Monday, April 23, 2012

CD Review: Eyvind Opsvik - Overseas IV

Eivind Opsvik
Overseas IV
(Loyal Label)

Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik resides in New York City, playing with a cast of musicians that has included Paul Motian, Skuli Sverrisson and Tony Malaby. He has also released several albums as a co-leader (with Aaron Jennings) and leader, of which this one comes as the fourth in a series that seems loosely tied to history and closely aligned with the goal of blending jazz with progressive rock, classical and ambient musics. Opsvik has referred to this album as "experimental cinematic music," and in that regard, he's hugely successful. The scoring of the music, coupled with haunting melodies that often rely on sustained notes and steady beats, implies that some visual imagery should go with it. It doesn't hurt that the cover photo of the bassist looks like it could have been taken in some historical mansion/museum, but that's a personal bias.

The 1700s and 1800s provided the inspiration for Overseas IV and to that end, keyboardist Jacob Sacks takes us to that era by playing harpsichord just as much as he plays piano and Farfisa organ. The old instrument provides an ingenious contrast throughout the album with Brandon Seabrook's electric guitar, which often gets noisy and scratchy. Together with Kenny Wolleson's tympani, Sacks create something of an opening overture with "They Will Hear the Drums - and They Will Answer." Malaby, Opsvik's frequent leader, lends his tenor saxophone to the proceedings, although much of his work on the album creates textures with simple figures.

By continually shifting the melodic focus of the pieces to unexpected instruments or by delaying what might be a "theme," the album can be a bit disorienting initially, requiring some extra scrutiny to fully discover where it's going and where it's been. "1786" (so named because it predated "great upheavels") begins with a drum and harpsichord duet that morphs into a churning groove that lets Malaby sit on the stovetop and gradually come to a boil, in one of the album's few sax solos. It's an abrasive nine minutes, but the way it unfolds is not. In a brilliant sequencing move, Opsvik follows this track with "Silkweavers' Song" where the harpsichord joins up with bowed bass (sounding like a cello at first) and Wolleson's vibes for the ambience of chamber music.

Like a film with an oblique plotline, Overseas IV can perplex you if your mind wanders. "Robbers and Fairground Folk" sounds like a four-note sax lick over a rock rhythm section, until it becomes clear that the direction comes from Seabrook, whose caterwauling, post-Ribot fretwork solos seem to get stronger with each new session he plays. He also brings energy to the spy surf feel of "Michelle Marie," when the repetitive Farfisa starts to sound too clever.

Opsvik also seems to act as the main voice in a couple tunes, which is easy to miss because his bass sometimes lacks the presence or volume it needs in the mix. He leads the way in the pensive "White Armour," over droning chords. In the closing "Youth Hopeth All Things, Believeth All Things" he gets a chance to stand front and center and take off. The setting is just as significant to the overall sound, though: the rhythm evokes prison chain gangs with what sounds like claps from hands and pieces of wood (presumably the "marching machine" for which Wolleson receives credit) and the rest of the band plays slow, ugly chords, closing the album with a long, keyboard drone, not unlike something from vintage Soft Machine.

Moments occur during this album where the band seems to wander or plod along. But by reserving judgement until a track has played through, you're likely to admire the way Opsvik creates rich soundscapes out of what initially sounds like simple harmonic material. Together with players like saxophonist/composer Jeremy Udden (who has used some of these guys in his bands), Eyvind Opsvik is charting a new course for this music that is more accurately described for the images that it can evoke than for what kind of category it belongs to.

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