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Geir Lysne Ensemble

The Grieg Code


by Ian Mann

February 14, 2009


Lysne uses Grieg as the foundation for the creation of a sound world all his own. This is Orchestral Jazz at its best

The title of this album from the Norwegian saxophonist, composer and band leader Geir Lysne suggests that the music may be some sort of tepid jazz/classical crossover. However from the very first bars it is emphatically clear that this is not the case.

The leader’s name is pronounced “listen” and this latest project is his fourth album for ACT. Lysne takes the music of Grieg, effectively Norway’s national composer as his inspiration but transforms it into something uniquely his own. Other Scandinavian jazz musicians, including Jan Garbarek have borrowed from the folk elements in Grieg’s work but Lysne’s approach is different again.

He takes fragments of Grieg’s work and transforms them into something entirely contemporary. Lysne has tried to imagine how Grieg would write now, still living in Norway but with a host of modern, global influences to draw on. The fragments Lysne chooses are often assigned to different instruments, a soprano vocal line drops three octaves to be played by the double bass, a violin melody is somehow switched to the drums, and so on. Grieg’s main chords become the changes for Lysne’s jazz soloists to play on. Lysne prefers to think of these numerous transformations as musical anagrams. 

The seeds for this project were sown on Lysne’s previous ACT album, the award winning “Boahjenasti-The North Star”. Here the track “GeirG” refashioned Grieg’s “The Death Of Ase” from the Peer Gynt Suite No.1. Surprisingly Lysne’s bold re-imaginings actually won the approval of the Edvard Grieg Society who subsequently commissioned “The Grieg Code” for their 2007 conference in Bergen, Grieg’s birthplace.

Lysne’s thirteen piece ensemble comprises of four saxes (all doubling on various flutes and clarinets), two trumpets, french horn, trombone and tuba plus keyboards, bass, drums and percussion. The line up includes such well known figures as Tore Brunborg (tenor sax/flutes) and the remarkable Terje Isungset (percussion,jew’s harp,voice). With keyboardist Jorn Oien also contributing electronics Lysne has a very broad sonic palette available to him.

Despite the classical inspiration behind the work the finished project is unmistakably jazz, albeit jazz of a very distinctive kind. All of the eight tracks contain jazz solos and Lysne’s approach has been compared favourably to Gil Evans, George Russell and Maria Schneider. However there is a maverick quality at work here that also invites comparison with Carla Bley, Edward Vesala, Mike Gibbs and even Django Bates.

The album starts in extraordinary fashion with “Transad Nias” which sets the other worldly sounds of Isungset’s electronically treated jew’s harp against ghostly low register horns. A more conventional form of Gil Evans’ style big band swing subsequently emerges, combined with the wordless vocals of trumpeter Eckhard Baur. In keeping with the source material and Lysne’s uniquely Nordic approach Baur’s dramatic and and times somewhat unhinged vocal performance recalls the joiks of the Sami people. In this rich melange there is also room for a gently lyrical soprano sax solo from Morten Halle. 

“Memorits N’ Gneng” is more conventional but no less memorable. The soloists are bassist Bjorn Kjellemeyer (another player with an international reputation thanks to his work with guitarist Terje Rypdal) and trumpeter Jesper Riis. Riis’ contribution runs from muted Milesian musings to high register open horned magnificence as the band swing prodigiously. Voices are once again deployed to carry the soaring melodies.

A quiet ending segues into “Blog Her” which contains with an extraordinary dialogue between Lars A. Haug on tuba and Isungset on stones. A “Late Junction” favourite Isungset often makes use of items found in the natural world to make music, most notably his ice sculpture percussion instruments. The whole is eerie and unsettling but oddly beautiful.

“Vebburedong” continues the mood with it’s flute led introduction. Isungset’s percussion is again prominent and Tore Brunborg is the featured soloist on Garbarek style tenor. As the piece gains momentum there are some excellent ensemble passages for the massed ranks of horns. Voices and electronics help to maintain the other worldly air of the album and snatches of folk based melody abound throughout.

Wonde Hinsisi” is the most uncompromising track on the record. The German poet Heinrich Heine’s “Wo Sind Sie Hin” is translated and subsequently narrated in Danish by Riis. The back drop for this is ghostly horns and an extraordinary trumpet/vocal performance from Baur which initially recalls Arve Henriksen before Baur’s increasingly deranged performance carries him to heights very much his own. His extraordinary, almost animalistic vocal cries invite the kind of “Hendrix of the voice” plaudits that used to be applied to Van Der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill. “Wonde Hinsisi” is frankly very scary listening- and none the worse for that.

“Dose Das” inevitably changes the mood and is a brief feature for the leader’s breathy, unaccompanied tenor. It maintains the other worldly qualities of the other items on the record.

The gentle flute introduction of “Glossi Vangse” feels like the sun coming out after the storm. Initially folksy and pastoral, the tempo changes mid tune to incorporate a joyous folk dance before Steffen Schorn delivers a surprisingly agile and lyrical solo on baritone sax. 

The closing “L’Omal” maintains the standards set by the rest of the album. Kaleidoscopic in mood the piece shifts from the ethereal sounds of Oien’s keyboards, to the earthiness of Helge Sunde’s trombone via the extraordinary flexibility of Arkady Shilkloper’s french horn. There is also another extraordinary contribution from the remarkable Isungset.

“The Grieg Code” is as distinctive an album as I have heard for some while. Lysne has used Grieg as the foundation for the creation of a sound world all his own. The colourful textures and brilliant ensemble writing hold the attention throughout and the presence of Isungset adds hugely to the atmosphere and makes it unique. The percussionist is certainly the most distinctive instrumentalist on the record and the use of both jew’s harp and Baur’s voice also add greatly to the already imaginative arrangements. 

However the main plaudits should go to Lysne himself for his breadth of vision in making this extraordinary album happen. He prefers to think of this not as “Big Band Music” but as “Orchestral Jazz”. It is “Orchestral Jazz” at its best.

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