Uniquely Norwegian

Helge Lien and his jazz trio perform in Tel Aviv.

Helge Lien and his jazz trio (photo credit: Courtesy)
Helge Lien and his jazz trio
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As an artist, one is duty bound to maintain one’s learning curve.
Helge Lien appears to be doing just that. The 42-year-old Norwegian pianist is next up in the Social Jazz Community line of jazz concerts. He will perform at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv on September 9, together with his trio of double bass player Frode Berg and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. The other half of the double header also features Johansen and Lien, but this time with saxophonist Torben Snekkestad. The program promises to provide the Zappa patrons with a varied soundscape that will offer a glimpse of the breadth of adventurous jazz output to be had from the Scandinavian country.
Listening to Lien’s probing silky keyboard work, the influence of megastar pianist Keith Jarrett comes to mind.
“Yes, he is a strong influence on me,” says Lien. “I discovered him, and I am still discovering him. And Bill Evans is also someone I listen to a lot,” he adds.
But it is not just iconic pianists who grab Lien’s attention.
“I am also interested in other instruments,” he notes, “like drummers. I am very focused on drummers, actually. I am inspired by them.”
That might take some by surprise, as the piano seems to be such a purely melodic instrument, while drums are usually considered to be a fundamentally rhythmic sound maker.
Does that mean that Lien tends towards the percussive approach to the piano? “The piano is a percussion instrument,” he says. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a piano, you know just what he means. “But it’s more that I am inspired by drummers who have this kind of specific beat in their playing.”
Lien’s textural sensibilities spread far and wide.
“I also listen to horn players – sax players, for instance,” he adds.
That may seem far beyond the beaten pianistic path, but that is just what Lien is looking for.
“I always try to get out of my instrument what is not there,” he observes somewhat enigmatically.
“Long notes, for instance, and things like vibratos and manipulations of the notes is something I am focusing on.
They are really not possible on the piano, but I try to imagine them on the piano when I’m playing.”
Lien’s artistic interests also extend to other disciplines. Over the years, he has developed a keen interest in photography. So, does he conjure up images of shapes and colors when he is playing? “I don’t see very concrete pictures when I am playing the piano. It can be the sensation of a move or something. Also when I play, I sort of enter a state of mind, and I don’t really see anything concrete. I just listen and try to be perfect in the moment. I use my own emotional reactions to guide me further,” he says.
That applies to both fields of creative endeavor.
“When I work with music and when I work with photos, I am waiting for my emotions to respond in some way and to show me how to proceed or not to proceed,” he elaborates.
You can hear that in his music. You get the sense of the great open spaces of his home country, too. Rolling mountainous terrain seems to inform his sonic and rhythmic approach, and you can sometimes feel great glowering clouds lumbering across his soundscape. Time seems to be available in abundance, for instance, on his trio’s latest release, Guzuguzu.
Another pianist who seems to wield some influence over Lien’s choice of sonorous direction is fellow Scandinavian keyboardist Esbjörn Svensson from Sweden. Anyone who was into the work of Svensson’s trio – the pianist died in a diving accident nine years ago at the age 44 – will know there is often a rock-included acerbic edge to his playing, and Lien also feeds off commercial acts.
“My first real musical interest was rock music,” he says. “Pink Floyd is, for me, still one of the greatest music I know. And my brother listened to [experimental rock guitarist and composer] Frank Zappa, which I also like a lot.”
When it comes down to it, however, we generally connect with our grassroots influences and what we encountered in our formative years.
“I also listened to a lot of Norwegian pop,” Lien recalls, adding that he has always tended to extend his musical feelers almost every which way. “In Norway, there is a long tradition of jazz musicians playing with folk artists. I listened to this music and to the musicianship on these albums. They were real players who played really well.”
At the end of the day, Lien is a Norwegian, jazz or classical training regardless, and that is what filters through everything he does professionally.
“Every time someone in Europe uses their own culture as the starting point for improvisation, it immediately gets personal and unique. I don’t think there is any point trying to copy the American musicians and trying to copy [modern jazz forefather] Charlie Parker and also those people. It is not our music, in a way,” he points out.
That is not to say, of course, that Lien doesn’t revere the giants of jazz who did their pioneering in the art form’s homeland.
“We can listen to it and learn from it and get influenced by it, but we must find our own sources,” he asserts.
That will be apparent next Saturday evening when Israeli jazz lovers have an opportunity to get a taste of the sounds coming out of one of the world’s most vibrant jazz scenes.
Helge Lien and his trio will perform on September 9 at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information: OurJazzProject@gmail.com;*9080; and https://www.zappa-club.co.il