La notte feels like a movie soundtrack, and that’s by design: The inspiration for Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad’s new album is Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1961 film of the same name, a depressing Italian drama about a marriage on the rocks. Bjørnstad’s shimmering, languorous album, recorded at the 2010 Molde International Jazz Festival in Norway, unfolds like a film.
The music is broken into eight untitled movements. Some of them—the first and fourth, in particular—are built upon short, heartbreaking melodies, and you can almost visualize the betrayal and tears. Others—the second and fifth, for instance—soar with grandeur. The themes are simple: so simple that you cannot believe you haven’t heard them before, somewhere. But what makes this music so beautiful, so riveting, is the dynamic, gorgeous treatment by the ensemble, which includes saxophonist Andy Sheppard, guitarist Eivind Aarset, violoncellist Anja Lechner, bassist Arild Andersen and percussionist Marilyn Mazur.
The music, rich with texture and emotion, seems written with these musicians in mind. Sheppard states the second movement’s simple motif patiently, but after several minutes he blows a hurricane-force solo marked by circular passages, creative contrasts and, here and there, a few honks. La notte cannot be categorized purely as jazz; it weaves strands of chamber music, postmodern classical and Scandinavian folk into the so-called ECM sound. This is clearest in the third movement, a waltz underpinned by Lechner’s lovely bowing, Bjørnstad’s graceful playing and Sheppard’s straightforward folk melody. Things reach a violent climax in the seventh movement, with Andersen’s fast-fingered plucking and Mazur’s chattering percussion giving way to Aarset’s distorted shredding. La notte is a wondrous and devastating work of art with a narrative sweep that needs no words or images to tell its tale.