Kjølvatn is an acoustic tradition-based project by Norwegian hardanger fiddler Nils Økland. His most recent release on ECM was by his psychedelic, distortion-drenched drone-rock band Lumen Drones. In contrast, Kjølvatn sounds like ancient music, sometimes drawn from folk sources and sometimes from early Baroque, and always with a distinctive Nordic feel to it.
The 10 tunes on this record were written or co-written by Økland (who also plays viola d’amore and violin in addition to the hardanger), but they were arranged and at times improvised by the players, who include Rolf–Erik Nylstrøm on saxophone, Sigbjørn Apeland harmonium, Håkon Mørch Stene percussion and vibraphone, and Mats Eilertsen on double bass. So, a mixed folk and jazz ensemble in terms of instrumentation.
It’s entrancing music, all 50 minutes of it, starting with “Mali,” one of those that sounds like a Renaissance or early Baroque dance in its basic setting – the droning hardanger and Stene’s hand percussion – until Nylstrøm’s soprano or sopranino sax enters with colorful and harmonically rich flourishes. I don’t know if the tune’s title is a reference to the West African country, but it has a deep, bluesy groove and its near-pentatonic melody of descending figures would make a perfect base for a song by some Norwegian death metal band.
Apeland’s droning harmonium and Eilertsen’s arco bass lay a solid foundation for Økland’s violin on the chill opening section “Undergrunn,” after which Eilertsen takes the melody for a bass solo section backed by vibes – it’s hauntingly evocative.
The title track features a lovely melody played mostly by Økland on violin, evoking Copland in its picturesqueness and openness. The rest of the ensemble backs him with subtle drones and cymbal washes and Eilertsen’s lyrical pizzicato. The playing throughout makes grand use of the recording space, the Østre Toten stone church outside Lena, in Norway’s Oppland county. It seems to me that a couple of them make especially fine use of the excellent acoustics: The airy “Puls” – the longest piece at over 8 minutes – with Stene’s insistent tom-tom beats; and the call-and-response of “Amstel,” Nylstrøm’s bird-like notes echoing Økland’s plaintive melody. That tune with its Irish-style fiddle embellishments, Eilertsen’s lovely bass solo and the lovely harmonium line, is as fine a way to end an album as I’ve come across recently.
Here’s an early version of “Blond Blå” which appears in a slightly different form on Kjølvatn.
Fans of Nordic fiddling should seek out this recording, especially those who are on the adventurous side when it comes to some subtle jazz elements in the music. It’s a real treat for the senses.