Perfect Sound Forever

What's Guinness Got That We Ain't?

Terje Rypdal- Into the Arctic
by Marc S. Tucker
(September 2006)

Perhaps the most overlooked guitarist in the invisible Catalogue of All Things Progressive, Terje (commonly anglicized as "Terrie" though it's properly pronounced "Ter-yuh," or so I'm informed by those hailing from the region) Rypdal is prolific and perfectly at home in the progressive alley, though chiefly ignored there. Here was a guy inescapably destined for musicianhood. His father was a devoted clarinetist and, as a child, Rypdal started out on piano, switched to trumpet, then went on to guitar - this last time self-educated. Like most young players of the period (born 1947, Norway), he got into rock and roll and greatly admired England's The Shadows and America's Ventures, himself forming two bands, the Vanguards (1962-7) and Dream (1967-9, and not the Brecker band), the second of which released one LP, Get Dreamy.

In that frame, making a move to expose his solo work, the Dream LP having been sufficiently impressive, Bleak House released in 1968. The experience garnered with these ventures was one he greatly enjoyed and decided him to forsake former aspirations in electrical engineering, getting serious about music theory and attending the Oslo Music Conservatory (now the Norwegian State Academy of Music). Thus ensconced, Rypdal played in the pit band for a Nordic staging of Hair, wetting his professional feet. Continued studies led first to the regionally well-respected Finn Mortensen and thence to George Russell, who espoused a unique Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Russell immediately recognized a formidable talent when he saw it, enlisting the young axeslinger to play on his recordings.

Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (1969) was to be Russell's most lauded work and carried not just Rypdal but also countrymates Jon Christenson and Jan Garbarek, who, along with Terje, would soon become firm vertebrae in the early ECM Records backbone. Red Mitchell and Manfred Schoof likewise appeared, with Russell himself on piano, and it was blaringly obvious the guitarist was not going to have to spend any more time in the minor leagues. Though his presence on the wonderfully bizarre avant-jazz slab turned out to be minimal, it provided instant name recognition. Unsurprisingly, Garbarek and Christensen were the stand-outs in that swerving, swaying, early masterpiece while Rypdal got in a few Hendrixian and idiosyncratic licks. Russell though, was gratified with all three, booking them into a studio as a separate ensemble, recruiting yet another future ECMer, Arild Anderson, on bass. The band was named Esoteric Circle (releasing an album in 1969, though this one disc wouldn't appear in the U.S. until '76).

The guitar figured far more prominently here. From the outset, Rypdal can be heard right behind Garbarek's lines, with Christensen and Anderson equally sure-footed. The young axemeister's McLaughlin influences come leaping out, and, enjoying a freer stage, he sounds not unlike an undistorted member of the Lifetime band, quite similar to Mahavishnu John's work with Miles in that epochal period. Christensen is here the most boisterous he'd ever be, intelligent, sophisticated, but much louder, brasher, and in your face, something like a mild Ronald Shannon Jackson. The sobriquet of 'fusion' hits the group's nail far more squarely on this outing than had the more elliptical Russellian style, as the gents were basically just blowing, oft starting out with manners only as a pretext to intensive muscle flexing. Russell had the maturer voice, counting more years of experience and study, but the lads hadn't been unconscious, only slightly handicapped with youthful exuberance and a trifle of the impatience that always marks such formative years. Nonetheless, the LP's a must-have for outside jazz and fusion aficionados - solid, invigorating, adventurous, and sufficiently timeless, speaking through several decades.

'69 was a good launch year for the guitarist in more ways than one. He sat in on recordings with Jan Erik Vold (the Briskeby Blues LP) and The Baden-Baden Free Jazz Orchestra (Gittin' to Know Y'all), rubbing shoulders in such a way that the gigs would now begin flowing freely but leading up to a meeting with Manfred Eicher that would prove more fruitful than any other opportunity. Garbarek had already signed to Eicher's label (ECM) and Rypdal appeared on his 1970 Afric Pepperbird LP. No sooner was that done than the very next year saw his own debut, on an eponymous disc (1971), boasting the expected Garbarek and Christensen but also some of Norway's other top dawgs: Bobo Stenson, Arild Andersen, and so on, including his then-wife Inger Lyse on vocals. Moody, laconic, and abstract, the LP's as fine an introduction as might be desired. Everyone had a chance to strut, with Rypdal embedded like the foremost jewel in an effusive crown.

