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Jon Christensen 1943 – 2020

The Norwegian drummer with the free-flowing style was a key collaborator for Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, and many more

Jon Christensen
Jon Christensen (photo: Roberto Masotti)

Jon Christensen, a drummer whose playing shaped the rhythmic concept of European postbop jazz, died on the morning of February 18 at his home in Sagene, Oslo, Norway. He was 76.

His death was announced February 18 by his wife, actress and politician Ellen Horn, who wrote (in Norwegian) on Facebook that “Our Jon passed quietly in his sleep at our Sagene home last night. We were each other’s comfort.”

A top-call drummer in Oslo throughout the 1960s, Christensen established a wider reputation in the 1970s when he appeared on a wave of breakthrough Norwegian jazz recordings, all on ECM Records. On those recordings, Christensen quickly established a signature sound—loose, questing, descended from the avant-garde—that would permeate all of European jazz. “I’m not just marking the one or setting up the bridge with a fill. I always try to avoid that,” he explained to Modern Drummer magazine in 2005. “Instead, I try to play in waves.”

It was an approach that would soon meet the wider world when Christensen joined Keith Jarrett’s famed European Quartet, with which he played from 1974 to 1979, and which made him a globally renowned jazz personality. The demand for his services kept him busy for five decades; Christensen rarely worked as a leader and never recorded as one (though he was billed as a co-leader with drummer Pål Thowsen on one 1976 session, and also co-led the band Masqualero for a few years in the 1980s). His reputation, however, was such that he didn’t need to headline his recordings.

Jon Ivar Christensen was born March 20, 1943 in Oslo. He started playing drums at an early age; at 17 he won the Norwegian Jazz Forum’s amateur competition—though by that time he had already been playing professionally for two years. He was the house drummer at Oslo’s Metropole Jazz Club, where he gained early attention performing behind American musicians passing through his country. Among others, he played with Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, and Kenny Dorham. (A not quite 17-year-old Christensen appears on a Dorham set recorded at the club in January 1960.)

He was also a member of the band formed in 1963 by singer Karin Krog, Norway’s first nationwide jazz star. The following year, he joined the quartet led by pianist and composer George Russell during Russell’s period of residency in Scandinavia. Christensen’s early accomplishments were significant enough that in 1967 he was awarded the Buddyprisen, Norway’s most prestigious award for jazz.

Nevertheless, his profile was raised significantly when, in 1970, he appeared on tenor saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s recording Afric Pepperbird—one of ECM’s first releases, and now regarded as one of the most important Norwegian jazz albums in history. Christensen won particular attention for a cymbal-intensive playing method that kept the beat strongly, but also advanced on said beat in a cascading style that did indeed move like waves, owing as much to funk as to swing.

Afric Pepperbird began a long and fruitful series of collaborations for Christensen. He worked with Garbarek regularly over the next decade; the session’s other two players, bassist Arild Andersen and guitarist Terje Rypdal, quickly became important leaders in their own right, and Christensen collaborated frequently with them as well. In addition, he racked up credits with pianists Bobo Stenson and Ketil Bjørnstad, Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, and American guitarist Ralph Towner.

In 1974, Keith Jarrett enlisted Christensen for what became known as the “European Quartet”; one of the biggest jazz stars of the era, Jarrett increased Christensen’s exposure exponentially, recording with him on five albums and touring heavily with him. He soon gained engagements with the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous. It was also during this period that he recorded his (co)leadership debut with Thowsen, No Time for Time, featuring Rypdal and Andersen. Andersen later became Christensen’s partner in Masqualero, a quintet founded in 1982 that also featured trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, saxophonist Tore Brunborg, and keyboardist Jon Balke. The band lasted until 1991 and recorded four albums, three of them on ECM.

In the meantime, Christensen’s résumé kept growing. He played with the Indian violinist Shankar, Charles Lloyd, John Abercrombie, Tomasz Stanko, Gary Burton, and Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, along with major Norwegian musicians Radka Toneff, Bendik Hofseth, and Bugge Wesseltoft.

Throughout the years and the changing engagements, Christensen’s distinctive style remained a constant. “I’ve been playing ‘Jon Christensen’ all the way,” he told Modern Drummer. “Journalists began writing that I was this innovative drummer and that people from Japan and Europe had begun trying to play like me. Only then did I figure out, Hmmm, maybe I’ve done something different after all.”

In his later years, Christensen was often associated with much younger musicians, such as guitarists Jacob Young and Jakob Bro and trumpeter Mathias Eick. The final albums he appeared on were Bro’s Returnings (2018), which also featured then 36-year-old American bassist Thomas Morgan, as well as Danish elder Mikkelborg, and pianist Yelena Eckemoff’s Nocturnal Animals (2020, recorded in April 2018).

Christensen is survived by his wife Horn, Norway’s former Minister of Culture, and his daughter, musician and actress Emilie Stoesen Christensen.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.