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A Northern Code


by Ian Mann

December 24, 2019


A well balanced trio that has established a sound that is very much its own, but still utterly in keeping with the Nordic jazz tradition.

A Northern Code


(Ora Fonogram, OF150)

Mathias Marstrander – electric guitar, Andrew Robb – double bass, Sigurd Steinkopf – drums

The trio A Northern Code is an international collaboration between two young musicians from Norway and one from Scotland.

Scottish bassist and composer Andrew Robb (born 1990) is joined by the Norwegians Mathias Marstrander (guitar, born 1993) and Sigurd Steinkopf (drums, born 1997). The three musicians first met at the Grieg Academy in Bergen, Norway where they started out as the band for Robb’s Masters project, but such was their rapport that the trio subsequently became a regular working group.

The group’s name comes from the self proclaimed “code” that they employ when making music together, as well as the more obvious geographical reference. Their début album features a mix of composed and improvised material as the trio seek to blur the “Boundaries” between the two.

The album title also takes its inspiration from a quote by the Norwegian trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Per Jorgensen;
“You can put some boundaries for your common creativity, and then something happens…it’s like putting a wild bird in a cage – you feed it and take care of it in many ways, but it will always look for possible ways to get out, back to freedom, where it was meant to be”.

Robb was first introduced to Marstrander and Steinkopf by Magne Thormodsaeter, one of his mentors at the Grieg Academy. As the bassist’s liner notes explain it was Thormodsaeter who encouraged the trio to improvise freely, first around jazz standards and then around their own compositions, with the setting of ‘musical goals’ becoming an integral part of the process. This method of making music encouraged greater group interaction and proved to be extremely liberating, this being reflected in the freeing up of the roles of the various instruments beyond the usual parameters of the ‘jazz guitar trio’.

Robb is the only one of the three whose playing I have enjoyed previously. He appears on recordings by pianist Alan Benzie, trumpeter Henry Spencer and the duo of Konrad Wiszniewski (saxes) and Euan Stephenson (piano). He has also recorded with saxophonist and composer Andrew Linham’s Jazz Orchestra, appearing on the marvellously titled album “Weapons of Mass Distraction”. As a regular member of saxophonist Renato D’Aiello’s Monday night house band at Ronnie Scott’s he has enjoyed the opportunity of performing with many leading British, American and European jazz musicians. He has also worked with the jazz/folk crossover group Twelfth Day.
Robb is also forging a career as a musical educator and holds teaching posts in Edinburgh and Leeds.

Marstrander leads his own Marstrander Trio and released his début album as a leader, “Old Times, Beautiful Boy”, with this ensemble in September 2019. He is also part of the sextet Molecules, which released its début album on the Ora Fonogram label in 2017. He continues to live in Bergen where he works as a guitarist, composer, producer and recording engineer.

Steinkopf is still a student at the Grieg Academy but is also a busy working musician, touring and performing with a variety of acts across a broad range of musical genres. He performs with the band General Post Office who were the winners of the prestigious “Future of Norwegian Jazz Award” in 2019 and who have appeared at both the Oslo and Edinburgh Jazz Festivals. He is part of the Steinkopf Trio, a siblings band featuring his two sisters. He has also performed with the leading blues artists Mike Zito and Guy Forsyth.

A Northern Code are particularly grateful to the jazz facility at the Grieg Academy where their mentors also included the leading Norwegian jazz musicians, Jorgensen, Thomas Dahl (guitar), Terje Isungset (percussion), Kjetil Moster (saxophone) and Eivind Austad (piano). The “Boundaries” album was recorded at the Academy’s Studio A with Marstrander co-engineering (with Karl Klaseie) and the whole trio acting as producers. The photograph on the album cover was taken by the leading Norwegian bassist and composer Mats Eilertsen.

And so to the music. The album commences with the aptly named “Slow Motion”, a piece credited to the trio as a whole, Shimmering and atmospheric it features the sound of ambient guitar washes, droning arco bass and eerie cymbal scrapes. It’s also spooky, unsettling and inescapably ‘Nordic’, the perfect curtain raiser for the album as a whole.

