by Ian Mann
April 28, 2021
Mulelid’s melodic themes are simply gorgeous & his playing, with its subtle balance of right hand melody and left hand rhythm, is superb throughout. An album that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels
(Rune Grammofon, RCD2220)
Kjetil Mulelid – piano
As its title might suggest the latest recording from the Norwegian musician and composer Kjetil Mulelid is a solo piano disc. It represents his third album for the Rune Grammofon label following the release of his two acclaimed trio releases “Not Nearly Enough To Buy A House” (2018) and “What You Thought Was Home” (2019). Both albums feature his regular trio with bassist Bjorn Marius Hegge and drummer Andreas Skar Winther and both have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.
Mulelid was raised in the small Norwegian village of Hurdal and has been playing piano since the age of nine, initially inspired by the music of Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy. He later developed an interest in jazz and subsequently obtained a bachelor degree in jazz performance from the NTNU in Trondheim before becoming a professional jazz musician.
Ironically he nearly didn’t become a professional pianist at all. In his teens he played electric guitar, influenced by rock groups such as Queen and Led Zeppelin, only returning to the piano when a teacher introduced him to the delights of jazz, gospel and boogie woogie.
Mulelid first came to my attention in 2013 as part of the Nordic trio Lauv (the group name is the Norwegian for “Leaf”), who released the highly promising EP “De Som Er Eldre Enn Voksne” in that year, the title translating as “Those Who Are Older Than Adults”. My review of the EP can be read here.
The following year I enjoyed seeing Mulelid perform live at the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when he was one of the star soloists at the annual Trondheim Jazz Exchange event, which sees students from the Jazz courses at the Birmingham and Trondheim Conservatoires combining to make music together and presenting the results to the jazz going public.
Mulelid is a typical young jazz musician of today, involved in a variety of genre defying projects embracing a broad range of musical influences. Lauv is no more but Mulelid leads his own piano trio (as previously discussed), forms half of the duo Kjemilie with vocalist Emilie Vasseljen Storaas and is part of the group Fieldfare, a song based, more pop orientated outfit featuring Winther, vocalist Siril Maldemal Hauge, and former Lauv bassist Bardur Reinert Poulsen.
Mulelid and Poulsen are also members of the instrumental quartet Wako, a group that also includes saxophonist Martin Myhre Olsen (who appeared at the Trondheim Jazz Exchange event in 2012) and drummer Simon Olderskog Albertsen. Their début album, 2015’s “The Good Story” was very well received by the Norwegian jazz media.
Wako appears to be primarily Olsen’s project. The saxophonist wrote all the compositions and arrangements for the group’s second album “Modes for All Eternity” (2017), an ambitious but largely successful collaboration between the Wako quartet and three members of Oslo Strings, violinist Kaja Constance Rogers, violist Isa Caroline Holmesland and cellist Kaja Fjellberg Pettersen. My review of that album can be read here;
In 2018 Wako released a second quartet album, “Urolige Sinn”, for the Ora Fonogram label, a recording featuring compositions by both Olsen and Mulelid.
This was followed in February 2020 by the group’s fourth album, simply titled “Waco”, which again featured pieces by both of the quartet’s composers. The recording also featured the contributions of a number of guest musicians, among them trumpeter Arve Henriksen.
Wako’s latest release is “Live In Oslo”, recorded at two separate dates in the city in 2020 during periods of relaxation in lockdown restrictions. The recording features the core quartet plus contributions from guest musicians Tore Brunborg (tenor sax), Lars Horntveth (bass clarinet, steel guitar), Adrian Loseth Waade (violin) and Kyrre Laastad (vibes, percussion, electronics), the majority of whom had also appeared on the “Wako” album. The material, much of it sourced from the latest studio recording, includes compositions by both Olsen and Mulelid and I intend to take a fuller look at this recently issued live album in due course.
Mulelid also collaborates with Olsen as part of the saxophonist’s MMO Ensemble, a
jazz/classical quartet that also features vocalist Hauge and cellist Pettersen and is inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Mulelid, Olsen and Hauge have also been part of the Norwegian sextet Wild Things Run Fast, a tribute to the music of Joni Mitchell.
Turning at last to this current release from Mulelid, which first became available in March 2021. The idea for a solo piano album was first suggested to Mulelid by Rune Grammofon in 2018 but the pianist was initially sceptical, preferring to concentrate on working with his trio and with the numerous groups with which he is involved.
However with the onset of the Covid pandemic the idea increasingly began to appeal to him and the bulk of the material was written during the first period of lockdown. The album was then recorded over the course of a single (very hot) day in June 2020 at the Norwegian studio Athletic Sound on a Bosendorfer grand piano dating from 1919.
Mulelid says of the piano “the sound is one of a kind, very clear and not typically ‘perfect’, like most new ones”. Certainly, the instrument is perfect for this immaculately produced recording in which the focus is very much on melody, atmosphere and mood building. As Rune Grammofon state in the accompanying press release the listener gets the impression that “you sit next to him, and not in a concert hall”.
