guitar-cello duet, with an ominous edge provided by the loops and sound effects Cline deploys. David Torn also gets a solo spot, transforming “Avskjed,” from 1979’s Descendre, into a buzzing, static-sputtering journey through digital dysfunction; every time the gently plucked melody seems ready to lull the listener into a calm reverie, it goes wrong. Perhaps the most unexpected track, though, is “Dream Song/Into the Wilderness/Out of This World,” which features no guitars at all—it’s a nearly ambient solo piece by Storløkken. The album concludes with one more guitar jam, a version of “Sunrise,” from a self-titled album Rypdal made with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Fiske, Thomassen, and O’Rourke (beaming in from Japan) sprawl all over a swinging rhythm bed laid down by Håker Flaten and Nilssen.
The second volume is a single LP, which also comes with a CD version, but in this case the CD is not available separately. (Get it from Amazon.) It consists of two side-long tracks, “Icing” and “Fillmore 76.” The first features Fiske and Thomassen, the second Björkenheim, Hermansen, Kaiser, and Ryan. Considering that Thomassen is best known as an almost Tony Iommi-level riff master, hearing her on this track is a revelation; she’s operating in an almost atmospheric mode, releasing shimmering waves of notes shaped more by pedals than by fingers on strings, as the band throbs impassively behind her. Fiske’s slightly more dominant guitar is also soft and beautiful. Toward the end, there are a few bursts of noise, but they come from Storløkken, not either guitarist. “Fillmore 76” is the harder, more rocking of the two tracks. Nilssen’s drums skitter and slap, and Håker Flaten’s electric bass is a massive, bubbling sound, almost Bootsy Collins-esque at times, while Storløkken’s keyboards seem on the brink of self-immolation. Atop this constantly shifting but still driving rhythm, the guitarists rip and tear at their instruments, shredding wildly and cutting loose with bursts of disruptive noise. But the track has a surprise in store: its final two minutes or so are given over to high-pitched, whistling organ and forcefully plucked, almost detuned-sounding acoustic guitar.
Nobody on either of these albums makes any effort to imitate Terje Rypdal‘s unique mix of jazz and rock. But they use his compositions as springboards for some astonishing playing. So if you’re not familiar with his work, let these records inspire you to dig deep into his 1970s ECM catalog, which is fantastic, and beyond that if the mood strikes you.
Here’s a short video with footage from the recording sessions: