Conexions: The Guardian/allaboutjazz.com's Marcus O’Dair profiles celebrated piano trio In The Country which teams up with pedal steel master BJ Cole for their Conexions concert series appearance
Traditionalists put the date in the late 1960s, when Miles plugged in, or even the previous decade, when Cecil and Ornette kicked away the supporting girders of harmony and rhythm. Progressives put it later: perhaps, if they’re cheeky enough, in 1987, when Wynton launched his programme at New York’s Lincoln Center. But both sides agree that jazz has breathed its last. For the bereaved if no-one else, the death knell rings louder than any New Orleans funeral band.
In The Country can’t be a jazz trio, then. They didn’t release their debut album until 2004, and they don’t appear to have been embalmed. Neither do they pretend not to have heard Radiohead and Sigur Ros and Spiritualized and Dirty Three and Wilco and Ryan Adams. Sometimes, and not only when they cover a tune like Adams’ “In My Time Of Need”, they even try to sound like those artists. It’s just that, because their sound remains rooted in piano, bass and drums, and because they’ve also heard Olivier Messiaen and Domenico Scarlatti and Paul Bley, they fail spectacularly.
Instead they sound shimmering, translucent, spacious and sparse, save for the occasional, slow-motion climax and crescendo or ugly, pained disintegration, measured out death rattle by death rattle. They sound, in other words, like In The Country, a moniker that seems to refer at the same time to the countryside, to the country of Norway, and to country as a musical genre.
Countryside first. If not watching the accompanying DVD, which features some live footage but attempts to recreate the In The Country live show in spirit only, Morten says the new album would ideally be listened to whilst looking out from a high balcony. The natural environment can’t help but affect the music. “I think it’s holistic. Everything affects everything.”
In terms of country and nationhood, Morten isn’t much interested in discussing the “Nordic tone”, that reductive but pervasive notion that music made in a cold climate must also be emotionally cold. But the former Jazzist and one-man Orchestra does admit to being influenced by the geography of his homeland, both its physical landscapes and its low population density.
“Norwegian history is a history of making our own decisions in everyday life, just because people are living so far away from each other. Like, if you have a wolf on your doorstep, you have to make your own decision about shooting it. If you’re living in England or in Sweden, you have to go to the landlord to say “What do I do with this wolf?” Here in Norway you have to make up your own mind. I think that’s more important than people realize; that we have been an autodidact society, since olden times, and that we just do what we think is best without asking for permission. This is important for the development of Norwegian jazz, that people have just done their own thing. Some of it has been Nordic and some of it has been very un-Nordic. It’s just about making good music out of what you are. And that’s what we try to do with In The Country.”
And so to country as genre. Perhaps it’s that frontier spirit that has encouraged the trio to look to America, and Americana, for inspiration. The appeal of such lyric-led music to a largely instrumental act may not be immediately clear but, rather than bourbon and broken hearts, it’s the lean, distilled songcraft that seems to appeal. This is a group that believes in strong hooks above the flaunting of technical chops and that frosty clarity of melodic line is evident even during the solos, which come closer than most to truly spontaneous composition.
There aren’t many piano trios in Nashville, but then In The Country seem at various points equally inspired by downtempo pop, ambient electronica, post-rock and even baroque period classical piano music. Half a century since Bill Evans hooked up with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, some say the piano trio is exhausted anyway, although In The Country couldn’t care less - and not only because they see themselves almost as a sextet, with Andreas Mjøs, like soundman Ingar Hunskaar and lighting designer Nico Benz, now viewed as an honorary member of the band.
“You can always make something new out of something torn or worn-out. It’s quite similar to making paintings, the format is that you paint on paper, that’s a given, and it can be experimental in that setting. Rather than trying to create a band with pan flute and didgeridoo and electronics just to be experimental, it’s more interesting to make our music within a worn-out, old-fashioned form, but to try to do something new.”
There’s a stalactite fragility to In The Country even at their most surging, although Pål says there’s an often overlooked humour buried deep beneath the limestone. There’s no ego in this music, or rather, no individual egos. Playing together, rather than merely at the same time, the musicians move as one from the exquisite to the wildly expansive. Sometimes, as Roger says, they try to do both at the same time.
“I think that’s what we’ve always been doing, very beautiful, nice melodies and hard, abstract rock. You tend to get one, not both, in a band. I think we all think not just of getting the beautiful melody, but of adding an edge to it, a friction in some way.”
It is in part a desire to document that dynamic range, still greater on stage than in the studio, that was behind the band’s decision to make “Sounds And Sights” a live album, recorded at shows in Kongsberg and Oslo. Until now the group have always recorded at Atlantis, a Swedish studio still best known for producing the big Abba hits. In truth, it was always a surprising choice for In The Country. Or it would have been if they were a jazz trio.
UK music journalist Marcus O’Dair has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times and magazines including Plan B and Dazed & Confused – he is also a contributor to various music sites such as allaboutjazz.com.
Read more on the Conexions concert series here.