The Observer 18 July 2004
23/07/2004 :: 'Jazz finds a future, once again, as the brilliant Norwegian trumpeter reassesses the benefits of technology, writes Geoff Dyer'
(4 out of 5 stars)
Let's pick up where we left off seven years ago by reinstating the last, deleted paragraph of something I wrote for The Observer about Nils Petter Molvaer's first album. 'The result is a relentlessly subtle texture of sound in which the trumpet barely manages to lift clear of the rhythms that are always threatening to engulf it. This is crucial to the emotional tension of the music because, historically, the improvising instrument has been engulfed. That is to say, jazz has been buried beneath the landslide advance of techno. This is why Molvaer's music is so prescient, so important and, above all, so poignant: he accepts jazz as a glimmer in the millennial twilight.'
That was in 1997 when the release of Khmer marked a moment of historic transition. Molvaer was an obviously sublime trumpeter and soloist but since his sound owed so much to the devices and methods - programming, sampling, looping - of dance music it seemed that even ECM Records (his label at the time) had embraced the liberating potential of electronica. Synonymous with the highest ideals of musical purity, ECM had long proclaimed itself the most beautiful sound next to silence; Khmer was a tacit acknowledgment that by the tail end of the twentieth century, the quality of musical silence had itself changed, had acquired an electronic timbre, an LED glow. As a consequence, while much jazzy jazz sounded archival or obsolete, Miles Davis's early electric albums sounded more contemporary than they had for 30 years. In the late 1990s all sorts of compilations were vying with each other to showcase the Future Sound of this, that or the other. But the future was already being heard in Oslo.
Khmer was followed, over-eagerly, by Solid Ether (2000). The Cherry/Davis-inflected trumpet sound was as exquisitely brooding as before but often the arrangements dissolved into a hectic clatter of drum'n'bass. This seemed, actually, to illustrate a larger conundrum whereby if drum'n'bass were to advance it was doomed quickly to exhaust all possible permutations of which it was capable unless it changed into something else - whereupon it would cease to exist! The dance-electronic inspiration on which Molvaer had relied was itself plunging into creative darkness.
Nothing demonstrated this more bleakly than Recoloured, an album of pisspoor remixes that comprehensively failed to enhance any of the original tunes. Inevitably that was not on ECM and nor was Molvaer's next 'proper' release, NP3 (2002). The album didn't hail any great advance and succumbed in places to a vulgarity of arrangement that has characterised the 'new concept of jazz' proclaimed by Molvaer's fellow Norwegian, Bugge Wesseltoft. But there were enough lyrical interludes to suggest that Molvaer was taking stock of the immense technical and artistic resources already at his disposal rather than lunging recklessly ahead.
At around this time Molvaer and his band played at the Marquee in London. It was an amazing gig: dark, banging, funky, rocking - but with the trumpet always at the still centre of the swirl. Half of the new live album, Streamer, comes from that show, the rest from what sounds like a night of equal intensity in Finland. Almost all of the material is from Solid Ether or NP3. There's nothing from Khmer and only one previously unheard track (the drenched and louring 'Sauna') but everything has been extensively reworked. The vocal samples are applied so subtly that 'Little Indian', for example, is heartbreakingly new as well as seductively familiar. That introduces a sustained 40-minute stretch of restrained yearning that builds and deepens, eventually erupting into 'Hurry Slowly'. If the turbo-stomp finale is less rewarding it's an inevitable consequence of the shift from experiencing it live to listening to it in the living room.