Arve Henriksen's latest album "The Nature of Connections" (Rune Grammofon) takes us into territory previously unvisited on Henriksen's solo albums. It's a musical landscape with one foot in Scandinavian folk music and the other in European minimalistic chamber music, although, as always with Henriksen’s music, it transcends all attempts at categorization.
For several years Henriksen toyed with the idea of doing something with a string quartet, but hadn't managed to wrap his head around quite how to pull it off. When Rikskonsertene commissioned a tour with him and new original material in 2012, he suddenly had the incentive to make this idea a reality. He was free to choose whomever he wanted to work with, and he ended up with a group of stellar players from diverse backgrounds.
Mats Eilertsen and Audun Kleive are well-known musicians from the Norwegian jazz/improv scene and should need no further introduction. Nils Økland (violin, Hardanger fiddle, viola d'amore) is a musician and composer who bridges classical with contemporary music, as well as blending jazz with folk music with equal ease.
Gjermund Larsen is a folk musician and composer who has worked with artists as diverse as May-Britt Andersen, Reidar Larsen and Christian Wallumrød, and has contributed to several albums, including two in his own name.
Both Økland and Larsen have an ability to "turn the volume down" to a near-whisper from the strings.
Svante Henryson, Swedish heavy metal bass player (from Yngwie Malmsteen's band back in the day) turned exceptional cellist (with collaborations with Jon Balke, Ketil Bjørnstad and Terje Rypdal on his resume), completed the string quartet.
A key word from the album's title is "connections": the music connects folk influences with chamber music, and it also connects more strictly classical, almost baroque, elements with improvisation and more contemporary nuances, weaving the ingredients together to form something that sounds very coherent and natural.
One of Arve Henriksen's great strengths is the ability to pick people who can build a foundation for him to play and improvise over. On this album Henriksen is only credited with one composition, while the rest of the pieces come from the other musicians, with two exceptions: "Hymn" is composed by Ståle Storløkken (who has not been involved in the project other than contributing this piece), and "Arco Akropolis" is credited to all musicians (and it sounds like the result of improvisation).
It was important to Henriksen to have all musicians bringing compositions and sketches into the project and work them out together, giving all musicians equal ownership of the process.
The album was recorded at the end of the commissioned tour, meaning that the
music and the collaboration between the musicians had reached a kind of
equilibrium before the recording took place.
The album itself is a study in understatement, and reminds me of a slow-flowing river with those subtle intros and long, meditative passages of lyrical playing where the sense of time and place dissolves. This is music that wants you to lean back and let yourself be swept away.
But just when you think you have grasped what the music of
the album is about, suddenly comes the track "Keen", by Henryson. When
you already have six of the tracks under your belt, "Keen" appears
almost like a pop song (in the best meaning of the word!) with a tight and
light-hearted arrangement and a humorous solo by Henryson reminiscent of an
electric guitar. It is perfect timing for such a break from the more
melancholic feel of the other tunes.
So many things have been said already about Henriksen's style and sound that I don't have to dwell on his uniqueness. Yet it's worth mentioning that here he is holding back somewhat when it comes to improvisation and musical phrasing. Overall, solos are sparse on this album, and the focus is primarily on the mood in the music, rather than individual performances.
Even though this particular kind of music is new when it
comes to Henriksen's solo albums, he has worked with many artists on many
different kinds of music, one example being Trio Mediæval with whom he has done
several tours: that's music where you
need to be humble and know your place as a musician. He has certainly brought this
humility with him into this project.
Some reviews claim "The Nature Of Connections" to be Henriksen's best album to date. I can understand why they say this, but I'm not sure I agree. Which isn't to say that "The Nature of Connections" isn't an excellent album. Rather, I refuse to set this album up for comparison against his earlier albums, e.g. "Cartography" and "Places of Worship". I much prefer to look at it as another pillar in Henriksen's series of monumental solo albums, exploring different sonic worlds and directions, but never leaving out intrinsic beauty as the common denominator.