Terje Rypdal

Terje Rypdal

Terje Rypdal’s Dry Ice
The Village Voice
Summer, 1979

The ECM stereotype is firmly in place, and it reads this way: ECM is the home of the New Cool School, where producer Manfred Eicher plays the roles of President and Dean of the Curriculum. ECM albums are low-profile and high-brow, romantically rural and relentlessly arty. ECM jazz, waxed in Oslo and Munich and Ludwigsburg, is white “chamber jazz”; it does not swing, nor is it funky. And as for the blues, well, the blues turn existentialist when they cross the Atlantic. ECM artists don’t get the blues—they come down with bad cases of angst.

The problem is that, increasingly, the stereotype conceals more than it reveals. A case in point is the new, curiously unnamed album by Terje Rypdal, Miroslav Vitous, and Jack DeJohnette. To be sure, there’s a typically pastoral photograph of thunder clouds above a verdant field on the cover, and a picture of three rather grim-looking musicians on the back. And the song titles—“Sunrise,” “Flight,” “Den Forste Sne (The First Snow),” “Seasons,” etc.—are pure ECM. But the music inside is not the drearily dreamy atmospheric wallpaper many associate with the label. In fact, it’s closer to high-energy fusion than to “chamber jazz.” While the record may not cook like a ’50s Blue Note jam, this New Cool effort is hot in its own way. It burns—not like fire, but like dry ice. It sears instead of steams. And the reason is Rypdal, who figures most prominently in the record’s character and its success.

Arguably the most unorthodox, original guitarist since Hendrix, and certainly the most distinctive guitar stylist from the continent since Django, Terje Rypdal remains a secret in America. A pop star in his native Norway through the mid-’60s, Rypdal went noncommercial in the late part of the decade, playing with Jan Gabarek, studying George Russell’s “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization” with Russell himself, and performing with the Art Ensemble of Chicago at the Free Jazz Festival at Baden-Baden in 1969. Since then he’s performed solo guitar concerts throughout Europe, written for and recorded with symphony orchestras, led an oddly minimalist jazz-rock ensemble called Odyssey, and experimented with flute, soprano sax, and keyboards.

Rypdel plays few notes and often uses a violin bow instead of picking; he’s given to extracting novel colorations from a guitar synthesizer and unknown numbers of pedals, shifters, and phasers. His art is one of subtle shading, sustaining, and bending—a few strokes here, a few there, then a sudden barrage of thick chords and a return to his thin, stiletto-sharp signature sound. Not one to pursue the pyrotechnical rapidity of the McLaughlin-Coryell-DiMeola crowd, Rypdal generates his own sort of voltage, one of light and shadow, rhythmic surprise, and restrained melodicism. Compared to the fusion speedsters, Rypdal creates an overall effect much like that of Miles against the frenetic bop of Bird, Diz, and Bud.

Joined here by the elegant rumblings of drummer DeJohnette, and the fluid bass (and electric piano) lines of Vitous, Rypdal’s guitar, organ, and guitar synthesizer voicings have ample room to maneuver. Sometimes they sizzle and sometimes they soothe, but they are always charged with the kind of energy and sensuality and intensity which leave the record echoing after it’s over. Of the six pieces here (two by Rypdal, two by Vitous, and two group projects) only one, Rypdal’s melancholy “Den Forste Sne,” cries and whispers in the ECM tradition. It’s a ballad done sideways, and DeJohnette’s cymbal shimmers and subterranean turbulence—over which Rypdal and Vitous state and elaborate on the barest of melodies—give it an attractive tension.

The other five pieces are medium to uptempo things and only one of them, Vitous’s “Believer,” which wanders aimlessly until a fade puts it out of its misery, doesn’t work. “Sunrise” and “Flight” are both blistering romps, with DeJohnette’s choppy polyrhythms providing a perfect foil for the characteristically spare guitar sketches and organ washes of Rypdal. Vitous’s “Will,” resurrected from Weather Report’s Sweetnighter album, is as dark and restless as the original. Indeed, the influence of Weather Report—of which Vitous was a key member until he left late in ’73—is apparent both in the tenor and the execution of this music. The interwoven improvisations, the avoidance of head-solo-head formula, the simple melodic fragments and repeated motifs, the background as foreground, and the less-is-more aesthetic found on this record all harken back to the organic, free-flowing, hard-edged music of the early Weather Report groups.

But this music is not derivative, as one listen to a piece like “Seasons” proves. It’s the rough-cut gem of the record. Alternately tumultuous and crystalline, “Seasons” manages to wed the raw with the refined in a unique sort of fusion, one that seems more of less nascent throughout this record and only blooms on this last cut. Fittingly, the piece is dominated by Rypdal’s expansive vocabulary: a raunchy sheet-metal wobble, a polyphonic factory siren, a surreal church chorus, a seagull cry. This is new music.