Apart from his trademark whammy bar-induced vibrato, Norwegian guitarist, keyboardist, saxophonist, composer and bandleader Terje Rypdal has been one of the hardest to define figures of progressive jazz, and one of the more complex musical figures of the ECM stable, a label that’s been chock full of the complex types. The impending release of a box set covering perhaps the key moment of his musical development seeks and succeeds in putting together some pieces of the puzzle of Rypdal music, both in music and in words.
Odyssey, In Studio & In Concert combines into one set the complete recordings of compositions by Rypdal for his first working band, Odyssey. It puts the entire, original two-lp Odyssey vinyl on CD for the first time, as the epic, twenty-four minute “Rolling Stone” was omitted from the prior CD version to fit the album on one disc. This new collection also adds a seven part suite dubbed Unfinished Highballs, a third disc consisting of a never-before released recording of the Odyssey band performing additional new Rypdal compositions with the Swedish Radio Jazz Group. Pristinely taped live by Swedish Radio in 1976, these additional sixty-eight minutes of music is a related but complete, stand-alone set of works that could have conceivably been issued as an album on it own.
Rypdal first sought to assemble his band with musicians who had performed on his prior records, most notably drummer Jon Christensen, but they had made commitments elsewhere, forcing him to settle for some guys who were probably unfamiliar names of the time to the ECM faithful: Torbjørn Sunde, trombone; Brynjulf Blix, organ; Sveinung Hovensjø, bass guitar and Svein Christiansen, drums. Rypdal played electric guitar, synthesizer and soprano saxophone. However, these musicians, some with significant classical backgrounds, turned out to be just what Rypdal needed for this music.
Rypdal has been often described as being influenced by Jimi Hendrix, an influence he doesn’t deny, but Hendrix didn’t influence him so much as a rock guitarist. Rypdal has always been more attracted to Hendrix’s improvisational abilities, just as he’s attracted to Coltrane for those same reasons: “If Coltrane went onstage with Hendrix, they’d have been perfect. Albert Ayler, too; it would have been the same music,” he insisted. Through skillful use of the volume pedal and the whammy bar, Terje sought to emulate the legato phrasing of the saxophone and the flute, two instruments he had previously mastered. And just as his compositions are usually extended melodies, so are his notes usually extended; feel was and remains a very important component of his style, and so not surprisingly, so are tone and timbre (which led him to dive head first into the guitar synth a few years later). These traits made him stand apart from the more technique-focused guitarists of his peers who performed compositions that showcased their instrumental prowess; with Rypdal, it’s been the opposite.
The first seven tracks are familiar territory to Rypdal fans, as these have been available on vinyl since 1975 and on CD since the first such issue in 1994. The focal point of these tracks are not so much Rypdal’s guitar, which is in fine form here, but a shift in his compositional approach. Layered forms are the order of the day, typically a groove or ostinato performed by the rhythm section with a free-floating mass of music — a rubato — layered over it.
The more explicit example of this occurs on the second track, “Midnite” (Youtube of first part below), with a hypnotic bass vamp over a 9/4 signature that could have easily come out of Miles Davis’ Get Up With It period, but with an airiness about it, while everyone else follows a different chord progression that’s only loosely related to that repeating figure. Rypdal ruminates thoughtfully first on a soprano sax — he will later play his guitar in a similar way — followed by Sunde, who here and elsewhere, brings a linear, non-jazz approach to his instrument. It’s a clear instance of Rypdal constructing the instrumentation of his band without using that to define what the music will sound like. That previously deleted track “Rolling Stone” was a fan favorite at Rypdal concerts and it’s not hard to hear why: it is structurally similar to “Midnite” but proceeds at a more aggressively, sounding closer to rock than anything else on the record.
“Darkness Falls” and “Adagio” dispenses with the rhythm section altogether, leaving just the rubato layer, which keeps these songs suspended and unobstructed; the loose set of chord changes seem to be the only thing holding them together. For the latter song, Rypdal spends most of the first half of the song creating celestial moods with an ARP synthesizer, straps on a guitar while Sunde makes a few remarks on his trombone and tears into a aching, scorching solo for the remainder of the song.
Though Rypdal didn’t set out to make a rock-jazz record, there are times where the paths he takes lead him there, anyway. “Over Birkerot” breathes menacingly over a 2/4 beat, the peak occurring when Hovensjø interacts with Rypdal while Rypdal converses with himself overdubbed. For the fans of the firebrand kind of fusion, this is where the band brings it.
As interesting, timeless and compelling as these recordings might be, they have been known about and dissected since 1975. Unfinished Highballs, on the other hand, is a completely new revelation. Rypdal had never composed for a symphony before, but he received a commission to do so, and relying heavily on his time with George Russell’s band in the late 60s, created something that’s perhaps far more interesting than it would have been had he had been more experienced writing for such of large band. He seemed unafraid of how, for instance, of how his lonesome, wailing guitar would sound over a celeste on “Unfinished Highballs” perhaps because he just couldn’t contemplate details like that. Add to that the intrigue of his Odyssey band playing right alongside of the orchestra, and the way Rypdal is able to balance assignments between his small band and his huge one.
Thus, the other reason for Rypdal’s unconventional approach to his commission could be that in 1976 his head was very much in the “Odyssey” mode and that layered composition approach. “The Golden Eye” puts Blix’s electric piano in the bottom layer, having it vamp and solo over Hovensjø’s bass figures, and as the orchestra gradually emerges into the scene, a portion of it sides with that layer and another part becomes part of the rubato. “Scarlet Mistress” is a more integrated composition. The swinging rhythm with a sprite, muted trumpet solo by a member of the Swedish Radio Jazz Group makes this selection not only seems influenced by Russell, but Gil Evans’ collaborations with Miles, too. The Jazz Group is used more tactfully for “Dawn,” almost as if Rypdal uses it as an extra instrument for the small ensemble. Blix, again in a role significantly expanded over his passive one for the Odyssey, metes out a Moog synth solo that rides fluidly above the thick bass lines and the doubled-up percussion below.
“Dine And Dance To The Music of The Waves” points ahead to Rypdal’s immediate post-Odyssey work, as this song formed the basis for the title track of his next album, Waves. What is more surprising, however, is that this heavily orchestrated piece has a rare acoustic guitar from him soloing right near the middle of it. “Talking Back” is the most aggressive piece of Highballs, propulsed by the explosive drumming of Christiansen and the Jazz Group’s Egil Johansen. “Bright Light – Big City” ends the whole set, interestingly enough, in the same, floating rhythm-less way “Darkness Falls” begins it, but with the orchestra used as a majestic backdrop. Only when applause is heard at the end of this track are you reminded that it was recorded live.
Thus, the story of Terje Rypdal’s pivotal mid-70s leg of a long and still continuing musical journey is completed with the release of the 3-disc Odyssey box set. Assisted by ECM’s usual, informative liner notes, the highly unique and underrated guitarist from Norway is a little better understood and the more that’s understood about him, the more impressive he becomes.
Odyssey, In Studio & In Concert goes on sale July 31, by ECM Records.