In the Country: This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat

Keyboardist Morten Qvenild is one of Norway’s most valuable utility players. He is the “orchestra” in the incredible post-Bjork duo Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, writer and arranger for jazz singer Solveig Slettahjell, former member of pop-prog-jazz instrumentalists Jaga Jazzist and Shining and part of chart-topping supergroup the National Bank. Qvenild gets to display his piano-jazz chops with In the Country, featuring bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Pal Hausken, and the trio’s debut CD is a stunner.

From the jazz world, Qvenild cites Paul Bley and Norwegian free player Svein Finnerud as influences; from classical, Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman. Qvenild also has a great ear for pop melodies: His gorgeous solo cover of Ryan Adams’ woozy ballad “In My Time of Need,” played with almost no extrapolation on the theme, renders the song a pure lullaby. Qvenild’s mixture of jazz phrasing, classical sensibilities and love of songcraft leads In the Country through 11 songs that rarely rise above a whisper but carry the emotional power of a screaming stack of Marshall amps.

The album is so focused that the tracks work together like a suite, but individual highlights abound. “Beaver Creek” starts as a meditation and builds to something like slow-motion free jazz before returning to the gentle melody. “How to Get Acquainted” rumbles through sublimely measured tension that, when released, feels like a giant hook in a pop song. “Viggo” features Hausken’s haunted wail, singing wordlessly with the melody. The CD closes with Handel’s reverential lament “Laschia Ch’io Pianga,” played by Qvenild on a Casio SK-10-simultaneously postmodern and classic, just like the rest of the album.