Espen Berg: The Hamar Concert

Although admired for his trio work, Berg most catches attention as a solo pianist, drawing a wide variety of mood from the instrument


Norwegian pianist Espen Berg has been making quite a name for himself as a performer and composer, his piano trio considered to be one of the best in existence today, but it is his solo, fully improvised piano performances that are most catching the attention. His first, in Trondheim, was recorded in 2019 and was highly praised when issued in 2022 (although sadly not reviewed by Jazz Journal); his latest improvisation was recorded in Hamar, just north of Oslo, that same year.

The suite is in eight parts, with Part 1 divided in two. Berg opens gently before he slowly builds the music up, his single notes cohering as solid chords as he develops his theme. While his left hand is often a persistent ostinato bass, his right hand is free to range across the keyboard, creating strong melodies. The second half of Part 1 is percussive and repetitive before briefly becoming more open and relaxed.

Other parts likewise start off in one direction and then gradually shift in tone and tempo, Part 2 for example a high-register repetition that oddly brings to mind Tubular Bells but with more ingenuity and slowly opens out into a tinkling refrain.

Berg is good at contrasts, with heavily percussive passages set against flowing piano runs and a telling use of silence, the fast-flowing light touch of Part 4 and gentle beauty of Part 5 both unexpected interjections, the rolling boogie of Part 6 a sheer delight, rightly applauded by the audience. Throughout, he displays creative agility, with a mesmerizing touch and a consistently strong melodic flair. Above all, he lets the music flow, touching on different styles and influences as he creates a coherent performance. 

Such solo performances are hard on a pianist, but rarely is there any hint here of coasting along while waiting for new inspiration. Berg deserves the acclaim he is getting for his performances, even if the angelic kid on the sleeve cover does protect his ears to keep out the noise.

The Hamar Concert: Parts 1–8 (67.44)
Berg (p). Live, Hamar Kulturhus, Hamar, Norway, 29 October 2022.
NXN Recordings NXN2019