Lonely Table


Dig and Discover: Arve Henriksen - Chiaroscuro





Words by Aidan Daly

Norwegian jazz has enjoyed its own specific identity over the past decades. Gaining recognition throughout the 1970s, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and guitarist Terje Rypdal were two of the first Norwegian jazz artists to find sustained international success. Buoyed by a close and almost exclusive relationship with German jazz and classical label ECM, they pushed a sound which borrowed heavily from Scandinavian folk melodies, carving out space for a uniquely Norwegian take on the constantly evolving and malleable genre.

Fast forward, and jazz is still an integral part of Norway’s musical culture. The arts in Norway benefit from a tradition of public support, and this is particularly the case with jazz. Consistent funding has produced a thriving scene of innovative musicians who benefit from high levels of musical and educational opportunities. Furthermore, given that Norway’s jazz tradition is relatively young, funding and touring opportunities are more open to emerging and fresh projects than they would be in the US, for example. This puts (gentle) pressure on newer acts to push the boundaries of what already exists – improvisation and originality are therefore the lifeblood of the Norwegian scene.

The Trondheim Music Academy nurtures this emphasis on fresh ideas, and has birthed some of the country’s most innovative players, such as trumpeter Arve Henriksen. His virtuosic, ventriloquistic command sees him transform the instrument’s sound from its usual bright rasp to something more akin to the flute or saxophone. On his 2004 album Chiaroscuro, released on Rune Grammofon – an imprint ‘dedicated to releasing work by the most adventurous and creative Norwegian artists and composers’ – Henriksen takes influence from the traditions of Japanese folk music and the sailing melodies of the shakuhachi – a traditional end-blown flute.

Jazz has always been adaptable and innovative, in conversation with other genres and cultures. But this album pushes the boundaries of its elements, and disguises them with such subtlety it’s often difficult to pinpoint what you’re actually listening to. Henriksen’s trumpet is soft and breathy, mimicking a flautist’s vibrato on ‘Birds-Eye View’, while his unintelligible soprano on ‘Opening Image’ and ‘Blue Silk’ sounds convincingly female, and achingly beautiful over billowing sampled loops and sparse percussion. 

The album’s title, Chiaroscuro, refers to the treatment of light and shade in oil painting, a technique developed during the Renaissance that uses sharp tonal contrasts to model three-dimensional forms. Much of the album reflects this aptly chosen term, balancing lighter and darker moods delicately to create a full-bodied sound; ‘Holography’ and ‘Ending Image’ feature trumpet-as-shakuhachi, with gossamer melodies unwinding over gauzy ambient loops. On ‘Chiaro’ (Italian for light, or clear), it’s not quite obvious whether the music is supposed to be representative of the track’s title; Henriksen’s vocals are indistinct and disembodied. Yet on counterpart ‘Scuro’ (dark, sombre) the mood is more explicit. The track’s atonal dread provides the most macabre turn of the album, with additional tension provided by persistent, trembling shakers.

Chiaroscuro not only represents an accomplished and crucial album in terms of its contribution to jazz – and that other nebulous genre, ambient – it also demonstrates how culture can flourish as a shared, public good. It’s an enduring example of how increased funding opportunities for young musicians can result in innovative and highly original creative output. In an era in which the arts in this country are at the mercy of brutal austerity cuts, we need these reminders more than ever.