Live Review: The Christian Wallumrød Ensemble

shares his thoughts on the Norwegian jazz act’s latest live offering

Photo by Morten Brakestad / ECM Records

Photo by Morten Brakestad / ECM Records

Jazz isn’t particularly my favourite type of music, but as a pianist and percussionist wanting to push the boundaries of his abilities, it is my aim to get involved in the genre. However, the jazz provided by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble was certainly not the kind I expected. In fact, it may have been the most intricate – if bizarre – jazz I have ever heard.

Bang goes the stereotype of improvisations and solos on top of an unpredictable bass line and a brushed drumbeat. Performing two pieces and an encore, the first lasting around forty-five minutes, the Ensemble provided its audience with a remarkable rendition of some minimalist, and perhaps a tad psychedelic, music. Some found it enchanting, and I think that, if we closed our eyes, we would have found it the perfect accompaniment to a dream; others found the deliberate clash of harmonies and dissonance uncomfortable and unsettling. This was definitely my perspective at first – the music was so unusual that it felt incorrect or wrong. I’m familiar with the atonal music that developed in the last century, but the Ensemble’s music didn’t fit into that category either.

The musicians themselves deserve much praise for their ingenuity and style of performance. The way in which the instruments were played was spectacular – the strangest of sounds were created from some of the most common instruments in the performance world. I did not expect Wallumrød to lean into the piano and pluck the strings with his fingertips. Espen Reinertsen, on the saxophone, had his instrument at his mercy, making it sound like an instrument from another family altogether, and cellist Tove Törngren was able to mimic the wind and shunts with her bow.

However, the performance suffered from two problems: bad luck and bad musicianship. The former is something that even the best of musicians will inevitably suffer. No matter how many times you practise a piece, you’re bound to get that one note wrong. For a percussionist, it can be things slipping or falling over when left unattended. During the second piece, a sawblade that percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen had been using fell to the floor with a loud bang; this probably contributed to his losing his place in the middle of the piece. Thankfully the performers remained unfazed;  Johansen found his way eventually, and Wallumrød looked up from his piano and smiled, the best thing that any performer can do – laugh at it and continue as if it had not happened.

At other times though, the players committed errors uncharacteristic of musicians of their calibre. For example, Johansen would drop his drumsticks to the floor, which was notably damaging to the quieter sections. Why not drop them onto a cushion? Elsewhere, Wallumrød and Johansen would make unintentional creaks and grunts in the floor as they moved between their instruments, which ruined any moments of silence the musicians worked to create. Worst of all, there were moments during the pieces where the musical pauses separated individual bars, at times lasting for whole phrases. In a string of bars, all five performers were meant to come in on the same note. More often than not they failed to do so, and it was painful for the audience to hear the voices stumble rather than step into place. What could have been a beautiful harmony became an unwanted, clumsy arpeggio.

Overall I enjoyed the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble. I listened to something I definitely did not expect; something that was slow, charming and dreamy, but also at times a little mad, and very rough around the edges.

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