Robb’s composition “Beslan” maintains the air of chilly beauty as it unfolds slowly and organically over the course of its six minutes. It incorporates a melodic pizzicato bass solo from the composer alongside Marstrander’s delicate, gently rambling guitar tracery and Steinkopf’s finely nuanced drumming as he deploys both brushes and sticks. Robb’s notes talk about the building and release of tension and this can be heard as the music gradually gathers momentum, before eventually subsiding once more.

It’s the sound of Robb’s unaccompanied pizzicato bass that introduces Marstrander’s composition “Bifilomania”. It may be composed but the piece still has a strong improvised or ‘free’ feel about it with Robb eventually picking up the bow once more as the music progresses.  Meanwhile the composer’s guitar soars as Steinkopf’s drums circle busily around him

The next four pieces are all credited to ‘A Northern Code’ and presumably represent group improvisations. The first of these is “Every Cell In Your Body” which marks a return to the spooky atmospherics of the opener with washes of guitar, eerie cello like bowed bass and the consistently engaging rustle of percussion. Again there’s an unsettling quality about the music as it gathers aggression and momentum and the timbres take on a darker hue.

Solo pizzicato bass ushers in “Existential Future” and Robb continues as the dominant figure before seceding to the glacial beauty of Marstrander’s guitar with Steinkopf continuing to provide succinct and pertinent drum commentary. The young drummer plays with taste and great maturity throughout the album, always seeming to find just the right sound at any given moment.
The music segues directly into “Red Street” which initially places the emphasis on the ongoing dialogue between Marstrander and Steinkopf with Robb fulfilling an anchoring role. Subsequently the bassist comes to the fore again, his powerful pizzicato leading the three way discourse, before handing over once more to Marstrander’s spiralling guitar peregrinations.

Steinkopf’s drums introduce “Meditative”, in which the atmospheric, and indeed meditative, musings of guitar and cello-like arco bass are punctuated by atmospheric drum bursts. Steinkopf’s drums subsequently assume the lead, in a virtuoso demonstration of the trio’s propensity for subverting the traditional roles of the instruments. It should however be emphasised that this is far removed from the typical ‘drum feature’.

The trio’s origins in improvising around jazz standards are represented by their interpretation of the Frank Churchill composition “Someday My Prince Will Come”. The piece evolves slowly and gradually over the course of its six minute duration, commencing with a gentle, conversational dialogue between Marstrander on guitar and Robb on double bass. Steinkopf eventually joins the party as the trio improvise freely around the tune, alluding to the melody rather than playing it openly. Once he’s on board Steinkopf’s drums play a prominent role, this trio is indeed a genuine meeting of equals.

The album concludes with the group improvisation “Soundscape”, which almost sounds like a continuation of the opening “Slow Motion”. Chiming guitars, grainy arco bass, mallet rumbles and cymbal scrapes and splashes combine to create an atmosphere that is simultaneously chillingly beautiful and dark, sinister and unsettling -  particularly when the music becomes increasingly aggressive and clangorous towards the close. A spirit of ‘Scandi-noir’ definitely pervades this item, as it does with much of A Northern Code’s music.

I’m indebted to Andrew Robb for forwarding me a review copy of this album. I’m very glad that he did, because I greatly enjoyed it. A Northern Code is a well balanced trio that has established a sound that is very much its own, but still utterly in keeping with the Nordic jazz tradition. The trio is truly a meeting of equals with no one member overly dominant. Their improvisations are tightly focussed with the emphasis on creating a musical atmosphere rather than demonstrating individual virtuosity. That said the playing is excellent throughout, with Steinkopf in particular impressing with his maturity, a more than capable musical descendant of the great Jon Christensen.

With its dearth of conventional jazz swing and with Marstrander favouring a sustain heavy ‘ambient’ guitar sound “Boundaries” won’t appeal to all ears. However fans of contemporary European jazz, and of the ‘Nordic’ sound in particular, will find much to enjoy here and as such this recording can be recommended to a substantial body of listeners. Curious rock listeners may find this album of interest too.

I’d welcome the opportunity of seeing this trio performing live and it has recently played a small number of shows in Scotland. Hopefully there will be more UK gigs in 2020. Confusingly the trio also seem to operate under the name AMS, a conflation of the initials of their first names, so be aware of that.

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