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Helge Lien Trio - "Hello Troll"

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OVERVIEW:

As a jazz enthusiast, I take pride in recommending albums to my friends that I believe they'll enjoy. The more finicky they are (yes Dan, that's directed at you), the more I delight in suggesting something that they can't stop raving about. Recently on one of the music forums I peruse, a member I've never met, WNBC, recommended Hello Troll from the Helge Lien Trio. Looking back over that thread I see numerous recommendations and album covers from groups I've never heard of, and suggested by others I've never met. Two things immediately caught my attention about this suggestion. First, I am a sucker for piano trios, which is great considering the inexplicably large number of piano trios working today. Second, the album cover WNBC posted (see below) has the look and coloring of what I believe would be a warm and engaging live concert (although it is a studio recording). Gambling on music usually results in more failures than successes, but after hitting the jackpot with Raphael Gualazzi's Reality and Fantasy. I had a hunch that only a truly degenerate gambling addict gets. Result: winner, winner, chicken dinner.

The Helge Lien Trio is yet another one of those acts from the European jazz scene that has gone relatively unnoticed in the U.S. (except of course by the most ardent jazz fan). At the time of its release, 2008, Hello Troll was the group's sixth release in seven years, and was the 2008 Norwegian Grammy winner for Best Jazz Album. Unlike the Grammy awards in the U.S., which appear to be influenced heavily by marketing and promotional dollars, the Norwegian equivalent is apparently more focused on the end product (although I have few other Norwegian jazz groups to compare this to, I trust that after you hear Hello Troll you'll agree with their bestowment). All nine tracks are original compositions by Helge Lien.

Considering the number of piano trios that have spanned the jazz decades, I'm always amazed when I hear a trio that has carved out a new sound—and the Helge Lien Trio has done just that. Hello Troll is a mixture of straight-ahead, impressionistic, and a slight touch of experimental jazz. I would consider it jazz with sophistication—or “intelligent jazz," if you will. The trio presents two different styles. The first is a laid-back, sometimes funk infused grooved, that speaks to the inner-coolness in each of us; the coolness that wears shades in a dimly lit jazz club. The second style (definitely the overriding one) is thematic; the ability to create and explore impressionistic ideas and emotions—especially with their keen knack for creating entertaining ballads. For example, Helge Lien has the remarkable ability to create lonely, desolate piano lines which the trio evolves into a sense of warmth and comfort. Abstract enough for you? Let me try and make some comparisons; for those familiar with Brad Mehldau's The Art of the Trio series, Lien has a classical approach familiar to Mehldau's, but Hello Troll is significantly more impressionistic; in relation to Jason Moran's Ten, the trio has a higher level of sophistication (the coolness factor), but doesn't completely explore their free jazz ideas like Moran; and finally, the members are all on the same page like the Neil Cowley Trio. In fact, the Helge Lien trio may be the most cohesive unit in business today.

Hello Troll is an approachable album for most jazz fans. The novice may be put off by the small amount of experimental jazz or some of the tracks that might not necessarily swing, but it could also be an excellent album for introducing newcomers to a completely different take on strictly straight-ahead jazz. For the moderate to experienced fan, this album should delight those looking for a contemporary take on the piano trio format, as well as provide for repeat listenings; each member of this trio is an amazing individual musician and this is the type of album where you'll want to listen to each track multiple times, focusing on a different member.

DETAILS:

Hello Troll opens with the contagious “Gamut Warning"—a track with a funk infused bass vamp that kicks the album off with a fun, yet sophisticated feeling. Drums and bass maintain the rhythm throughout and allow Lien to explore his piano solo using space and timing. His journey is wide, but slow; like a boxer working his opponent with perfectly timed jabs.

One of the most impressionistic pieces, “Radio," draws images of a ship rolling over waves on a vast ocean; bass and drums open the track slowly and Berg's bow work speaks of a creaking hull being stressed by the sea. Lien relies on a classical piano approach and relays feelings of isolation and loneliness through delicately placed notes. As the track unfolds and his solo gains momentum, there is a sense of hope and relief as the trio comes together; Berg relinquishes the bow and helps create a warm, comforting sound through his pizzicato (plucking) technique. The vessel is finally carried off into the distance as Lien returns to his lonely theme and Berg mimics the opening creaks and groans of the ship. This is truly one of the best modern impressionistic compositions available today.

“Troozee" opens with Lien setting the rhythm with a four note piano run which would fit any “who dunit" caper; the repeating piano lick oozes murder mystery. As Lien continues his left hand rhythmic work, he sets his right hand loose through a series of runs. However, the spotlight should really be placed on Aalefjer's drumming; the first time I heard this track I was taken aback by the precession and intensity of his work. About half way through the track, Aalefjer starts doubling up notes on the snare and adding punchy, tight rolls. It's such a subtle switch that you'll find yourself going back to see how he makes the transition. Aalefjer's work throughout the entire album is of the highest quality—engaging, thoughtful, and precise (his brush work and attacks on “Axis Of Free Will" is also worth noting).

The trio offers up a moving, impressionistic ballad with “It Is What It Is But It Is." It usually takes an interesting ballad to hold my attention, and this one is. There is a level of lightness wrapped up in the emotion here and the music will carry you away if you let it. It's the kind of piece that would set the tone and mood perfectly for the moment just before a bride walks down the aisle. The warmth from this slow tempo number gives it a heartfelt touch; a very rewarding ballad!

“Halla Troll" is the groups most experimental piece. The introduction is a give-and-take conversation between piano, drums, and bass. Lien then goes to work driving the tune forward using dark notes from the low register before the trio explores some relatively well controlled free jazz ideas—nothing to chaotic, more about each individual using the space they are given wisely. It all comes back together following Lien's driving piano which picks up speed like a locomotive before coming to a close.

Finally, “Snurt" is one of those feel good tunes which makes you believe anything is possible. The melody is reminiscent of the warmth Vince Guaraldi created with his compositions and arrangements for the Peanuts television specials. It opens with a piano vamp that Lien quickly expands on before turning his attention to a wonderful mid-register melody. Again, the drumming of Aalefjer should be noted; if this album is indicative of the rest of Aalefjer's work, it should put him near the top of modern jazz drummers. In fact, the entire trio comes together admirably here, creating a comforting song that eventually takes you out on a double-time ride.

RECOMMENDATION:

4.5 out of 5, This is evidence of both the virility of contemporary jazz and the depth of talent in the European scene. The Helge Lien Trio is a group that gets my blood moving in a good way; they explore the possibilities of the piano trio in a way that, surprisingly, hasn't been done yet. This trio should be a household name in jazz circles around the globe, and in the U.S. deserves a place amongst the likes of Mehldau, Moran, and Jarrett. I am anxiously waiting to get my hands on a copy of their newest release, Natsukashii, as well as exploring their back catalog. If you haven't heard Hello Troll, go pick yourself up a copy and see why the future of jazz looks so good! And if you're in Europe, consider yourself lucky and go pickup the 180g vinyl edition; I know I'll be keeping an eye out for it here in the U.S.

Helge Lien—Piano
Frode Berg—Bass
Knut Aalefjer—Drums

Release date: September 5, 2008 (Ozella)

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