Guitarists Join Forces to Salute Norwegian Jazz Guitarist Terje Rypdal
Celebrated guitarists from the United States and Norway join forces to pay tribute to the talent, vision, innovation and influence of Norwegian jazz guitarist and composer Terje Rypdal.
By Mac Randall
Nels Cline, best known for the dazzling guitar parts he’s contributed to Wilco for the past 13 years, calls him “one of the earliest influences on my playing, going all the way back to high school.”
Bill Frisell, among the greatest jazz guitarists of his (or arguably any) generation, says, “I have no problem admitting that I stole like crazy from him.
And Henry Kaiser, a paragon of the avant-garde for four decades, states, “It may not seem immediately apparent to everyone, but we”—that is, Kaiser, Cline, Frisell and scores of others in the upper echelons of modern improvisational guitar playing—“are all his children.”
Who are they talking about? Norwegian virtuoso Terje Rypdal
, a seemingly perennial contender—on U.S. shores, at least—for the title of “Greatest Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of.” Fact is, though, that he’s been on the radar of many dedicated guitar fanatics ever since he started laying down authoritative leads with a beat combo called the Vanguards in the mid Sixties. In the decades since, he’s charted an eclectic course on nearly 30 albums under his own name and dozens of others as a sideman, moving from psychedelia to jazz/rock fusion to modern classical composition, approaching them all with a painterly sense of detail and a remarkable emotional intensity. If you have a soft spot for any of the guitarists quoted above—as well as players like Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin—it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re going to like Rypdal’s playing too.
Rypdal turned 70 in August, and in honor of the occasion the Norwegian label Rune Grammafon released an album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal. An astonishing piece of work that ranges from quiet introspection to rip-roaring outer-space exploration, it features an equally impressive roster of guitarists. Cline, Frisell and Kaiser are all on board, along with soundscaper extraordinaire David Torn, former Sonic Youth member Jim O’Rourke and five outstanding Scandinavian players: Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, Reine Fiske, Hans Magnus Ryan, Even Helte Hermansen and Raoul Björkenheim. It’s a fine introduction to the Rypdal aesthetic that also stands up well as its own artistic statement.
Sky Music was Kaiser’s idea. “I sent a cold email to Rune Grammafon saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lot of children of Rypdal on your label. It would be great to do something for his birthday. I figure I can get a bunch of my pals to join the party,’” he recalls. “After they said yes, I listened to every Rypdal recording, along with dozens of hours of live stuff. I did let other people select material, but if they didn’t have an instant, obvious choice, I was ready to give them five or 10 pieces that might work. I wanted to make sure we looked at different aspects of Rypdal, both as a composer and as a guitarist.”
Narrowing the selection down to 15 tunes (13 on the CD and another two on the album’s vinyl-only second volume) was tough because Kaiser is a true fan. “I’ve been following Rypdal since his first record for ECM , which I bought at a college record store just because it looked cool,” he says. “Anything he does I get. His music has stayed with me for my whole life. When you’re influenced by him, you don’t necessarily sound like him. It’s more about an outlook, about being yourself, and about painting bigger pictures than people usually paint with guitar. That’s an important thing to everyone who’s on this record.”
Kaiser and the Scandinavians recorded their parts for Sky Music together over five days of sessions in Halden, Norway, backed up by Ståle Storløkken, the current keyboardist in Rypdal’s own band, and the rhythm section of the Norwegian trio Bushmen’s Revenge (in which Hermansen also plays). As many as six guitarists appear on a single track. In a few cases, four are playing simultaneously—a “bigger picture” indeed, but far from a traffic jam.
“People said, ‘I want to be on this song’ and ‘I want to be on that song,’ so we ended up with more guitars than we expected on some,” Kaiser acknowledges. “But that was okay, as we could just look at each other and communicate when we needed to. We mapped out some tunes according to what happened in them dynamically on the original recordings, but from there we let the music do what it wanted to do.” The results, particularly on a nearly 20-minute medley of “Tough Enough” (from Rypdal’s 1971 self-titled ECM debut) and “Rolling Stone” (from the 1975 fusion masterpiece Odyssey), are powerful indeed.
The other American guitarists—who, as Kaiser had predicted, immediately said yes to the project when asked—made their contributions remotely. Bill Frisell leads things off with a gorgeous solo rendition of “Ørnen,” a tune that originally appeared in a trio version on Rypdal’s 1985 album Chaser. “It’s such a concise and clear composition that I didn’t feel like I had to do anything to it other than play it in my own voice,” Frisell says. “It was right up my alley. It felt like it could have been one of my own tunes.”
In the final analysis, that’s not much of a surprise, as Frisell concedes that Rypdal’s impact on him has been major, starting with the 1974 album Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away, Rypdal’s first to feature a symphony orchestra. “I was coming out of a period of listening to Jim Hall and these more ‘traditional’ players,” Frisell remembers, “but things were starting to break apart for me. When I heard Rypdal’s sound in that context it showed me what might be possible, that you didn’t have to be afraid, that you could use all the capabilities of the electric guitar. He opened the door in two directions, pointing back to the beginnings of rock and roll guitar and taking it into the future at the same time. It was so awesome.”