Norwegian musicians associated with jazz have a stereotype to contend with. Most listeners in the United States know these musicians from being featured on recordings from the ECM label. Players like Jan Garbarek (saxophone), Jon Christensen (drums), Tord Gustavson (piano), and Terje Rypdal (guitar) are all well known yet defined by a positive but narrow classification: controlled, chilly, and gorgeous music. More adventurous listeners know that this image can’t hold water—just listen to the music of the band Atomic (boasting three members from Norway, as well as the band’s explosive/puckish former drummer, Paal Nilssen-Love) and you’ll hear ripping music that defies some icy Nordic cliche.
Bassist Eivind Opsvik lives in New York but came from Olso in 1998, a year after graduating from the Norwegian Academy of Music. He’s been playing with some of the best musicians the new century has to offer, like Craig Taborn, Kris Davis, Tony Malaby, David Binney, Nate Wooley, and Jon Irabagon. His band, Overseas, has been a longstanding project, and its fifth recording, Overseas V, features Malaby on saxophone, Brandon Seabrooks on guitar, Kenny Wollesen on drums, and pianist Jacob Sacks.
Like so much “jazz” today, this recording defies genre conventions. Rather, it’s on the hunt for fresh sounds, creative connection to other styles, and interesting landscapes for improvisation. More often than not, this means that Opsvik conceives of rhythmic environments that are invigorating in new ways. “Hold Everything”, for example, is a small concerto for drummer Kenny Wollesen, who begins the tune with a thrilling set of rolls plus hi-hat and cymbal accents that play out over a straight, thumping four on the kick drum. This is the tune’s thesis, backed up by a set of distant keyboard pings! from Sacks, after which Opsvik lays in a disco groove on acoustic bass as Sacks’ organ and Seabrooks’ guitar trade melodic statements. Everything gets more complex quickly: piano and saxophone enter in tandem, with Malaby spinning off into a solo that dodges and weaves around that rhythm: Wollesen alternating slow tom rolls with hissing cymbals, all while electronic distortion builds in the background. And then boom! It’s over before the thrill lessens.
This is, as often as not, the aesthetic of Overseas V. It’s notable that Opsvik compositions are rarely “head-solos-head” affairs. His tunes proceed in waves of sound, with melodies that may appear once rather than twice, and often enough without melodies at all. For instance, “First Challenge on the Road” also uses a rock beat but is also up to something much more diabolical. The strong groove on drums is countered with a complex collection of polyrhythms from all the other instruments, creating a Steve Reich-ian wave of subtle contrast pulses. The push and pull of the rhythms is so insistent and interesting that the tune never bothers with a single melody or conventional jazz solos, instead becoming a rising jam that takes you all the way home.
Another tune that leans toward elements of American soul music is “Brraps!”, which is defined by a very fast 12/8 feel on Wollesen’s hi-hat and a funk vibe on guitar. The melody, however, is played arco on the bass and then in octaves by bass and saxophone. It’s fun and chaotic at once—a busy intersection of ideas that get in and out in four minutes.
There is another set of tunes here that come off as busy machines, boxes full of interesting melodies and rhythms. “Cozy Little Nightmare” features Sacks at the start, sounding like Thelonious Monk tumbling into a charming toy shop. A combination of acoustic bass, drums, and electronics generates a looping maze of syncopated beats. “Katmania Duskmann” is a similar joy that’s built on a call-and-response pattern between sax and piano. “IZO” is more lyrical, but it jumps between different sections that are fueled by Seabrooks’ rock lines. “I’m Up This Step” is comparable but with a bit of debt to the overlapping lines that we associate with Steve Coleman and his MBase approach.
Not everything on Overseas V channels a hard groove or feels busy, though. At least two tracks come somewhat closer to the Nordic chill. “Extraterrestrial Tantrum” unfolds slowly and with impressionistic beauty over a burbling electronic percussion pattern. Sacks places lovely piano voicings along the way, and bowed bass, guitar, and horns simply unwind in layers of sound. “Shoppers and Pickpockets” is equally pastel, with a loping two-feel that lulls your ears into happiness as you wait for a big melody that never arrives. Seabrooks plays a pretty pattern, and Malaby enters minimally. The piano trio alone has a moment—but the tune is mostly a collection of lovely gestures.
Overseas V is so busy and so packed with treats and ideas (and textures and grooves and interactions) that you’ll have to play it again and again and again to fully grasp. My only objection to the collection (and apologies in advance to Tom Hanks) is that it’s a bit like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get, and, well, not one of them is a meal. The performances here are relatively brief, and you can imagine their majesty in concert: a slower sense of development, perhaps, or a deeper exploration of what is possible atop or amidst these environments.
Eivind Opsvik is, at whatever length, a master of creating “feels” and journeys that would have been unrecognizable in the jazz culture of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. His music feels very much up-to-the-minute. This kind of hybrid excitement is the perfect embodiment of where the music has gone—into the unknown of many influences and possibilities.