Celebrated guitarists from the United States and Norway join forces to pay tribute to the talent, vision, innovation and influence of Norwegian jazz guitarist and composer Terje Rypdal.
By Mac Randall
Nels Cline, best known for the dazzling guitar parts he’s contributed to Wilco for the past 13 years, calls him “one of the earliest influences on my playing, going all the way back to high school.”
Bill Frisell, among the greatest jazz guitarists of his (or arguably any) generation, says, “I have no problem admitting that I stole like crazy from him.
And Henry Kaiser, a paragon of the avant-garde for four decades, states, “It may not seem immediately apparent to everyone, but we”—that is, Kaiser, Cline, Frisell and scores of others in the upper echelons of modern improvisational guitar playing—“are all his children.”
Who are they talking about? Norwegian virtuoso Terje Rypdal [pronounced TEAR-hey REEP-doll], a seemingly perennial contender—on U.S. shores, at least—for the title of “Greatest Guitarist You’ve Never Heard Of.” Fact is, though, that he’s been on the radar of many dedicated guitar fanatics ever since he started laying down authoritative leads with a beat combo called the Vanguards in the mid Sixties. In the decades since, he’s charted an eclectic course on nearly 30 albums under his own name and dozens of others as a sideman, moving from psychedelia to jazz/rock fusion to modern classical composition, approaching them all with a painterly sense of detail and a remarkable emotional intensity. If you have a soft spot for any of the guitarists quoted above—as well as players like Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin—it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re going to like Rypdal’s playing too.
Rypdal turned 70 in August, and in honor of the occasion the Norwegian label Rune Grammafon released an album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal. An astonishing piece of work that ranges from quiet introspection to rip-roaring outer-space exploration, it features an equally impressive roster of guitarists. Cline, Frisell and Kaiser are all on board, along with soundscaper extraordinaire David Torn, former Sonic Youth member Jim O’Rourke and five outstanding Scandinavian players: Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, Reine Fiske, Hans Magnus Ryan, Even Helte Hermansen and Raoul Björkenheim. It’s a fine introduction to the Rypdal aesthetic that also stands up well as its own artistic statement.
Sky Music was Kaiser’s idea. “I sent a cold email to Rune Grammafon saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lot of children of Rypdal on your label. It would be great to do something for his birthday. I figure I can get a bunch of my pals to join the party,’” he recalls. “After they said yes, I listened to every Rypdal recording, along with dozens of hours of live stuff. I did let other people select material, but if they didn’t have an instant, obvious choice, I was ready to give them five or 10 pieces that might work. I wanted to make sure we looked at different aspects of Rypdal, both as a composer and as a guitarist.”
Narrowing the selection down to 15 tunes (13 on the CD and another two on the album’s vinyl-only second volume) was tough because Kaiser is a true fan. “I’ve been following Rypdal since his first record for ECM [the German jazz and classical label that has been Rypdal’s corporate home for more than 45 years], which I bought at a college record store just because it looked cool,” he says. “Anything he does I get. His music has stayed with me for my whole life. When you’re influenced by him, you don’t necessarily sound like him. It’s more about an outlook, about being yourself, and about painting bigger pictures than people usually paint with guitar. That’s an important thing to everyone who’s on this record.”
Kaiser and the Scandinavians recorded their parts for Sky Music together over five days of sessions in Halden, Norway, backed up by Ståle Storløkken, the current keyboardist in Rypdal’s own band, and the rhythm section of the Norwegian trio Bushmen’s Revenge (in which Hermansen also plays). As many as six guitarists appear on a single track. In a few cases, four are playing simultaneously—a “bigger picture” indeed, but far from a traffic jam.
“People said, ‘I want to be on this song’ and ‘I want to be on that song,’ so we ended up with more guitars than we expected on some,” Kaiser acknowledges. “But that was okay, as we could just look at each other and communicate when we needed to. We mapped out some tunes according to what happened in them dynamically on the original recordings, but from there we let the music do what it wanted to do.” The results, particularly on a nearly 20-minute medley of “Tough Enough” (from Rypdal’s 1971 self-titled ECM debut) and “Rolling Stone” (from the 1975 fusion masterpiece Odyssey), are powerful indeed.
The other American guitarists—who, as Kaiser had predicted, immediately said yes to the project when asked—made their contributions remotely. Bill Frisell leads things off with a gorgeous solo rendition of “Ørnen,” a tune that originally appeared in a trio version on Rypdal’s 1985 album Chaser. “It’s such a concise and clear composition that I didn’t feel like I had to do anything to it other than play it in my own voice,” Frisell says. “It was right up my alley. It felt like it could have been one of my own tunes.”