The lead track, "Keep It Like That - Tight," was portentous of what would be the stringbender's chief voice for many years. Distorted wailing lines lofting to the clouds, riding with occasional squealing airbrakes and lowing growls, the album lacked not an iota for McLaughlin's dragon-riding quotes nor Rypdal's own trademarks, but the follow-up track, "Rainbow," showed the more considered aspect of the guitarist's writing, fleshing out the sort of deeply frozen airy Norwegian spirits that so attracted Eicher to base his label in such works to begin with. 'Ere long, the guitar is laid down, switching to flute, while Eckehard Fintl dubs in his moaning oboe atop a bowed bass obliquing the background. Though Rypdal would occupy a strange psychedelic/prog/fusion/jazz/avant-garde position for a long time, there was a neoclassical dimension germinating here that woud fully bloom later on, when viable opportunities presented themselves. Meanwhile, eerieness was not a condition scamped by the player and the 15:45 "Electric Fantasy" gave an opportunity to dwell at length on the dark side, with wife Inger waxing forlornly angelic in the foreground. Like Abercrombie, when he switched from wailing maniac to leader, Rypdal was chastening himself appreciably on this track, favoring the group format. This trait would have considerable influence on his entire oeuvre, but this degree of it would last only just so long; certain moods would later see him stoking personal fires much more pointedly.

Whenever I Seem to be Far Away (1974) started out with Odd Ulleberg's beautiful french horn and Pete Knutsen's mellotron, referentially prog until the rest of the band crashes in, fusioning things up lustily. Rypdal was now into a Fripp/Falsini mode, with Hendrix and McLaughlin yet strongly lapping up on the stones at the cosmic shore; the group's sound waxed frequently somewhere between the spacier King Crimson and Eberhard Weber. Knutsen aped both Fripp and MacDonald in brief spurts, plying the divine mellotron for one of the most aggressive exposures it would receive on any ECM disc. Though the Rypdal has ever been on the slow side, not often going into sixteenths or beyond (while certainly not downshifting to Szabo levels), here he took the gloves off and burned in several reserve moments, an incandescing pyre flaming brightly in the song's eventide pools.

Mellotron dominates "The Hunt" for a reason that becomes plain as the flip of the disc is reached: it balances out what was to come. Already, Terje's classical affinities were surfacing. He'd recruited members of the Sudfunk Orchestra to play on the closing B-sidelong title cut, a gorgeous neoclassical opus as melancholy as the legendary Dane in the bard's mad play. That track was completely unexpected, immensely surprising. The depth of feeling and restraint astonish the listener... this was the guy who was tearing it up in his rock moments, bending prog and spinning jazz until both got dizzy, now tilting the quill to a magnificent chambery opus. A third of the way in, the guitar enters with Holstian splendor, pumping frantic blood into sanguine veins, only to collapse back to a depressive glorious funk, once more Mahlerian. The strings tease and coax, gremlins antagonize the central theme to excess, then Rypdal becomes the focus, the orchestra floating around his laments, a disciplinedly Faustian voice. In whole, his dogged devotion to the sound of the entire ensemble was extremely evident.

Photo by Hans Arne Nakrem

Odyssey issued (1975), a double-LP, just as the progrock movement was hitting the end of its not-very-long apogee in the musical landscape. What the Moody Blues, Hendrix, King Crimson et al had wrought was in full flower but would soon start its multi-year topple. Rypdal was never very much in the genre's eye but savvy consumers knew both him and the impeccable ECM, constantly on the lookout for new material from each. Few musicians could be said to be molded in the same spirit of extreme adventurousness and wide open possibilities as Terje. Brynwulfe Blix played a highly unorthodox organ- slow, spacy, never once betraying itself as the perennial instrument of favor amongst boozy, business-suited, cocktail bar habitants. His application of it dealt in a wholly synthesizerish spin, advantaging long drawn out nuances that few to that time, or since, ever bothered with. The whole five piece fell perfectly into cerebrally somnambulistic trancing on "Rolling Stone," one of Rypdal's early classics, a truncated version of which would appear on the rare-ish New Jazz Festival '75 disc. The guitarist's style was fairly settled now and he'd hold to it for an appreciable period, to the delight of a building fan base.

1976's After the Rain commenced a concentration into that voice. This LP was a Mike Oldfield-ish affair: every instrument (electric and acoustic guitars, string ensemble, piano, electric piano, soprano sax, flute, bells, and, yes, tubular bells) was played by the guitarist exclusively. Only wife Inger had any auxiliary part, encanting wordless etherealities. Most musicians, allowed such self-indulgence, disappoint rather horribly- not so Rypdal. This was the most engrossing collection to date and would remain one of his better releases, holding a delicate interface between sparse surreality and Satie-ish ghostly lushness, slowly billowing with soft breezes, deftly illuminating the composer's truest playing voice. That mutant guitar sang like an otherwordly feline, nimbly jumping levels in slow arcs, glistening with Jovian pastels.

