Back around 2005, I went through a heavy ECM Records label buying spree. It was right around when I discovered that now-defunct music retailer BMG (similar to the old mail-order Columbia Buy 1 Get 10 Free Albums deal) had an online presence. That meant no more mailing in decline-to-purchase options and much better catalog searching. I signed up, and drowning myself in modern ECM albums was the first order of business.
I originally became familiar with the ECM label back in the early-mid 90s, when my jazz addiction was initially taking hold over both my ear and budget. But, back then, it was ECM’s releases during the 1970s that caught my attention, which for the most part was a beautiful array of what is now generally called World Jazz… a mix of mild avant-garde jazz and use of geographically diverse composition methods and instrumentation. Some of my early ECM favorites were Oregon‘s Crossing, Ralph Towner‘s Solstice, Codona‘s Codona 3, and Old & New Dreams self-titled album. All very earthy albums, with a heavy ethereal quality to them.
Around that same time, I was also becoming a bit familiar with ECM’s catalog from the 80s… mostly the work of Bill Frisell (fantastic) and Pat Metheny (guh). A lot of the ECM releases during that decade grew heavier on the ambient elements and also with the synthy electronic effects… sometimes to the recording’s benefit, sometimes not.
But as far as ECM releases from 1990 onward, I really didn’t have much of anything to go on. But that BMG music account, I took pretty good advantage of the deals, which allowed me to explore some albums on the cheap, and then expand outward from there for when I hit the brick & mortar music stores to buy more.
One of my first modern ECM purchases was Ketil Bjornstad‘s The Sea II. At the time, it really struck a chord with me (though, admittedly, my love for that album has waned considerably over time). I was really drawn to Bjornstad’s introspective sound on piano… the moodiness that whispered quietly, but possessed an inner turmoil. I found that combination terribly appealing. And it definitely fit in with my early mornings, when I like to wake slowly to the world, unhurried as the sun rising up over the horizon. So off I went to Reckless Records (Chicago, IL) to search down more from Bjornstad.
I’m going to talk about two Bjornstad albums. In a way, they act as bookends to my listening experience with Ketil’s music. Let’s begin…
Ketil Bjornstad – The River
This was the first Bjornstad album I purchased following my introduction to his music, and it pretty much cemented my dedication to slowly picking up all of his music. In many ways, it became more instrumental than The River II in how I purchased not just his music, but went about choosing other ECM label albums. It’s an hour of serenity made solid, so that it can be played through speakers as dawn breaks.
Your album personnel: Ketil Bjornstad (piano) and David Darling (cello).
This was an easy decision to make when I saw this on the shelves at Reckless Records. I’m a big fan of cello in any music setting, and as I was looking for peaceful music to start my day, it’s a good instrument to have in the mix. Plus, Darling played cello on The River II, so I already knew that I liked how his sound paired up with Bjornstad’s piano.
Aside from the overt beauty of piano and cello making pretty sounds, it’s the underlying tension of this album’s music that sets it apart from other quiet pretty albums. Both Darling and Bjornstad share the responsibility of bringing a direful tone to some of the album tracks, as if the artists are suggesting it smart to stay wary, that all is not safe just because the music has a blissful ease. Counterbalanced against those tracks where notes sparkle like diamonds on a mountain lake, it breathes life into music that never threatens to induce sleep. Simply beautiful. An album for when the sun hasn’t yet shaken the sleep from its eyes, and the sky turns all types of reds and pinks and oranges and blues.
Released in 1996 on the ECM Records label.
Ketil Bjornstad – Remembrance
Remembrance marks Bjornstad’s latest recording, as well as the last one that I’ve purchased. Aside from my intro to his music (via The Sea II), The River began my journey into Bjornstad’s discography and Remembrance (for the time being) my resting spot.
Remembrance brings more textures to the table, but is no less compelling for its quieter moments.
Your album personnel: Ketil Bjørnstad (piano), Tore Brunborg (tenor saxophone), and Jon Christensen (drums).
Whereas The River embodies the hypnotically casual rocking of waves on the water’s surface, Remembrance personifies the flight of seagulls as they skirt the waves and take off soaring up above. The addition of Brunborg’s sax gives this music all the lift it needs, buffeted by Chistensen’s elegant drum work, especially the tasteful placement of cymbal crashes. Worth noting that Christensen also performs on The Sea II.
And though the tempo and tone of this music resonates stronger, this is still music for those who prefer to wake at a more deliberate pace. Just as there are tracks when Brunborg’s sax gains elevation in leaps and bounds, while Bjornstad races along beside and Christensen stomps on clouds nearby, there are also album tracks that drift in place, making ripples that shift and expand at their leisure. There are moments of weighty melancholia and moments of heartbreaking lightness. It’s an album for when the sun is just over the horizon, and making its presence known.
Released in 2009 on the ECM Records label.
I’m sure I’ll find a way to sneak other Bjornstad album reviews onto the site. I’ll definitely be mentioning other albums that float my boat first thing in the morning.