If only this European homage to Miles Davis' Bitches Brew had had the tenacity to stick with the jazz-rock and avoided the club beats, it just might have made jazz album of the year.
It's a testament to the epochal significance of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew that, even today, 37 years after it changed the shape of popular music, artists all over the world are still moved to pay homage to it.
Few releases in recent years have paid such a direct tribute as this new album by Norwegian guitarist, Terje Rypdal. Recorded live at Norway's Vossa Jazz Festival in 2003, "Vossabrygg" translates directly as "Vossa Brew" and it's a deliberate plunge head-first into the murk of Davis's groundbreaking electric jazz experiments.
The 18 minute opener "Ghostdancing" is the album's most explicit and fully realized statement of intent. It begins with a quote from Joe Zawinul's tune "Pharoah's Dance", made famous on Bitches Brew, before finding its own foggy groove, fuelled by Bjorn Kjellemyr's pumping bass ostinatos and the driving dual drums of Paolo Vinaccia and Scandanavian jazz legend Jon Christensen. The atmosphere is thickened by Bugge Wesseltoft's swirling electric piano, and swathes of Hammond organ from Supersilent's Stale Storlokken.
Against this convincingly Miles-ian backdrop, Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg takes on the daunting challenge of providing the horn. He's perhaps better suited than most, having counted Davis as a personal friend, and being the composer and producer of Davis's 1985 album Aura. Even so, he wisely avoids too closely emulating the sparse, muscular style of the Dark Magus and instead uses heavy echo effects and other digital manipulations to build up a bank of noise, like heavy mist on a remote hillside, through which the occasional note of clarity pierces like the beam of a torch. With the atmosphere primed, like a storm cloud waiting for lightning, Rypdal himself takes a stratospheric, fuzz-fusion solo. There's an unmistakably chilly, elemental feel to this, a kind of lofty "mountain jazz" that is wholly appropriate coming from the hallowed halls of ECM.
The tune returns to more squirming electric piano squiggles, a brief recap of the "Pharoah's Dance" quote and then a trippy Hammond organ interlude that has the whole band swelling and subsiding like shifting quicksand, while managing to maintain a menacing momentum. It's a truly monumental musical achievement that stands alongside some of the best electric jazz ever produced. If the rest of the album were of the same standard then this would have to rate as one of the best jazz releases for quite some time. There are highlights to the remaining 50 minutes of music -- most notably "That's More Like It", a funky, bass-driven work-out that sounds like a lost track from the sessions that made up Miles's Big Fun, with electric piano reminiscent of Keith Jarrett and an almost Heavy Metal-ish guitar sound, all snarls of controlled feedback. Unfortunately, though, most of the rest of the album disappoints somewhat.
Admittedly, this is a live recording of one concert, and it's presented here as a continuous suite, so there's inevitably going to be moments when the energy flags . . . nonetheless there are tracks that seem to squander the momentum and tension worked up by "Ghostdancing". "Waltz for Broken Hearts / Makes You Wonder" is a coyly inoffensive piece that sounds almost like an outtake from a Ryuichi Sakamoto composition; while "A Quiet World" continues the filmic feel, coming on like a snippet from the soundtrack to Bladerunner -- all glacial synths, noirish trumpet and sci-fi sheen.
Worse still are the ambient interludes that connect the main compositions. Co-composed by Rypdal's son, Marius, these employ samples, turntables and drum machines in an attempt to bring the suite up to the present day. It's been tried many times before, and few get it right, all too often ending up sounding instantly dated in the search for the elusive, unattainable "now". In contrast to the timeless flux and sinuous energy of "Ghostdancing", these episodes come across as rigid and unyielding -- particularly "Hidden Chapter", which samples Rypdal's own choral works under a particularly pedestrian beat. The drum 'n' bass influenced "Incognito Traveller" is more inventive but still sounds unnecessarily bolted on to an otherwise first-rate session.
Still, it's an intriguing and courageous album. Let's just hope Rypdal turns his attention to Jack Johnson sometime soon. Now, that would be something.