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Interview with Helge Lien

img  Tobias Fischer

For purists, academia and jazz are mutually exclusive: Whereas the former is looking to establish patterns and rules, the latter is trying to overcome them. And whereas jazz clubs are places for taking in the moment, universities deal with long-term phenomena expanding beyond it. As established as it may be, this rigid polarity has never really made sense to Norwegian pianist Helge Lien. Already as a boy, his interest always went out to both improvisation and composition, leading to a natural affinity for the work of Keith Jarret. As a student, meanwhile, he constantly put his theoretical knowledge to the practical test in a string of combos ranging from the textural and experimental to the more grounded and familiar. Today, Lien continues this path between the chairs as a teacher at the Norwegian Academy of Music, while touring the world with one of the most widely praised piano trios. Perhaps it is helpful to see his gradual development as an artist as a way of overcoming the seeming contradictions between academia and jazz: More knowledge need not be an obstacle for great music created in the moment. In the right hands, it can quite contrarily serve to make it even better.

Where did your interest in music come from?
I have been interested in music since I was very young. I never had any pressure to practise or anything, but I still spent quite a lot of time figuring out the black and white keys. I also played the guitar, and I was totally fascinated by drums. I have no idea where it came from, it has just always been there. It gives me tremendous pleasure, every day, every concert, every recording, every rehearsal. I guess that must be the reason.

In our first interview we did a while back, you mentioned that you started out on electric organ and synth. What was the instant you first got to play on an acoustic / grand piano and what made it so appealing to you?
I remember very well the first time I tried an acoustic piano. I was perhaps ten years old, and I went to the house of the church organ player in my hometown to borrow a synthesizer. He had a piano. I tried it, and I found it totally boring. I mean, it didn't have any buttons, no rhythms, no different sounds to chose from or anything. The synth I borrowed was almost equally boring to me. It was a Yamaha DX7, it had no rhythms, the sounds were unfamiliar and strange, it didn’t sound like anything I knew. At that time I still preferred the house organ, I guess. It was just a few years later that I had my first real experience with the piano. An English organ player, who was also a jazz pianist, lived in my home town for a few years. He became my first teacher. We played ”Summertime” in C minor, over and over again. He also introduced me to Oscar Peterson. From then on, I was sold.

Was this the moment you knew that you wanted to live your life as a musician?
No, that moment came when I was about 17. I attended a music college in Stange at the time and I also played in a big band in Hamar, the Odd R. Antonsen Big Band. One of the teachers at Stange, the guitarist Jarl Åsvik, also played in the big band. This was a very inspiring time, and I especially remember some magical concert experiences, where Jarl and I really connected, as musicians sometimes do on stage. From then on, I knew.

You've mentioned the influence of Brad Mehldau and Keith Jarret. How would you describe their respective importance respectively for you?
Actually, I haven’t listened so much to Brad Mehldau, but I have still been compared to him many times, by other people. I suppose this is because we in some ways are operating in a similar segment of jazz piano playing. Perhaps we also share some references and idols, who knows. I've had the pleasure of hearing him live a few times though in the last years, and I absolutely loved it. He has a fascinating presence in his playing which only the greatest performers have.

Keith Jarrett on the other hand, has probably been my main influence for many years. I was almost shocked when I first heard the My Song album, with Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen and Palle Danielsson. I still regard this album one of my absolute favourites.
I have tried not to copy him too much, though, even if it's hard not to. His playing is very characteristic. Also with him, I am extremely fascinated by his presence, his way of keeping the thread and the focus, and the flowing sensation in his music. There is so much going on beneath the surface when Jarrett plays. For me, he is one of the absolute greatest artists of our time, regardless of genre or art form.

What's your take on the relevance of influences and inspiration in general?
As a creative composing and improvising jazz musician, what you listen to and what inspires you is extremely important. It is a bit like this: everything you put in can come out. Whatever you decide to spend time on could eventually end up being a part of you and your playing. For this reason, we should be very conscious about what we listen to and how we practice our instrument. We should only spend our listening time on things of the highest possible quality. Don’t spend hours and hours listening to mediocre albums with crappy sound. Listen to the best. Miles, Jarrett, Evans, Coltrane. Pink Floyd. The Beatles. Radiohead. Kenny Rogers. Ella Fitzgerald. Jan Garbarek. Play Bach or Mozart to improve your technique, not Hanon or other non-musical invented scores. Read good books, watch quality movies, eat high quality food, drink good wine! Spend time with people you really like. This list goes on and on. This is not a description of me, you know, but I think about these things, and sometimes it helps me choose the better options.

However, jazz has always been taking in different styles of music, and used them as a platform to improvise on and to play around. Its perhaps in the very nature of jazz to do that. This is still happening. Bands like the Bad Plus, for instance, have managed to incorporate stylistic elements from modern rock and punk into a jazz setting. The borders between jazz, rock, pop and concept art are constantly being torn down. This is only natural. There is perhaps more music available, but at the same time, a lot of the music is quite similar to other music. So perhaps it isn’t so much more different styles now than before, only more bands/artists playing the same/similar things. We have to learn how to filter all the info we are exposed to, but this is possible. All in all, I think it is good that so much of the good music of the world is available to us. I mean, how can it be other than good?

