by Ian Mann
June 20, 2022
The live environment seems to suit the Eriksen Trio, with the addition of Sheppard representing a very welcome bonus. The most satisfying Espen Eriksen Trio recording that I’ve heard.
Espen Eriksen Trio featuring Andy Sheppard
“In The Mountains”
(Rune Grammofon RCD2227)
Espen Eriksen – piano, Lars Tormod Jenset – double bass, Andreas Bye – drums, Andy Sheppard - saxophones (on three tracks)
The Espen Eriksen Trio was founded in 2007 by the Norwegian pianist and composer Espen Eriksen and has maintained the line up above throughout the course of its now fifteen year existence.
Concentrating on Eriksen’s compositions almost exclusively the group has now recorded six albums, all of them for the Oslo based Rune Grammofon label. “In The Mountains” is the trio’s first concert recording and is preceded by five studio releases, “You Had Me At Goodbye” (2010), “What Took You So Long” (2012), “Never Ending January” (2015), “Perfectly Unhappy” (2018) and “End Of Summer” (2020). The concert recording draws on the previous albums, with three tracks featuring the saxophone playing of the British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, who had first guested with the group on the “Perfectly Unhappy” release.
In 2010 I reviewed the trio’s début release “You Had Me At Goodbye”. I received the album from then Jazzmann contributor Tim Owen, who felt that the trio’s brand of contemporary, lyrical and highly melodic brand of piano trio jazz would be more likely to suit my ears than his. Tim had previously written about some of Rune Grammofon’s spikier jazz meets avant rock output by bands such as Supersilent, elephant9 and Bushman’s Revenge, but found the Eriksen Trio’s music rather too smooth for his personal tastes.
He wasn’t the only one to have such reservations about the album, as my review observed at the time;
“You Had Me At Goodbye” is an album that seems to have divided critical attention. Some writers and broadcasters, among them Late Junction’s Fiona Talkington and Max Reinhardt, have been charmed, others have dismissed the record as bland, insipid and inconsequential. It’s certainly not a typical Rune Grammofon release”.
I found myself occupying the middle ground between the two camps. The music was certainly a little bloodless but it was also lyrical and highly melodic and on the whole I enjoyed it, while still understanding and appreciating where the harsher criticism was coming from. I suggested that fans of Tord Gustavsen’s output would appreciate Eriksen’s music, which shares many similar qualities. There’s the same focus on melody, a shared love of the Norwegian landscape and a quiet intensity behind the lyrical façade. Eriksen’s music is less obviously informed by that of the Lutheran church, but nevertheless I suspect that he and Gustavsen may have shared very similar upbringings and musical influences. My full review of “You Had Me At Goodbye” can be found here;
I haven’t covered the intervening studio albums and thus come directly to “In The Mountains”, the album title taken from a track on the “Never Ending January” recording. The seven selections are sourced from four separate concerts, with the three tracks featuring Sheppard, being sourced from a performance at Nasjonal Jazz Scene in Victoria, Oslo in September 2018. Two further pieces come from an August 2020 performance by the core trio at the same venue. The track “Dancing Demons” was recorded at a limited capacity event at Propeller Music Division in Oslo, also in August 2020. The album concludes with a special performance of Krzysztof Komeda’s theme from “Rosemary’s Baby” recorded at Era Jazzu/Czas Komedy in Poznan, Poland in November 2021.
Although the audience applause has largely been edited out the crucible of the live environment seems to suit the trio. In common with many ECM artists the Eriksen Trio stretch out a little more expansively and forcefully in concert, a process encouraged by the presence of Sheppard, who adds greatly to the tracks on which he appears. That’s not to say that the trio abandon their trademark melody and lyricism, there’s still plenty of this, allied to a wealth of sonic detail, in a series of intimate performances by a trio who know each other’s playing inside out.
The album commences with “1974”, a piece from the “Perfectly Unhappy” album. Introduced by a short passage of solo piano the music quickly expands to embrace bass, drums and Sheppard’s tenor. The trademark melody and lyricism is still there but the addition of Sheppard brings an additional dynamism to the performance as the music progresses via fluent solos from piano and saxophone. Sheppard sounds totally at home in this context and he and the trio seem to bring out the best in each other. The power of Sheppard’s playing on a probing tenor solo evokes a suitably robust, and arguably uncharacteristic, response from the rest of the band.
