In my little corner of the world, a new album by the Helge Lien Trio is always cause for (quiet) celebration. Their 2017 release Guzuguzu is a particular treat of lyrical melodicism, playful, sometimes angular rhythms and sonic surprises.
From the description of the creative process on their website it sounds as though most of these pieces were developed or at least in mind when the Norwegian trio headed into Oslo’s Rainbow Studio in September 2016. One of the eight tracks, the lovely tune “Jasmine,” was recorded separately, and it somehow sounds like it was, a little more in line with the music on 2014’s Badgers and Other Beings, say.
“We spen(t) close to an entire year preparing the recording of Guzuguzu,” Lien says. “When we met in Rainbow studio, the album was more or less complete, not to say ‘garari.’ This allowed for us to record the album in one single take. Listening to how it came out, it strikes me how close it resembles a live experience.”
Those other seven pieces all have a certain feel to them that in classical music would be called “programmatic”; that is, they seem to portray a place, a scene, an aspect of nature, or a mood. So when looking for names for the tunes, they turned to the Japanese language and its rich store of words that are onomatopoeic – words that sounds like what they depict. “Hiss” is a simple example of onomatopoeia in English.
I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, these Japanese words are utterly charming. Second, the musicians – Lien on piano, Frode Berg on bass and Per Oddvar Johansen on drums – did a superb job of choosing titles for these works. The opening track is one of the best examples. “Gorogoro (Thundering)” starts peacefully with rattling, lightly hissing cymbals and gentle piano arpeggios that easily suggest raindrops or wind rattling on leaves; deep piano notes suggest thunder; the bass then enters, dramatically played with a bow up high in the cello range. What starts peacefully grows increasingly chaotic before this introductory section settles into a more structured improvisation that sounds more like jazz, before returning to the freeform style for the outro as the storm moves on.
The title work “Guzuguzu (Moving Slowly)” is a slow frame for exploratory music – Lien kitten-walks around the keyboard with many of his signature runs, Johansen playing percussively on all parts of his kit, and Berg bowing and plucking and scraping his bass. “Nikoniko (Smiling)” is a playful major key melody with an upbeat bass line and sly cymbal-tickling, before it briefly meanders through wistful changes during a plucked bass solo section. “Kurukuru (Spinning)” starts with a solo piano intro filled with bop-inspired lightning-fast arpeggios that lead into a gospel-propelled piece that has elements of rock and soul; I can picture Jerry Lee Lewis banging out this section out in his heyday. Berg has a fine, rippling bass solo, too.
My favorites? Well, it’s hard not to fall for the lovely Jasmine with its ponderous percussion and deep drone that stand in contrast to the lovely melody and Lien’s improv built around it.
But for me the real highlight is the catchy “Chokichoki (Cutting)” with its deeply, insistently rhythmic foundation. The piano, drums and bass take turns playing this choppy, percussive two-note motif and improvising around it. Lien plays a long solo, flurries of notes flying around that rhythm; Berg slows things down with a lengthy arco bass solo that turns the piece downright cinematic, before Johansen and Lien take hold of the rhythm again, shake off the doldrums and propel the piece to a dramatic finish.
Dramatic is indeed a word that comes up often when listening to Helge Lien Trio. Lien is a very talented pianist and improviser, and these two sympathetic companions add some sharp edges and interesting turns to his music. Guzuguzu is their best outing yet.