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The Gig: Tone Collector

The bassist and composer Eivind Opsvik has been at his craft for some time. Born in 1973, Opsvik spent his teens and early 20s working in and around the experimental scene of his native Oslo, Norway. In 1998 he moved to New York City and fell in with a cadre of free-thinking peers, some of whom ended up on his 2003 solo debut, Overseas (Fresh Sound). Somehow I missed that album, despite its warm reception in almost every pertinent publication. I knew Opsvik as a sideman, and had been hearing cryptic rumors about an electronics project he had with guitarist Aaron Jennings. But his music wasn’t on my radar, in any meaningful way, until sometime last year.

What prompted my awakening was a sort of critical mass: 2005 saw the release not only of Overseas II (Fresh Sound New Talent) but also the long-awaited Opsvik & Jennings electro-jazz album (Floyel Files, NCM East) and a raw free-jazz outing with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Jeff Davis (Tone Collector, Jazzaway). Taken one by one, these albums are impressive enough; together, their impact multiplies. They might be the most imaginative album trilogy of the year.

Opsvik brings a lot of influences to the table. In an e-mail exchange late last year, he divulged that he was spending time absorbing the music of singer-songwriters Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom; the hypnotic rock band Low; and European electronic/jazz/noise groups like Jaga Jazzist, Supersilent and Deathprod (Norwegian), Autechre (English) and Mum (Icelandic). He also cited, as an afterthought, “Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Beck and Bjork, etc.”

What to make of all this? Opsvik told me that what he was hoping to tap into was “the Energy and directness of rock music.” (His capitalization, I think, is telling.) “Most people are ‘afraid’ of jazz,” he wrote, “because they think they have to ‘understand’ it, which is too bad. So one can try to reach them on a more basic level, with energy, groove, expression. That’s why some rock-oriented listeners often relate more to expressive free jazz than to the more overly intellectual and complex jazz of latter years.”

Overseas II meets this challenge organically enough to feel less like a manifesto than like a waking dream. It’s an all-acoustic album, though its distinctive sound owes much to the presence of vintage keyboards like the Hammond B3, Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes and celeste. Tony Malaby plays tenor saxophone, Loren Stillman plays alto and Jeff Davis and Kenny Wollesen alternate on drums. Keyboardists Jacob Sacks and Craig Taborn switch off, too, sharing only two tracks. Everyone solos compellingly, but the chief attraction is Opsvik’s uncannily effective melodic sensibility, which emerges gradually on the album’s opener, “Planned Future,” and bursts open on the following track, “Maritime Safety.” One of the most haunting and alluring tracks is also one of the simplest: “Still the Tiger Town,” featuring Malaby’s quiet cries over celeste and Hammond organ.

As a matter of fact, “Still the Tiger Town”–which Opsvik wrote for his mentor, the legendary Norwegian bassist Bjornar Andresen, who died in 2004–also appears on Floyel Files. It begins similarly here, with the melody articulated on what sounds like a glockenspiel. But the song’s dimensions turn out to be both sparser and more intricate: A beat flutters fitfully, while colors shift mysteriously in the distance, like the aurora borealis. It all culminates in a reprise featuring the melody whistled, with naked imperfection, by Opsvik. (Unless that’s actually a theremin.)

The rest of Floyel Files ranges in tone from the restlessly ambient “Luminosity” to the trippy “Place for My Things.” It’s difficult to parse the various sounds on the recording or even to distinguish between digital and acoustic components. And that seems to be the point. Like the best electronic music–or at least, the stuff that tends to draw me in–Floyel Files places emphasis not on algorithms but rather lyricism, texture and mood. It’s an intimate and introspective album, imbued with a stripped-down pop mystique.

Tone Collector, an unfiltered two-track recording from Stockholm, Sweden’s Glenn Miller Cafe, swings the pendulum to the other extreme, with bold and braying free improvisation. This is no less serious an accomplishment: Malaby, Davis and Opsvik are deeply sympathetic partners, and their interaction often reaches the highest levels of cohesion. Oddly enough, this is the recording that best showcases Opsvik’s bass playing: “Swedish Summer” finds him bowing massive drones and ghostly harmonics, and other tracks, like “Glorious,” feature poetic open-form pizzicato. The group never actually rocks, per se, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how this sort of take-no-prisoners approach could appeal to an audience outside of jazz.

That was certainly the case with the capacity crowd on a recent evening at the Tea Lounge in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Opsvik was playing one of his many sideman gigs, with alto saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo, and the vibe was heated and intense. This was due in equal part to the polymorphically propulsive drummer Jim Black and, visiting from Norway, the excellent tenor saxophonist Kjetil Moster and Jaga Jazzist trumpeter Mathias Eick. Opsvik, plucking and bowing feverishly in the background, was often inaudible in the cacophony, but his efforts clearly seemed integral to the music’s shifting shape.

Opsvik is poised for another good year. He appears on a new album by alto saxophonist Dave Binney, alongside Taborn, Wollesen and Bill Frisell (Mythology Records, In March, he’s slated to record and perform with another Norwegian tenor saxophonist, Hakon Kornstad, who leads the electro-jazz group Wibutee. And he hopes to see the release of an album recorded last November with Sacks on piano, Mat Maneri on viola and the great Paul Motian on drums.

What will the new Opsvik album sound like? I can only refer back to some old taxonomy provided by the bassist himself: “rock- and pop-inspired compositions played with a free-jazz attitude and spirit.”

Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).