How do you today look back on your time at the Norwegian Academy of Music?
The years at the Norwegian Academy of Music were very important for me. I remember it as a fantastic time, but also confusing, and sometimes frustrating. It is extremely hard work to raise your skills to the minimum level you need, in order to play on a professional stage. I remember listening to recordings of my own playing, hating 90% of it, accepting 9%, and loving 1%. Today, I’m really happy that I managed to follow the 1%, growing it and watering it. I’m still my own hardest critic, but I think I anyway have raised the percentage a bit regarding what I actually like about my own playing. It was also great to meet people like the tuba player Lars Andreas Haug and sax player Torben Snekkestad, playing with them, and with many of my other fellow students, was a school in itself.

What's your take on the concept of 'teaching' improvisation within a school system in general?
I am currently working there myself now as Associate Professor. Your question is important for all of us working there. I believe we are doing some very good things, actually. Most importantly, the teachers should be active performers. Our focus here is first of all to share knowledge and experience with the younger students. To ask questions, to guide them, to give them experiences and experience. We are quite different from the more traditional jazz education. It's more open, not so strictly divided into genres, and perhaps there's more room to go your own way from the very start. For that, you need teachers who have this experience. Naturally, it is challenging for the students, because they have to take more responsibility for their own development. We try to be closer to real life than to a school. Which, in my opinion, is good.

During your time at the academy, what was the scene for jazz in Oslo like?
I think I had a tendency to lock myself up at the Academy a lot, to practise, and to play with my friends. I played a lot with the trio called Tri O´Trang back then, we also studied together on a master degree, partly in Copenhagen. Looking back now, I think I was isolating myself a bit, not really being a part of the music scene in Oslo. I never enjoyed going to jam sessions, and I preferred concentrating on my own stuff rather than doing everything with everyone, everywhere. I had some overwhelming concert experiences though, for instance at the old Oslo Jazz House. I remember hearing Sidsel & Bugge there, as well as my teacher Misha. This were amazing concerts, as I remember them. I used to visit Molde Jazz Festival many times also, that was great. When I lived in Copenhagen, I used to go to Copenhagen Jazz House, a fantastic venue. One of the concerts I remember the most from there is one with John Taylor Trio.

How important have state subsidies been for you in terms of being able to study and build your career at your own pace?
Norway has a well developed funding system for the arts. This has been very important to me for many years. It has given me the, and many of my fellow Norwegian musicians, the opportunity to focus on developing our own music right from the start of our career. We are really lucky to have these possibilities here, and it is also a part of the reason why quite a few Norwegian musicians have been able to develop unique music with a personal identity.

What's your opinion on the existence or non-existence of a Norwegian sound in Jazz?
There is a Norwegian sound, for sure. For me, this is connected to Norwegian folk music. I think this is the real key in order to make music that has some kind of identity, you have to search your origin. The connection to your folk music goes much deeper than to anything you can hear on the radio or on youtube. It's like family. If you go to a family reunion and meet for instance a cousin for the first time, you would most likely feel a connection to this person. Same with music from your own country. Even if you have never really listened to it, or played it, it is there nonetheless, and you are connected to it. It is close to you. Using this connection can create a musical identity.

When Misha plays, I can hear a Russian sound. Perhaps a bit of a Norwegian sound, too, after all these years here. Players like Tigran Hamasyan have perhaps developed an Armenian sound, using his folk music as the source of inspiration. To me, it feels very authentic when they play. In the same way, it can sound very authentic to hear an American musician play ”real”, American jazz, or blues, or country music. In this sense, ”jazz” is more of an attitude, a method or a set of frames, to create meaningful musical conversations.

You've emphasised the role of Misha Alperin several times now. 
Misha is very occupied by the concept of improvisation as composition. And not just as an idea, but very concrete, real composition. A consequence of this is that you have to prepare very well to improvise on a certain material. You have to know how to play it in different keys, with different dynamics, you have to know the harmonic/melodic content very well, you should be able to transform the material on the go, turn it around, change register, alter the length of the notes, expand the size of the intervals, and many more things. It's basically the concept of incorporating composition techniques in your playing, to give you a repertoire of ways to treat a theme or other music elements in the moment. He says: ”You should not be concerned what to play, but how to play it, at all times.” This concept was quite revolutionary for me at the time, quite different from the ”normal” way of playing jazz, with its focus on playing scales on chord changes. In retrospect, it is a way to connect more deeply to whatever music I am playing. These thought are with me, and growing all the time. Even today.

Helge Lien Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Christian Mørdre

Homepage: Helge Lien
Homepage: Ozella Records

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