In the final analysis, that’s not much of a surprise, as Frisell concedes that Rypdal’s impact on him has been major, starting with the 1974 album Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away, Rypdal’s first to feature a symphony orchestra. “I was coming out of a period of listening to Jim Hall and these more ‘traditional’ players,” Frisell remembers, “but things were starting to break apart for me. When I heard Rypdal’s sound in that context it showed me what might be possible, that you didn’t have to be afraid, that you could use all the capabilities of the electric guitar. He opened the door in two directions, pointing back to the beginnings of rock and roll guitar and taking it into the future at the same time. It was so awesome.”
Nels Cline, meanwhile, chose to tackle the title track of his favorite Rypdal album, What Comes After, also released in 1974. Duetting with cellist Erik Friedlander, he excels with both an atmospheric take on the main theme and a rip-snorting solo. “I didn’t want to do that tune on my own,” Cline says, “because the conversation Terje has on the original album with Barre Phillips on arco bass is especially stunning to me. I hear some John McLaughlin influence in the writing, but what I love most is the freedom of it, particularly the chromatic aspect of his playing.”
Cline first heard Rypdal as a soloist on saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s Afric Pepperbird album in the early Seventies when a high school friend played it to him over the phone. (“I was immediately intrigued by this crazy, screechy guitar stuff, which sounded particularly odd on the phone!”) Although Cline is happy with his contribution to Sky Music, it’s not his favorite track on the album; that honor goes to David Torn’s multi-dimensional run through “Avskjed,” a song that Rypdal originally recorded for his ninth album as a leader, 1980’s Descendre. “David’s playing on that just floored me,” Cline says. “To me, that alone is worth the price of admission.”
Why was Rypdal so influential to these American players? In part, because he was one of the earliest jazz guitarists to stretch out sonically and embrace timbres that had long been associated with rock: searing distortion, big reverb and, perhaps most important, the vibrato bar. The twang of Duane Eddy, the Ventures and especially the Shadows’ Hank Marvin was a key early influence on Rypdal, and that’s never left his playing—the almost vocal level of expressiveness he’s since developed on the whammy has few parallels. “When Jeff Beck uses the bar to sound like a Georgian singer,” Kaiser says, “he’s doing what Rypdal would do.”
But it wasn’t just the tonal aspects of his playing that set Rypdal apart. His studies in the early Seventies at the Oslo Music Conservatory with pianist, composer and theorist George Russell opened his mind compositionally. “I hate to call what he does ‘European,’ ” Frisell comments, “but there is something in his sound that seems to bring that out. And when I say ‘sound,’ I don’t mean the guitars or the amps or the pedals he used. I mean the voice that’s coming from him, the sense of space, the patience, the feeling that’s it not so much about cramming in a whole bunch of notes.”
In Scandinavia, Rypdal is venerated by a generation of guitarists, especially for the more rock-ish music he made in the Eighties and Nineties with his instrumental power trio the Chasers. Fellow Norwegian Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, who’s been making extraordinary prog-jazz with her own trio for the past eight years, was aware of Rypdal’s music from a young age but only started listening to him seriously when “someone approached me after a show, commenting that he [Rypdal] must be my biggest influence. Then I understood I needed to check him out some more—and I still am. Rypdal’s approach to music showed me fields I was about to move into. When he is at his best, he is like a controlled, continuous explosion: the recklessness, the ability to play more than you maybe are capable of and still making it work.”
In America, Rypdal remains a cult figure at best. “He was better known in the Seventies,” Kaiser says, “but he never toured much in the U.S. I think he’s come here three or four times at the most. [A brief jaunt in 2012, including a date at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, is his only such trip in recent memory.] So except for the oldsters who bought the ECM records back then, folks aren’t that aware of him.”
He may not come Stateside often, but at 70, Rypdal continues to perform and record and to show enviable range. His most recent album, 2013’s Melodic Warrior, featured collaborations with two orchestras and vocal group the Hilliard Ensemble, renowned for their a cappella performances of medieval and Renaissance music. Here, too, he’s an inspiration. “As I get into my twilight years,” Cline says with a laugh, “I hope I can do something like Rypdal: realize compositional ideas that don’t have to involve me as a player, that just have to involve my dreams of what’s possible.”
So what does the man himself think of Sky Music? “I’ve been wondering that,” Kaiser says. “I’m told it was sent to him, and I wrote him a letter just saying, ‘Thanks a lot,’ but I haven’t heard anything from him. He did let us have his keyboard player, and I’ve noticed that since we recorded the album [in August 2016], he’s added a couple of old tunes to his live set, and he got back together with the bass player he had in the Seventies. Was that affected by what we were doing? I have no idea. But I do know that none of us would be the same without him.”