Nils Økland Band’s Gjenskinn

cover, GjenskinnThe advance for Gjenskinn arrived on a Friday in mid-February and I spent most of the weekend listening to it on repeat. It’s music that perfectly complements things like taking a rainy walk on a cold February day.

This is the same lineup of Nils Økland Band that was nominated for the Spellemannprisen (often called the Norwegian Grammys) for their debut album, 2015’s Kjolvatn and won in the Open category for the follow up Lysning: Nils Økland on Hardanger fiddles and violin, Rolf-Erik Nystrøm on alto and baritone saxophones, Sigbjørn Apeland on harmonium and Fender Rhodes, Håkon Mørch Stene with percussion, vibraphone and electronics, and Mats Eilertsen on double bass. Kjolvatn has gone on to become one of my favorite albums of the past 20 years, and both it and Lysning are on regular rotation. I expect to be able to say the same of Gjenskinn.

All of these players are top-tier, indemand musicians in their fields, and all are adept at improvising within the rarified levels at which Økland composes and into which he leads them. The sense of focused joy in their performance is palpable. Økland’s genre-defying music draws from a foundation of old time Norwegian fiddle music, be it sprightly folk dance tunes or somber laments. But he is also very much attuned to modern idioms including contemporary classical, jazz fusion, and minimalism, as evidenced by some of the other project in which he is involved such as the noise-rock ensemble Lumen Drone, and his excursions into minimalism with Belgian guitarist Ruben Machtelinckx’s group Linus.

On this album as on their previous outings, Nils Økland Band hews a bit closer to traditional Norwegian music than those other groups (with some exceptions). See for instance the opener “Minimalvals,” which finds him sketching out a tune that started out as the waltz “Finnjenta” from Gudbrandsdalen in Norway, which Økland has played for 40 years, before going instead with a different tune and a more minimal approach that does as much with notes not played as those played. The following track “Framover,” (Forward) finds the fiddler playing a slow folk tune in a complex intertwined duet with Nystrom’s alto sax, with the jazz inspired rhythm from bass and drums and keyboard drones. The delightful collage “Tilley Plump” finds Økland on fiddle that rises up out of the droning background to play, among other tunes, an old Norse tune learned from fiddler Lell Robertson in Shetland. And the band learned the theme of “Kairo” from flutist Ahmed El Arnab in Cairo – after a languorous introductory section that veritably reeks of the atmosphere of the souk on a hot afternoon, it breaks into a loping caravanserai rhythm over which Økland and Nystrom play ecstatic improvisations.

Elsewhere, the music draws beautiful sound pictures like the Romantic composers at their most romantic: The dreamy “Svevn” (Sleep), the melodic delicacy of “Lys” (Light) with notes like fluttering birds, the shimmering wonder of “Morgenkvist” (Break of Dawn), and the sweet solo Hardanger of the final track “Silhuett.” The title track, which means “gleam” or “reflection,” is all quiet introspection with a hint of South Asian textures. And then there’s “Kraft,” which translates as something like “Power,” and has the roaring grandeur of a summer thunderstorm. I hope someday to have an opportunity to listen to this band in person, and this piece would be absolutely amazing to see and hear in performance.

Like all of this band’s releases, Gjenskinn reveals more with each listening session. It’s a collection I expect to be returning to for a long time.

(Hubro, 2024)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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