Trond Kallevåg’s Amerikabåten

cover, AmerikabåtenNorwegian guitarist and composer Trond Kallevåg’s Amerikabåten is one of my favorite albums of 2023 – and of this still young though momentous decade. It’s his third as a leader on Hubro, following his acclaimed 2019 debut Bedehus & Hawaii, an homage to Norwegian folk hymns and Polynesian guitar traditions, and 2021’s Fengselsfugl, drawn from prison songs and his own experiences. I didn’t discover Trond until 2021 via Geir Sundstøl’s wonderful St. Hanshaugen Steel on which he played steel guitar, and I think Bedehus & Hawaii was my most played album that year. It garnered a lot of attention the year of its release, including a listing among the top 15 international jazz releases of 2019 by Bandcamp.

With Amerikabåten Trond and his highly sympatico ensemble have created a concept album. In nine songs he displays his affection for American culture as he explores the feelings aroused by the history of Norwegian emigration to America since the middle of the 19th century, a wave that crested in the early 20th. It plays out in what Trond refers to as Nordic Americana, drawing equally on Norwegian and American folk music, country, and a heavy dose of jazz at its base.

“Amerikabåten” refers to the boats that Norwegian emigrants road to America in the year roughly coinciding with a similar Irish emigration. The Norwegian emigration was driven largely by desires to be able to own and farm one’s own land, but was also driven by nonconformism. Newly minted Quakers and other evangelical Christians as well as those on the run from the law and others who simply chafed under the country’s strict laws and traditions, read letters from those who had gone to America and decided to take a chance themselves. As Trond explains in the liner notes:

“Amerikabåten” explores my deep admiration and fascination for American culture and the transformative journey aboard the America boats, back when countless Norwegians traversed the ocean to America until the mid-20th century. It was a time when the sea provided a liberating sanctuary for individualists and those who didn’t conform, including the newly religious and lawless.

My grandparents shared stories of close relatives who ventured to America, resulting in cultural connections, particularly along the Norwegian coastline where I grew up.

To help him realize this vision, he’s enlisted a crew of some of Norway’s top young musicians including Selma French on violin and hardanger fiddle, Daniela Reyes on accordion, Håkon Aase on violin and harmonium, Jo Berger Myhre on electric bass guitar, and Ola Øverby on drums, with Trond of course on pedal steel. (In addition, everyone but the bassist and drummer occasionally play guitars.)

The album’s nine tracks are bookended by “Første amerikabrev” (first letter from America) and, you guessed it, “Siste amerikabrev” (last letter from America). Those are the two shortest tracks at just over a minute each, and both are dreamy and somewhat unfocused. In the first track the sound and techniques are definitely more Norwegian, and it’s a little more American sounding as the album ends. In between, it proceeds through the sunny pop of “Amerikalinjen,” the swooping pedal steel waltz of “Fargo” (the first single), the upbeat country shuffle of “Høvding” (chief), the folky, fingerpicked “Ørkenen Sur,” the complex “Quebec,” the appropriately somber “Kvekerne” (the Quakers), and the jazzy, even funky “Enveisbillett” (one way ticket).

Each of these songs has an interesting story behind it. “Amerikalinjen,” which reminds me a lot of Bill Frisell’s sunny, optimistic Big Sur, is named for the renowned Norwegian ship that operated between the U.S. and Norway from 1913 until 1971, when ship travel was largely replaced by airlines. “Ørkenen sur” (the bitter desert) is named for a community of destitute immigrants that grew up in the slums of Red Hook, Brooklyn. The tune here is surprisingly upbeat, really a quintessential Kallevåg piece with a melody that somehow blends happy and sad, warm and slightly chill. We get a fiddle and hardanger duet and a lot of overlaid acoustic guitars being strummed and plucked in this superb arrangement.

“Fargo,” named for the city in North Dakota, is the track here that fits most neatly into the ambient country category, Trond’s gorgeous guitar tone juxtaposed with the droning harmonium.”Québec” doesn’t incorporate the stylings of modern Québecois folk music with its fiddles and accordion and foot percussion, but it has the fastest beat of any song on the record, driven by Overby’s martial tattoo; it’s a brisk meditation on the mood of arrival at what was for many the disembarkation point in the Americas, and Myhre’s clipped walking bass line seems to echo both the thrum of the boat’s engines and the quickened beat of the immigrant’s heart at arriving at last. (And one can also do a little Québecois style foot percussion while listening, without doing any violence to the song’s beat.) Those bass and drums also stand out on “Enveisbillett.” Trond’s languid and poignant melody – with lots of long, slow notes on pedal steel, accordion and fiddles – contrasts nicely with the jazzy, even funky beat set by the rhythm section, which drives this one almost into fusion territory. Selma French provides some swooping wordless vocals in addition to some minimalist hardanger bowing.

I don’t know what the story is behind “Høvding” but this upbeat country shuffle has emerged as my favorite. Jo Berger Myhre again is a real standout here, and fiddler Håkon Aase lays down a nice improvization on the sunny melody, which is led by Trond, who plays a Telecaster rather than his usual pedal steel.

Trond Kallevåg’s Amerikabåten was my most anticipated release of the year, and it did not disappoint. His excellent compositions, arrangement and production all make this a standout in international instrumental jazz.

(Hubro, 2023)

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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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