Next we hear a quartet version of “Anthem”, the track that opened the trio’s début all those years ago. Ushered in by piano and the soft patter of Bye’s hand drumming the music features a folk like melody, here stated by Sheppard on tenor. Eriksen takes the first solo, the mood still quiet and lyrical, with the delicate subtlety of Bye’s drumming recalling that of Jarle Vespestad’s with the Gustavsen Trio. Sheppard’s elegant tenor solo remains true to the spirit of the piece, but still probes subtly and intelligently.
The first trio item is a performance of “Suburban Folk Song”, a track from the “Perfectly Unhappy” album. This is ushered in by a combination of double bass and drums, the rhythm team subsequently joined by Eriksen. The pared down trio setting represents an opportunity for the listener to fully appreciate the nuances of Bye’s drumming, which is full of delightful small details. His playing comes even more sharply into focus as he enjoys a subtle but colourful drum feature towards the close of the piece. With Eriksen also soloing elegantly and lyrically, sympathetically supported by Jenset and Bye, this performance is a reminder of the strengths of the core trio and a demonstration of just how well balanced this long running group is.
Sheppard returns for the title track, a composition that originally appeared on the “Never Ending January” album. The piece is introduced by Jenset at the bass, subsequently joined by Bye and then by Eriksen. It’s typically subtle and lyrical and when Sheppard’s sax finally appears there’s something of Jan Garbarek about his tone. Jenset is featured with the bow, his arco playing combining effectively with Sheppard’s sax, their exchanges underscored by piano and the soft rumble of Bye’s drums. There’s a slightly unsettling quality about the music here as the music gathers momentum, with first Eriksen and then Sheppard exploring more deeply. One can almost sense the wildness of the Norwegian mountains that inspired the title, but as ever with the Eriksen Trio there’s beauty too.
It’s somewhat ironic that the title track of the studio album that Sheppard recorded with the trio is performed here without him. “Perfectly Unhappy” is introduced by an extended passage of thoughtful solo piano, with sympathetic bass and drums subsequently added, Bye delicately wielding brushes. This piece is a genuine ballad and features Jenset’s melodic pizzicato soloing alongside Eriksen’s own expansively flowing piano lyricism.
From the “End Of Summer” comes “Dancing Demons”, captured at that low key performance at the Oslo studio Propeller Music Division. This introduces a different side to the trio sound as Eriksen improvises around a hypnotic rhythmic vamp that includes the sound of his own dampened strings.
With Jenset subsequently featuring on Dan Berglund influenced arco bass it’s the most modern sounding track on the album, reminiscent of E.S.T and of more contemporary groups such as GoGo Penguin.
Eriksen had already paid homage to Krzysztof Komeda with the composition “Komeda” on the “What Took You So Long” album. The trio’s performance at a festival at Poznan in Komeda’s native Poland provided the opportunity for a dramatic take on Komeda’s theme from the Roman Polanski film “Rosemary’s Baby”. A suitably spooky and atmospheric intro features the sounds of piano innards, arco bass and the shimmer of percussion. Grainy arco bass and glacial piano then combine, helping to maintain the unsettling ambience. The addition of drums then steers the music in a more conventional direction with Eriksen picking out Komeda’s famous melody at the piano, supported by the deeply resonant sound of plucked bass and the crisp shimmer of Bye’s cymbals.
The performance retains its haunting qualities to the close, with Eriksen again briefly venturing ‘under the lid’. Quite rightly the Polish audience loved this tribute to one of their favourite sons and the response is appropriately ecstatic, there’s no editing out of the applause here.
In contrast to the reception given to the trio’s début the critical reaction to “In The Mountains” has been overwhelmingly favourable. As befits a group who have established a reputation as a major international concert attraction the live environment seems to suit the Eriksen Trio, with the addition of Sheppard representing a very welcome bonus. His presence will do much to bring the album to the attention of UK jazz audiences. I haven’t heard the group’s full back catalogue but “In The Mountains” represents the most satisfying Espen Eriksen Trio recording that I’ve heard.
British audiences will be pleased to know that the Eriksen Trio and Sheppard will be touring the UK in November 2022 with dates as follows;
ESPEN ERIKSEN TRIO with ANDY SHEPPARD
tour Dorking (Watermill Jazz 22nd November), Manchester (Band On The Wall, 23rd November), Aberdeen (The Blue Lamp, 24th November), Sheffield (Crucible Studio 25th November), Leeds (Howard Assembly Room,26th November)
More details at https://www.espeneriksentrio.com/#tour
There is also a trio only date in October;
ESPEN ERIKSEN TRIO play Stapleford Granary, Cambridge on the 14th of October 2022.
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