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Interview with Helge Lien 2

img  Tobias Fischer

The piano trio is not just a 'classic' line-up in jazz. Just like the string quartet in classical music, it almost seems to delineate a genre of its own, replete with its own etiquette, forms and approaches, with its own heroes and outcasts. This has both made its development particularly fascinating and conversely loaded it up with historical baggage. In the music of the Helge Lien Trio, the constant back and forth between 'progressive' and 'conservative' forces is replaced by a fresh perspective and a new angle on what seemed to be worn-out concepts. The trio's performances are marked by strong songwriting, poignant melodies and polished arrangements, yet they place equally great importance on spontaneity, sonic experiments and utmost freedom for each individual performer. Unlike some more aggressive colleagues, Lien doesn't overtly rebel against tradition. He does, however, regard it as his mission to constantly question its ongoing validity by taking its expressive potential to previously uncharted territory. On his latest studio album, Badgers and Other Beings, this has yielded a work of depth and beauty, contagious themes leading into a cosmos of complex metrics and challenging solos. The familiar here is not the result of complacency – it's a backdrop against which to make Lien's original personality audible. 

How do you see the possibilities and challenges of the piano trio line-up in jazz?
I believe that a classic piano trio will always be interesting to the audience, both because it has a perfect balance in the sound between the instruments, and also because of the huge amount of space and freedom it gives to each musician. The interplay between the three is what matters, the energy they create is like electricity. It exists there only, in the same room where you're sitting as a listener. This is the true power of the classic trio, as I see it.

In 1999, you founded your own trio. What were some of the conceptual considerations for the ensemble at the time?
I had played with both Frode and Knut in different settings earlier, and I liked both of them a lot, both personally and musically. At that time I wanted first of all to find a setting where I could play standard jazz tunes in an open and experimental way. I arranged a rehearsal, and I recorded it on a minidisc. I think we played standards, and just improvised around them. When I listened to the recording afterwords, I immediately loved how we played together, and I felt from the start that the combination of the three us had some magic in it. And the rest is history. We played some gigs, and recorded some demos, and eventually we released our first album based on some of the best tracks from our demo recordings. The concept has changed a lot since then, but I’m still quite proud of our early work, too.

You've recently added your new drummer Per Oddvar Johansen to the line-up. What does he add to the group, do you feel, and how has this affected the interplay within the band?
Per Oddvar has been one of my favourite Norwegian musicians for a long time, I really love his playing. He plays different than Knut, more jazz oriented perhaps, and this has an influence on how the band sounds. But the funny thing is that I never had the feeling of starting over when Per Oddvar came in. On the contrary, I feel that his involvement immediately took the band further, and that the interplay that we have built up for so many years is continuing to develop also now. From the first note! That is amazing to me. He comes in with some new possibilities also, being so utterly flexible as he is. He is a perfect combination of a strong musical personality and at the same time 100% supportive and communicative.

There seems to be a very strong group dynamic in the music of the Helge Lien trio. At the same time, the music performed by the band is yours. How would you describe your concept of leadership?
I have always given my musicians a lot of freedom, but at the same time I’m constantly trying to develop my music and the way it is formed by the band on stage or in the studio. I use a lot of time on my own, with the music, before we play it together. And very often I have already then some kind of a clear feeling of how it should be. I try to communicate to them, first of all through how I’m playing, what kind of mood and storyline I’m looking for. I leave it to them to find out how, though, and this can sometimes create interesting and unexpected results. I like not having complete control, because that's when true magic can evolve.

You've said that your music is often the result of very concrete moods and sentiments. What were some of these sentiments with regards to the material on Badgers and other Beings?
One significant mood on this album can be heard in the track ”Mor”, which means Mother. My mother plays the accordion, and the music she plays is an old form of Norwegian dance music called ”gammaldans”. I regard this music as a kind of folk music, but it is not so meditative and complex as the more famous traditions connected to the Hardanger fiddle. I have in recent years used this (for me) childhood music as a source of inspiration. Probably a sign of me getting older, don’t you think?

A few more tracks on the album are also inspired greatly by Norwegian folk music, especially the track "Folkmost". Another example is the track ”Hoggormen”. This ”riff” in 17/16 that forms the basis of the composition was made during a performance with a Norwegian poet, Frank Eriksen, many years ago. He read his poem called ”Hoggormen”, and out of the blue came this riff. From that moment, it stayed with me, popping up in my head regularly. I have never really managed to make a whole tune out of it though, until a few weeks before the recording.

One of the stand-out aspects of the album, to me, is the gracefulness of the melodic lines, the elegance of the music even when it's dealing with darker topics. What's your concept of beauty in music?             
Thank you for the compliment! For me, music should always have beauty. It should also always have dissonance, something grim, ugly or dark. This is what creates real beauty. And on the opposite side, beauty is necessary to create something dark and grim. This is the power of contrasts. I try my best to balance these, and many other types of contrasts during a tune, during an album, or during a concert.

Like your previous releases, Badgers and other Beings was recorded by Jan Erik Kongshaug at Rainbow Studios. What were the recording sessions like?
Recording in Rainbow with Jan Erik is always fantastic. This time I actually think he had an extra good day at work, the sound quality on this recording is most satisfying to me. We were quite effective this time, we recorded everything in two days, and the album was ready mixed on day three. We ended up doing something that I have never done before, though: We didn't do anything with the sound in the mastering! No extra compression, no EQ, only internal volume adjustments between the tracks. I am very happy about it, the sound is more dynamic and natural than it has been before. I think Jan Erik is happy about that, too.

It seems not a single day goes by without you being involved with music in some form. When you're immersed in sound all day the way you are, does it become less fascinating – because you understand the way certain things work – or even more mysterious? What are some of the things you learn about sound if you're constantly surrounded by it?
I think both. Some things become less fascinating, because I know the mechanisms behind it, or I’m able to ”see through” it. However, at the same time, the mystery of music is constantly growing. It's a bit like looking for the golden chest at the root of the rainbow. What is it with this music or that performer that is so intriguing to me? And what can I do to be able to express something like that? These are deep mysteries, impossible to copy, to control or to manipulate. The only way I feel is the right way to go, is inward. I believe that only by searching within yourself, you will be able to find ways to express yourself in a way that will give meaning to other people. This is a general thing for all art.

Helge Lien Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Christian Mørdre

Homepage: Helge Lien
Homepage: Ozella Records

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