But a one-man horse is never meant to be ridden far, so when Waves rolled into the market, Terje had recaptured Jon Christensen, then snagged the estimable Palle Mikkelborg (trumpet, fluegelhorn, and keyboards). The album, titularly bulking up on the metaphor of the last disc, was pronouncedly weightier and drifted noticeably more to the trad side of jazz, Mikkelborg being the chiefest instigator. The trumpeter doubled on keyboards, as did Rypdal, who wrought a strikingly mouth-harpy patch that sprinted lankily, squeaking and fidgeting alongside the mournful trumpet. The eternally solemn baseline remained rock solid, chill Nordic psyche ever leaning over each player's shoulder, attentive that creators never forget heritage and nurture. Rypdal hadn't really hogged the spotlight at any point in his entire career, even when soloing on After the Rain. This meant that he was back to complementary playing and this date became actually more Mikkelborg's showcase than the guitarist's. The atmosphere's energetically somber except for a bizarre "Stenskoven," more toward what Frisell would later do with Americana themes than anything else and a jaded carnival ditty in progressive drag.

The Rypdal/Vitous/DeJohnette release (1979) was striking in several ways. DeJohnette had been listening closely to Christensen, and if there's anyone a drummer can be complimented in being emulated by, it would be Jack DeJohnette. He, of course, is more muscular than Christensen but the correlative tempering placed upon his appearance on this disc is marvelous. Miroslav Vitous, ex-Weather Reporter and long a staple in the early fusion scene (having played with McLaughlin and such) came equipped with an Eberhard Weberian proclivity to bowing in highly lyrical lines, never content to merely sit as a rhythm box. Above them, Rypdal swooped and scried, a bent angel weeping at the world's pain, relishing its mysteries, warping between dimensions. The trio harked back to the Odyssey days, brimming with fog and muted light, dew-swept and glacially arid. The addition of keyboards heightened tenor tremendously, Vitous' bowing oft lost in the context, blending like a synthesizer atop Rypdal's sensitive ivory tones, as in "Will." ECM had flashed back to its origins.

Mikkelborg and Christenson returned and the guitarist took up keyboards once again for the John Surman-ish intro to Descendre (1980), appropriately tapping out declivitous notes for "Avskjed," a different affair from Waves, funereal in its long slow rock base. Guitar and trumpet, for one, were now mated for a lament of Hesse-ian proportions. Mikkelborg remains remarkaby tamed to the vision, so the carry-over eerieness of the previous disc is cut only by an occasional distant night-slickness, an atmosphere trumpets are so heir to. Rock pulses, never a high-profile ingredient, return in "Innseiling," rev'ing up the blood. Nowhere, though, does the previous "Stenskoven" bedlam-circus traipse in, thus the normative Usherian pall remained. Rypdal prefers not to stray far from his unique mindset and doesn't have to, the entire mode's so far beyond the pale of standard recital that any notion of competition would be slight and seldom; moreover, the listener must ever come to him, not the other way around.

Then DeJohnette and Vitous cycled through once more. If Descendre had been influenced by Rypdal/DeJohnette/Vitous, then so was the new To Be Continued (1981), similarly peppered with spikes from its predecessor. Everyone was clearly more in the mood to be an upstart, not quite so narcotic as the first time out, anarchy a palpable tension. Terje bows his guitar, fooling the listener that Vitous, who was in the background plucking, was tweaking a high register squeal from his axe. Vitous then uncharacteristically grabs a piano while the guitarist picks up flute once more; Jack, not to be outdone in the switch-around derby, contributes vocables in the far far background, replacing the now-divorced Inger. Everything was like the first days... yet it wasn't.

This long artistic curve produced the David Darling (cellist) pairing, Eos (1984), where Terje came out roaring in "Laser," the most rock-rooted solo he'd ever unleashed. Pure freakout, something meant for spotlit framing during a concert's peak, it wasn't unlike the kind of burn sessions Rhino, Blackmore, and others produced by the truckload in the 70s. The sequence had no precedent in his oeuvre but everyone had been waiting for it: a stark unaugmented middle eight slotted as an entire song. Was it a toss-off, to fill space? Possibly, but not probably. Every so often, a player has to answer the unasked question and it was the Norwegian's turn in the barrel. That settled, Darling - then a formidable violinist, now a New Age drekmeister - cut in a laconic dirge, trading bowed lines. The phraseology's slow and meltingly delicious, guitar emerging from beneath the earth to intone bizarre distorted groans and grumbles. It's here that Rypdal's genius is most clearly seen. He's constantly at work expanding a highly personal vocabulary and the duet gives him a low-end boost like never before. The result's chilling - in the title cut, especially, akin to the sort of interplay Ian MacDonald's mellotron and Robert Fripp's guitar never got around to in King Crimson. 'Exquisite' doesn't begin to describe it. In point of fact, though it couldn't be known at the time, the song foreshadowed later much more pronounced neoclassical urges.

