A jazz dive in a small harbor town on the Southwest coast of Norway might seem the least likely venue for the polyrhythmic percussion tendencies of Art Blakey, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Tony Oxley, et al. to be handed on to the next generation. But that's exactly what happened when Paal Nilssen-Love, who'll turn 30 on Christmas Eve, was still in single figures. His father, Terry Love, was an English drummer who had relocated to Stavanger, Norway, to be with his wife. The couple ran a jazz club there from 1979-86, and the young Paal (pronounced Paul) couldn't help but be dazzled by the artistry passing through. "My parents let my brother and I hang out there," he recalls, "meeting all the musicians and seeing many of the shows. I guess he was keen on seeing me pick up the drums, but it was never forced. I was actually planning to play trumpet, but when the conductor of the school band asked me what I would like to play, I replied, 'drums.' I'm not sure why."
Nilssen-Love played in a rock band during his teens, but says, "I have always enjoyed the freedom there is in jazz, the swing, the feel, the soul of it and the history you can hear through loads of records. Jazz is the music I feel I can project all ideas and whatever feelings want to come out at the time."
Currently based in Oslo, Nilssen-Love has rapidly risen to become one of the most widely traveled and promiscuous players in a Norwegian jazz crossover scene that is finally being recognized for its breadth of talent and openness to formal reinvention. Following in the footsteps of his Swedish colleague Mats Gustafsson, he has become the latest in a wave of European players drawn into Chicago's diverse and thriving scene.
His jazz drumming breakthrough occurred with Atomic, a quintet initially rooted in bop modes. He's since racked up a discography of around 50 records with, among others, Scorch Trio with guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim and bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten; Peter Brotzmann's Tentet; The Thing, a garage rock-influenced trio with Gustafsson and Haker Flaten; and duos with Chicago reedist Ken Vandermark and Norwegian sax prodigy Hakon Kornstad of Wibutee. (For a full list of his recent CDs-and there are many-check out paalnilssen-love.com.)
Nilssen-Love's solo percussion CD Sticks and Stones (Sofa), recorded in an Oslo church, is a masterful portrait of controlled violence. He finds duo formats particularly liberating, and has made explosive music with twentysomething electric guitar wrecker Anders Hana and laptop noise operator Lasse Marhaug. "I think anything that is honest will do free music good," Nilssen-Love insists. "If rock riffs feel the most appropriate thing, OK. The possibilities of free music can either be limited or the opposite, it's all up to the performer. The most important thing is that there is energy and humble willingness to play with any new idea at any time."
Nilssen-Love's style owes most to the densely packed, multitimbral technique of European free drummers like Tony Oxley, Paul Lytton, Paul Lovens and John Stevens. Yet there's a muscularity and sinew-snapping energy, reminiscent of the beef of Milford Graves and Sunny Murray, that weights his frantic thrumming and pattering. Live, he's an astonishingly committed, attentive and sweaty player, exploring and fine tuning his kit by constantly swapping sticks and beaters, arranging and discarding resonators and cymbals on the drum heads, while keeping up an audible conversation with other musicians. "For me it's an ongoing process where I hope to experience new musical situations where I intuitively surprise myself by using different combinations of techniques, tools and sounds," he says. "It's so important to challenge yourself each time you're onstage performing. Not least, challenge the instrument you're playing, and the way you play it. Try to meet it as if it was the first time. When you go on stage it should be like a match where you leave everything else aside and play your ass off. If it feels like a marathon, good!"
But there must always be a check on absolute loss of ego, he maintains. "Becoming mental on stage is something I try to avoid as much as I can. At the same time, I do review whatever is going on at the time and hopefully go in another direction if needed. It's a matter of fine balance of where you are mentally, inside the music or as an observer on the outside."
What's most incredible, watching such a powerhouse, is that only a couple of years ago Nilssen-Love was undergoing chemical treatment for prostate cancer that was almost life-threatening. The recovery, celebrated with an emotional gig at Oslo's Bla club, has left him with a renewed energy and a need to use his time as never before. "The disease is gone," he confirms, "the only thing left is a check-up every other month. I have always worked hard so it was just a matter of working harder. When things become so extreme as they were, one knows that life is serious and that whatever you are up to-do it properly."