LJF 2019: Nils Økland

Nils Økland. Photo by Malene Kristopine Økland

This engrossing two-hour event at Islington’s cavernous, neo-gothic venue Union Chapel featured two duos and a solo. Saxophonist Helena Kay and pianist Sam Watts performed sympathetic duo improvisations featuring originals, Unconditional Love by Geri Allen, and standards including You’ve Changed. They displayed a keen empathy, and subtle use of dynamics. 

Tomorrow’s Warriors Kaidi Akinnibi (saxophones)and Lorenz Okello-Osengor (organ) played a free set, with communication difficult because the chapel’s Henry Willis Organ is in a pit at the back of the stage. There were communication problems also with the MC, whose efforts to curtail the set became increasingly frantic – but that’s always a danger when improvisers are as engrossed and simpatico as this pair.

The main act was violinist Nils Økland, who synthesises folk, improvised music and contemporary composition in an original artistic expression. His stylistic range is broad and diverse, and this performance featured material from his beautifully haunting Lysning (Hubro, 2017), his solo Monograph (ECM, 2009) and other albums – often one piece segued into the next.

Økland began on Hardanger fiddle, Norway’s folk instrument, which has four strings for bowing, and four or five sympathetic strings that resonate underneath; as one would expect from this musician, he puts it to more exploratory use than its traditional association with dance music. A free version of Månelyst from the Straum CD segued into Notten from Bris – here a ghostly electronic beat turned out to be the violinist’s heels on the echoey stage floor. By now, he’d even quietened the noisy children and toddlers. Blå Harding, title-track from the 1996 CD, was more chordal, with double-stopping.

Økland then changed from Hardanger fiddle to conventional instrument – he explained afterwards that he has three fiddles, tuned differently. He resumed with what he called “an old religious tune”, O Venner, followed by a “travelling tune”, Nattsvermer from Monograph. Next was the dance-like Reiseslått, and the set concluded with Speiling from Lysning. This delightful and eventful solo performance cast much light on the violinist’s approach – in particular it was interesting to see the freedom in his playing, as the violin moved away from and then towards his neck. The event ended with a spirited free improvisation involving all five players.

Nils Økland. Union Chapel, Islington, London, 16 November 2019 as part of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival.