Listening to Torbjørn Sunde

When my friends are being kind about me – and thankfully, they usually are – most of them, I think, would take the view that I am reasonably well-informed about huge swathes of the musical landscapes that are available to us spoiled Westerners.  Years of major- label reissues, the emergence of niche labels which focus on specific sub-genres and the availability of internet downloads mean that pretty much everything is out there if you delve long and hard enough and exercise a degree of patience about these things.  Hard to say where a ‘healthy interest’ tips over into an obsession but I would acknowledge that I sail pretty close to that line at times.  I should probably get out more….
Of course, my interest isn’t totally comprehensive.  Like everyone else I have my blind spots; to offer just three examples,  I have no time whatsoever for Rap, Hip-Hop and its adjuncts, Heavy Metal and its multiple variations is a place I have no wish to visit and MOR Rock of the Elton John/ Rod Stewart/Queen ilk just makes me nauseous.
However, when it comes to jazz – and jazz from Scandinavia in particular – I would see myself as being particularly well-versed in what’s been going on there since the 1970’s.  In this very blog, I have written about the likes of the Espen Eriksen Trio, Huntsville, Susanna Wallumrød, Food, Jesper Bodilsen, the Michael Aadal Group, Hilmar Jensson…and so on.  By any normal reckoning, most of these performers would be reckoned ‘obscure’ to non-Scandinavians and perhaps to many who live over there.  For me, it’s a pure delight to be able to write about the wonderful music that has emanated from Scandinavia over the last 30-odd years and hopefully encourage some of those who visit here to check it out.
The problem is that there’s really too much of it for even my ears to take on board; the music isn’t always easy to come by, with some of the more obscure stuff available only via limited and arcane outlets.  Even so, when it comes to Torbjørn Sunde’s brilliant album ‘Meridians’  (ACT Music, 1998), I have to hold my hands up and confess to being completely blindsided.  Here’s a guy who I know of from his presence in some of those glorious Terje Rypdal bands of the mid to late 1970’s and as such, just the kind of artist I would normally keep a weather eye on.
Furthermore, he’s a great trombonist and I was blogging only recently about Curtis Fuller and how the trombone has almost become an exotic instrument in recent years.  I mentioned contemporary trombonists like Robin Eubanks and Annie Whitehead, yet neglected this guy,  whose brilliant, atmospheric playing was a key feature of Rypdal albums like ‘Odyssey’ (1975).  Also, it’s not as though ‘Meridians’ found its way into the world via some obscure Norwegian label from Ytre Langvekkistan specialising in Sami reindeer-herding songs.  The album came out on Siggi Loch’s ACT label, now a major player on the European jazz scene.  OK, so ACT maybe wasn’t such a big deal until the Esbjörn Svensson Trio began to reinvent the European Jazz wheel around the Millennium.  Even so, ‘Meridians’ is an album that really should have cropped up on my radar before now.

There are a number of factors  that make ‘Meridians’ such an effective album.  Firstly and most importantly, it features some very fine playing by an ensemble who are generally far better known now than they were then.  Back in 1998, it’s doubtful whether too many  Eurojazz aficionados had heard of players like Rune Arnesen or Eivind Aarset, though they would certainly have heard of Terje Rypdal.  He guests on one track here and it’s probably the pick of the bunch; a near-10 minute long epic called ‘Kjære Maren’  which beautifully revisits the synth and cymbal-driven grooves of late 70’s Rypdal albums like ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Waves’. Bassist Bjørn Kellemyr, another Rypdal alumnus,  is also on board for this one  and Arnesen’s drumming effortlessly evokes the style of Jon Christensen.  The synth backdrop comes from  Bugge Wesseltoft who, back in 1998, was just beginning to make waves with his New Conceptions of Jazz ensemble and who features on keyboards throughout the album.

Another, more recent mainstay of Norwegian jazz is evoked in the funk-driven ‘Confronting Hemispheres’, where Sunde’s electronically manipulated trombone sounds not a million miles away from Nils Petter Molvær’s trumpet stylings.
Perhaps more surprising are ‘Vertigo’  and  ‘Imensidão Do Mar’, two tracks, where Sunde, apart from playing beautifully, also adds wordless vocals – I think it must be him as no other vocalist is credited.  These two tunes have the music of Brazil in their DNA  and this, plus the aforementioned wordless vocal immediately puts you in mind of what was, for me,  the ‘golden age’ of  the Pat Metheny Group  in the late 80’s ,where David Blamires and the late Mark Ledford contributed so much to the sound and mood of classic albums like ‘(Still) Life Talking’ and ‘Letter from Home’.  Ex-Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena also features on ‘Imensidão Do Mar’, managing to sound like an entire rainforest.
I offer these points of comparison – Metheny, Molvær, Rypdal – simply to provide some context.  ‘Meridians’ borrows from these sources, but manages to be considerably more than the sum of its parts. 

As far as I can ascertain, Torbjørn Sunde continues to work actively as a sideman – principally with Norwegian artists – and also gigs with his own band in Norway from time to time.  Finding exact information can be difficult even when you can decipher Norwegian-language websites; perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong place.  Since ‘Meridians’ there seems to have been just one Sunde CD – a Chet Baker tribute – but sadly, no sign of any projects with the same scope as this.

Perhaps someone out there can offer some updated information?  In the meantime, do try to track down a copy of ‘Meridians’ – it should still be available via the usual outlets.


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