It turned out though that "Laser," and not "Eos," was to be the unfolding determinant. Chaser (1985) showed the semi-Sharrockian side of the player. This LP and the two following would be the closest he'd ever get to actual rock, finally dredging up a more stable reliance on speed clusters and military backbeat, the ingredients defining the form. Andun Klieve was an adaptable percussionist, at first providing an irresistibly infectious fire heating up Rypdal's long smoldering passion. Curiously, Bjorn Kellemyr clamped down the bass volume, creating an oceanically quieter background. Though presented with numerous opportunities to roar, he took none of them, preferring to be the sole pulsey rhythm player, laminating embellishments as needed. It was the '80's but Rypdal was reviving the meltingly descriptive ploys of the '70's guitar environment, where texture and illustration were staples, not merely the more adjunctive speed and complexity.

Blue (1987) commenced oddly, with mutated Crusaders echoes, containing elements never heard in Rypdal's catalogue. "The Curse" contained a strange little gremlin, wherein it seemed the guitar belched during the closing seconds of the short introductory tune, slurhand and whammy bar blending for a human-sounding gulp and eructation amidst scatterings of nervous riffs. Terje's decision to lean more heavily, albeit with a measured hand, into his keyboard was likewise a wise decision. No sooner does "Kompet Gar" well up than the synth provides a lush backdrop and Rypdal slides down a bizarre stuttering buzz-saw rock mode, running back up the high register like Oldfield in the throes of the Killing Fields soundtrack. The song marked a new definition, simultaneously more abstract yet closer in fidelity to fusion norms. He splayed himself across it as if in a Pollock painting. The normally pensive player had never been this prolix nor this weirdly melodic. A sudden blaze of illumination was in progress... but, sadly, not an epiphany, for it would never be repeated. All the stops were pulled out, every trick in his book came rocketing up, and ears smiled in delight. An unexpected surprise. "Og Hva Synes Vi Om Det" couldn't have been more arresting, either. Extremely Enoidal, it was an ambiental wash worthy of Music for Films and the exact opposite of "Kompet." Equally unusually, both songs comprised the core of the LP and were the only two not written solely by Rypdal.

The Singles Collection (1989) wasn't billed as a Chasers band but that's what it was, plus one, as the liner notes in the CD version show. Allan Dangerfield manned the keyboards exclusively. At this point, Rypdal was irritated with the direction of modern jazz (remember, this was the mid-'80's and everyone was sprinting towards the elevator), so he decided to show up at that year's Molde Jazz Festival and have a showdown. Tipping over the cauldron, out spilled a potpourri of psychedelia, down and dirty instrumental rock, edgy fusion, several hybrids, and his usual what-the-hell-was-that? twist on an unnamable genre only he occupied. If Terje wanted a fight, he got it. Die-hard Rypdalians were somewhat put off by the jagged change of pace, not to mention the abandonment of Arcturan meadows, while jazzers recognized the overtures and undertones - especially Dangerfield's flights into both Auger and McGriff sidepockets - disdaining the rocky side. Fusionists were enamored of much of this surprise but not all. The war was on.

A denouement of sorts was eventually reached when, several years later, everyone, now given a decent span in which to sort Singles out, agreed the damn thing was pretty unique and worthwhile. Some even had the presence of mind to realize the Norwegian had gotten a trifle Metheny-ish in the oddest of ways, daring to take on a whole plethora of styles at once, as Pat had in the epochal Wichita Falls and Offramp. A few of them even wondered what this might presage. If the guitar player was as restless as he seemed to be, he mightn't remain long rooted to this more energetic spot.

That conjecture proved prescient. 1991 saw the release of Q.E.D., with a 14-piece small orchestra (Rypdal included) plus conductor, signaling that the player-composer was leaving behind the morés of the past. The years since have seen him engaging in further fantastic opuses with orchestras and ensembles, maintaining his presence but scripting largely to wring full-scale adventures away from the previous more intimate process. That these works have been dauntingly impressive is beyond dispute, but they separated him fully from his guitar-based work and so it's here that we cease chronicling this wizard within the confines of axe-oriented considerations.

He's placed within the pantheon through accomplishments as an extremely iconoclastic musician who spent two decades constantly polishing and extending a niche all his own, excelling within it like few have anywhere, even in much more familiar derivative milieus. Only the tiniest fraction of players can claim to have produced as unique a sound as Terje Rypdal: Holdsworth, Fripp, Hendrix, and not many others beyond.

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