2008 saw Norwegian pianist-composer Ketil Bjørnstad release two albums for ECM that showcased his diverse musical interests. Life in Leipzig was a duo release with fellow Norwegian Terje Rypdal, which had Bjørnstad’s elegantly spatial keyboard melodies ranged against the jagged edges of Rypdal’s rock-influenced guitar. The Light was a calmer, more classical work consisting of two song cycles set to Bjørnstad’s arrangements and featuring Randi Stene’s mezzo-soprano voice and Lars Anders Tomter’s viola.
The prolific Bjørnstad, who is also an established author in his native country, is releasing two albums in 2010, of which Remembrance is the first. The album places him in the company of drummer Jon Christensen, with whom Bjørnstad has been collaborating for some 40 years, and saxophonist Tore Brunborg. It’s a graceful collection, far closer than Life in Leipzig was to what many still think of as the “typical” ECM sound: calm, glacial, crisply produced.
That remembrance is at the heart of the project is evident both in the comfortable familiarity with which Bjørnstad and Christensen interact and also in the fragments of the sonic past that hover, ghostlike, behind the music. There are 11 pieces, identified only by numbers. “I” floats in on the eddies of Bjørnstad’s understated piano, with Christensen’s restless cymbals and snare bringing the music crashing gently to shore for Brunborg’s reassuring, enveloping tenor to carefully lift it up and carry it forward with a melody. A kind of deconstructed take on “Over the Rainbow” shimmers teasingly in the background, a reminder perhaps of the interconnectedness of memory and imagination.
“III” has the effortless grace of a Bach piano study, not surprising when one recalls Bjørnstad’s classical past and his fondness for the composer. Even as Christensen and Brunborg attempt to lure the music away from its hypnotic center, the pianist stays true to the calm heart of the piece with a cool persistence that is ultimately liberating. That said, it may well be at this point in the proceedings that those who are averse to the more New-Agey elements of ECM’s catalog decide to turn the album off. This would be a shame, given the trio’s subtlety and skill at manipulating space and time. There are moments of the day and night that absolutely call for this minimalist refusal of hegemonic temporality.
“V” carries the music to a disappearing point, a near silence that recalls the horizon points of memory and imagination. “VII” serves as a reminder of Bjørnstad’s long association with old and traditional song forms as the piano picks out a folk-like melody of the type used on The Light. “XI” closes the circle with a reprise of the opening melody, still gesturing towards that place for us, out there somewhere. It’s a suitably meditative way to end a journey during which these musicians seem to have traveled far without really leaving home. And home, after all, is where memory resides.