Given Mulelid’s involvement with song based groups such as Kjemilie and Fieldfare it perhaps comes as no surprise that his love of a good melody is clearly so strong. “Piano” is is a highly intimate record with a strong melodic focus and an emphasis on atmosphere and narrative rather than complexity and technique. There’s a simplicity and a sense of calmness in many of these compositions, the often lyrical and tranquil mood strangely at odds with the stresses of lockdown. Perhaps Mulelid was relishing the opportunity of temporarily stepping off the recording/touring treadmill of the professional musician and simply enjoying the chance to take stock. The result is an album that is both charming and accessible, capable of reaching out to a wide audience while still retaining enough substance to continue to appeal to the more demanding listener. It’s a sound that is very different from the busy, complex music of both the Mulelid Trio and Wako.
The opening piece, appropriately titled “Beginning”, is a case in point with its gorgeously flowing melody providing the jumping off point for a more rigorous improvisation that finds Mulelid singing along with his melodic inventions in the style of Keith Jarrett, one of his acknowledged influences. Indeed this collection of eleven relatively brief solo piano pieces invites comparison with Jarrett’s landmark 1972 album “Facing You”. Jarrett was just twenty six when he recorded “Facing You”, his début for ECM. Mulelid is still only twenty nine and exhibits a similar musical maturity. The “Piano” album has been widely acclaimed by the international jazz press and one suspects that the album might become a similarly significant ‘landmark’ recording for the young Norwegian.
“Skjong” is more sombre, but no less beautiful, with its simple folk like theme exhibiting a distinct hymn like quality. Mulelid subsequently expands upon this motif, soloing with a flowing lyricism. His playing exhibits a classically honed lightness of touch, the influence of Chopin, Debussy and Beethoven mingling with that of Jarrett, Bill Evans and his fellow countryman Tord Gustavsen.
The appropriately lithe rhythmic patterns of “Dancers” add a welcome element of playfulness, with the music still drawing upon both jazz and classical influences.
“Point Of View” is more reflective and attractively melodic, again revealing the influence of the Romantic classical composers, allied to those of Jarrett, Evans and Gustavsen. Mulelid has also revealed that since agreeing to this solo project he has listened to solo piano recordings by Paul Bley, Craig Taborn, Shai Maestro and Christian Wallumrod and the inspiration of these artists can be heard in the latter stages of the piece as the music becomes more abstract, and even includes a little judicious tinkering ‘under the lid’.
“Le Petit” is cut from a similar Romantic cloth with a typically gorgeous melodic theme embellished by a Jarrett like improvisation.
“Love Story” begins in pensive fashion, opening out from its initial introspection to embrace something altogether warmer and more positive, while still retaining an overall air of quiet contemplation.
The song like “For You I’ll Do Anything” features one of Mulelid’s most gorgeous melodies and finds the pianist embracing a broad dynamic range as he briefly diverts into the realms of improvisation before returning to the main theme.
On “Sailor’s Song” Mulelid creates a sense of spaciousness reminiscent of being alone on a vessel adrift on a calm, windless sea, but with deep, low end left hand notes hinting at the mysterious and potentially dangerous depths beneath.
“Blooming” initially evokes a suitably warm, springlike feel, but a robust left hand also hints at something darker; every flower that blooms must eventually wither.
“Kanskje I Morgen” features some of Mulelid’s most virtuoso playing of the set as he embraces the full tonal possibilities of the keyboard. However this is no mere display of technique, a strong sense of melody, beauty and narrative remains and the piece remains true to the overall aesthetic of the album as a whole.
The album concludes with “The Sun”, the simple elegiac beauty of the main theme forming the foundation for a more vigorous improvisation before coming full circle to round the album off on a suitably uplifting note.
With eleven tracks, significantly described by Rune Grammofon as ‘songs’, appearing in around forty two minutes there is little room here for self indulgence. Every piece represents a brilliantly realised performance, with each composition representing something more than a vignette or miniature, but still compact enough to ensure that it never overstays its welcome. It’s as if Mulelid has distilled himself and his emotions into these brilliant performances.
Each piece is successful as a self contained entity and one can imagine any one of these tracks being very well received on BBC Radio 3 programmes such as Late Junction or Night Tracks. Mulelid’s melodic themes are simply gorgeous and his playing, with its subtle balance of right hand melody and left hand rhythm, is superb throughout, with virtually zero recourse to flashiness or to extended techniques. A unifying aesthetic seems to imbue the album as a whole, the recording representing a small piece of calm in a turbulent world.
Although superficially beautiful these compositions and performances also exhibit considerable musical depth and subtlety and this is an album that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels.
Jarrett fans, in particular, will enjoy Mulelid’s music - and with the great man himself having recently been forced into retirement due to medical problems it’s good to see a fresh new talent stepping into the void left by Jarrett’s departure.
“Piano” may be a product of lockdown, but it’s a product that Kjetil Mulelid can be justifiably proud of. One of the most enjoyable solo piano albums I’ve heard in a long time.
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