Get Used to It

A European original Americans should stop ignoring
photo: Christopher Tribble

Trygve Seim, the saxophonist in a Norwegian quartet billed as the Source, is an original—his veering tenor and soprano on the group's eponymous second ECM release leaves no doubt about that, especially following the rigorous melancholy of his writing for larger ensembles on 2000's The Source and Different Cikadas and two other ECMs under his own name, 2002's Different Rivers and last year's Sangam. But the question I can hear the jazz police asking is whether that much originality is desirable in a foreign musician.

"Originality" has become dissociated from "origin," Raymond Williams holds in Keywords: "Indeed, the point is that [originality] has no origin but itself." The problem in a nutshell, the Stomping the Blues crowd would say. It's probably just as well Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Artist" seems to be the only work of literary theory on their advanced reading list; otherwise they'd pervert Williams's cultural materialism to support their argument that jazz becomes something else, something not nearly as vital, when it loses touch with its blues ancestry. Though homegrown avant-gardists, white and black, have been frequent targets of such criticism, Europeans are automatically suspect as much on account of geographical distance as race. European jazz was OK—flattering, actually—so long as Europe remained primarily a market requiring local rhythm sections and everybody agreed that with inexplicable exceptions like Django, European musicians were no match for their American models. But the increasing dominance of elements from their own cultures is an affront to both American and black exceptionalism—though I doubt the affronted would ever put it that way.

If jazz were a folk music, the belief that only its originators can do it justice would have validity. But art music embraces change and claims universality, and not even Albert Murray can have it both ways. In the 1950s, when European jazz was still largely derivative, it yielded such original thinkers as Martial Solal, a French- Algerian whose dazzling pianistics and grasp of bebop harmony allowed him to synthesize Art Tatum and Bud Powell, and Albert Mangelsdorff, a German who sidestepped J.J. Johnson and bebop in favor of Lee Konitz and cool on his way to becoming a force in free jazz. By placing as much emphasis on texture and counterpoint as on blues shadings and swing, '50s cool spoke to Europeans in what sounded to them like their own musical language. A decade later, early free's vaunted black rage did them the even greater favor of leaving them to their own devices.

In free's lasting wake, there are at least three distinctly European schools of jazz, two national (Dutch dada and British improv) and the other defined as much by a label (Germany's ECM) as by a region (Scandinavia). Trygve Seim names as primary influences his countryman Jan Garbarek, the quintessential ECM tenor, and the semi-obscure late Finnish drummer and composer Edward Vesala, with whom Seim apprenticed. Even so, you don't have to listen very hard for American echoes in Seim. The solemn street parade behind Arve Henriksen's iconic trumpet on the third movement of Sangam's four-part "Himmelrand i Tidevand" inevitably recalls "Saeta" from Sketches of Spain, and Gil Evans is suggested throughout by Seim's layered voicings and cresting dynamics. Like Evans, Seim calls on low horns for more than their customary heavy lifting—Nils Jensen's pirouetting bass saxophone choruses at the end of the aforementioned religious procession are among the loveliest of Sangam's many lovely moments, and Lars Andreas Haug's artful. Mangelsdorff-like tuba multiphonics provide a startling climax to "Trio," whose mournful brand of whimsy makes you think Carla Bley. Then again, I've never heard a composer use accordion so effectively—as a kind of orchestra within an orchestra. There are also sustained passages that could only be the work of a wind player, maybe only this one, during which the entire ensemble, including percussion and strings, seems to breathe together—or to hold its breath.

Seim's major talent seems to be as a composer, meaning a melodist and orchestrator; Sangam's privileged moments invariably go to others, Henriksen in particular (his wounding approximation of a shakuhachi flute through inhalation and trick tonguing on "Beginning an Ending" is more effective than Seim's bid to refashion his soprano into a tamboura on "Himmelrand"). Surprisingly, Seim contributes only "Un Fingo Andalou" to The Source, but it's a stunner—a moony, Ayler-like ballad with a "Sorento" reference and more comedy than pathos. Seim's promise as a soloist is apparent here and in his jaunty simultaneous improvisations with Braekke, a gruffly lyrical trombonist responsible for several other of the CD's most captivating numbers, including a welcome fast one called "Life So Far." The Source sure like ballads, but as Ornette Coleman redefined them, with bass and drums (Mats Eilertsen and Per Oddvar Johansen) surging ahead of horns voiced not quite in unison and not quite contrapuntally. Coleman pervades even Braekke's "Tribute," where Johansen's opening three-against-four automatically conjures up Elvin Jones and Coltrane. The album's relative failures—stabs at raga and funk—are no different from the missteps on many recent CDs by Americans.

Yet I'm willing to accept Seim's insinuation that—except maybe for Coleman, whom Seim name-checks—the American influences I hear were filtered through Garbarek and Vesala and to assume the same goes for his bandmates. Seim, Braekke, and Johansen formed the Source as conservatory students in 1993, which puts them at an age where their first exposure to jazz was very likely via ECM. Where Seim's originality reveals itself, especially on Sangam, is in a warmth and bigness of vision that lets him transcend his influences, including ECM's Scandinavian brooders.Europe is still a lucrative market for American jazz, more lucrative now than the U.S.. With jazz on the ropes commercially back home, the unspoken fear is that if it ceases to be regarded as a touchstone of African American culture, the mass media are unlikely to pay any attention to it at all. But getting used to the fact that different European outposts now have their own jazz traditions needn't involve buying into the British critic Stuart Nicholson's belief that American jazz is played out, any more than it has to mean sharing his enthusiasm for tepid Scandinavian techno. Trygve Seim is an original, a species in scarce supply everywhere. We can't afford to let a single one go.

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