New Listen: Mette Henriette

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Artist: Mette Henriette
Album: Mette Henriette (2015, ECM Records)

ECM has done it again: introduced me to a new artist and new sounds. Saxophonist and composer Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg’s double-album ECM debut Mette Henriette is a triumph, presenting a fresh sound from an original voice. I’ve been listening to this album for several weeks now, and one thing remains constant: this is a soundworld in which I want to inhabit and further explore. It’s enchanting.

Mette Henriette includes 35 pieces that flow seamlessly over 100+ minutes. The two discs, while complementary, each showcase a different ensemble: a trio on the first and a 13-piece “sinfonietta” on the second. Although Mette is the leader, she doesn’t often place the saxophone front and center, opting instead to blend into the overall texture. Similarly, while Mette subtly demonstrates that she’s a virtuoso tenor saxophonist, she doesn’t make her technique an end itself — it’s always a tasteful means and used appropriately. The album is billed as jazz, but that’s selling it a little short. It’s as much chamber music as it is jazz. The Nordic- and free-jazz elements may serve as a foundation, but this album transcends many singular stylistic labels. In fact, the first time I listened to it — straight through and without regard for track names and numbers — it wasn’t until about an hour in when I thought that it sounded like a “jazz record” (“wildheart,” specifically). Also, the quantity of tracks can be some misleading, as I find it best to just listen to the album straight through — either a disc at a time or all together. It flows nicely, and the only real noticeable change is the transition from the trio to the larger ensemble, which itself is gradual.

The first disc features the trio of Mette, pianist Johan Lindvall (who composed three of the pieces: “.oOo.,” “3 – 4 – 5,” and “O”), and cellist Katrine Schiøtt. The three perform a quiet, intimate series of 15 pieces that together sonically paint a stark landscape upon which they wander. While the album isn’t explicitly constructed as a suite or other similar large work, there are motifs that recur throughout in different permutations, be they short melodic phrases or textures (e.g., the low piano ostinato in “all ears” and “beneath you”). A number of the pieces are melancholic and mournful though not without hope. In fact, light breaks through towards the end with “I Do” and “O.”

This trio of tenor sax, cello, and piano is wonderfully flexible, showcasing an uncanny knack for orchestration. The tasteful use of extended techniques — such as the sax and cello’s parallel lines both in standard ranges and in altissimo/harmonics in “the taboo” — help to break up the texture, and you rarely get the aural impression that it’s a static ensemble. Also, regarding the aforementioned stylistic transcendence, it’s rarely clear if the music is composed or improvised. I know that both are occurring, but I don’t always hear the delineation, which is a compliment to the composer and the performers. In fact, the first time one hears a semblance of a “jazz lick” is in the first disc’s penultimate track, “I do,” and even then it’s fleeting.

The second disc features a large ensemble of the aforementioned trio plus trombonist Henrik Nørstebø, trumpeter Eivind Lønnig, violinists Sara Övinge, Karin Hellqvist, and Odd Hannisdal violist Bendik Bjørnstad Foss, cellist Ingvild Nesdal Sandnes, bandoneonist Andreas Rokseth, bassist Per Zanussi, and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen (also on saw). It’s not an abrupt change of ensemble, however, and rarely does the full group play in concert. The immediate use of bandoneon on “passé” is of course obvious, but much of the ensemble gradually enters over the next several tracks (including the strings-only “pearl rafter” and winds-only “unfold”), culminating in “wildheart,” the whole album’s first raucous romp and the first time in which Mette’s free jazz roots enter the spotlight, with her guttural cries on tenor rising from the band’s primordial bed. Given that, the second disc isn’t as uniformly quiet as the first. While the more cacophonous moments can break up the pieces more than on the first disc, everything is still rather seamless.

As evidenced by “wildheart,” the second disc, though often complementary to the first (e.g., “behold” sounds like something originally for the initial trio but re-orchestrated for a different instrumentation), explores different sonic terrain. Another example is “late à la carte,” which drunkenly plods along like some Lynchian (and Badalamentian) burlesque. Several pieces later, “I” begs the question of what is improvised and what’s composed, only in a far more aggressive context. There appear to be motifs and structure, yet it also sounds rather free. Perhaps it’s both? I can’t know without the score, and that’s an asset. The music simply flows — composed and improvised, quiet and loud, dissonant and consonant, free jazz and chamber music, trio and sinfonietta.

I know it’s a word thrown around too often, but Mette Henriette is a unique album, particularly as an ECM debut. The only other ECM albums I sort of immediately liken it to are the Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell pairing of Boustrophedon and Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, & 3, but only really because of the structure — a large mixed ensemble of classical and jazz musicians performing notated and improvised music. As for sound, though, Mette is an original voice, and one I’m anxious to hear a lot more from going forward.

Mette Henriette is available in the US this Friday, November 20.

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