Hearing is believing

With ‘Ossicles,’ Norwegian saxophonist and goat-hornist Karl Seglem traverses Scandinavia, the Mideast and Africa.

Karl Seglem saxophone 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Geir Birkeland)
Karl Seglem saxophone 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Geir Birkeland)
Of all the weird and wonderful names that have been conferred upon jazz album over the years, Ossicles is probably one of the strangest. It’s the title of the latest CD released by Norwegian jazz saxophonist Karl Seglem, who will perform at the Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival in Eilat this Friday (January 20).
Of course, anyone steeped in the study of anatomy or has more than passing knowledge of Greek will know that the ossicles are the three smallest bones in the human body. They are contained within the middle ear space and serve to transmit sounds from the air to the fluid-filled labyrinth, or cochlea.
Boiled down, that means that if your ossicles aren’t in good shape you won’t be able to hear too well.
Naturally, it helps a musician if his audience is able to hear what he does. Seglem is very intent on getting his musical message across to the public, and says we are losing the ability to focus.
“In our modern times we consume a lot through our eyes, and the ear is underestimated. We should use the ear more,” says the 50-year-old.
“It is very strange for me say that people say they are going ‘to see’ a concert. That’s why I called the record Ossicles. I also just like the word as it is.”
Seglem is one of the most prolific jazz musicians in Norway, and Ossicles, which will form the backbone of his gig in Eilat, is his 27th release to date, in a recording career that began just over 20 years ago.
Almost all of his recordings have been put out on his own NORCD label, which began life in 1991.
“I had some material I’d recorded and I took to all different record companies and no one was interested,” Seglem recalls. “It made me angry so I decided to set up my own label.”
As the Hebrew saying goes, “the appetite comes with the food” and gradually more and more Norwegian musicians starting turning to Seglem for help with getting their music recorded and out there.
“We have put out over 100 albums so far,” says the saxophonist.
“I don’t make any money from it, but that’s the point. It gives me the freedom to do whatever I want to with the music. There are also a lot of very good musicians in Norway and they make very original music.”
Seglem grew up on a high energy musical diet of British rock, principally Pink Floyd.
“I was really into them and I used to order LPs, specially from London,” he says. “There is quite a lot of sax on [Pink Floyd record] The Dark Side the Moon, and I listened to that a lot. That’s what really inspired me to play saxophone.”
THE THEN teenaged Seglem also starting getting into jazz and got into the work of musicians such as saxophonist George Adams and trumpeter Miles Davis, and some of the main fusion acts of the 1970s and 1980s such as guitarist Pat Metheny, the Brecker Brothers and Weather Report.
But as he matured Seglem started delving more into his own national culture, and began incorporating Norwegian folk music in his work, and added the goat’s horn (shofar) to his more conventional instrument.
“I like playing the goat’s horn because it’s a challenge, and I like challenges,” Seglem observes.
“I think I have become a better sax player since I started playing the goat’s horn, because it is so minimalistic and you have to focus on something totally different, compared with the saxophone. That may me think how to play the horn without the technical things you have with the sax. This has been very important for me. It adds some colors to my music.”
There are, indeed, many shades to Seglem’s oeuvre, and he draws on a very wide range of cultural influences, besides those from close to home. Ossicles and his other albums embrace sounds and rhythms from Africa, the Middle East and the Far East, in addition to jazz material.
Seglem’s introduction to his own cultural heritage was also facilitated by his encounter with fiddler Hakon Hogemo Hardanger, with whom he has worked for over 20 years.
“Hakon knows over 1,500 folk songs and I find it very inspiring to work with him. Playing with him affects the way I improvise,” he says.
Seglem has also enjoyed a long musical relationship with drummer Kare Opheim and that, he says, affords the band a generous comfort zone in which to work and create together.
Seglem also employs other avenues of artistic expression and has published several books of poetry over the years. He says that the two art forms impact on each other.
“They are different because, when a word is written on a page it is there forever, but when a concert is over the music has ended. I like that music is abstract.”
The saxophonist remains intent on carving his individual path through the byways and highways of jazz and improvisational music.
“Jazz, for me, is the freedom to do what you want and what you are best at. It’s about making the music organic and having the possibility to improvise,” he declares, adding that that isn’t the case with all jazz musicians these days. “Actually, not a lot of jazz is improvised because they look at chords and forms, and so on. It can, of course, be nice to play things in a traditional way, but not for me. I am not a copycat. I have do things my own way.”
The Karl Seglem Quintet will play at the Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival on Friday January 20 at 8 p.m. For more information about the festival: www.redseajazzeilat.com.