Norwegian pianist Espen Berg has been making a name for himself both as a small-group leader and as a solo improvising pianist – I raved about his solo Hamar concert just recently in JJ – but this set concentrates on Berg the composer.
That said, several of the compositions here have their roots in his spontaneous solo outings. Others revisit the chamber music format he has used with his small groups, while the complex rhythms and dense scoring of his Maetrix commission for a jazz orchestra from 2017 also make their mark, notably on Circumzenithal and Duelling Rivers.
Water Fabric was originally commissioned by JazzFest Trondheim and premiered in 2022, its title encompassing water in its many possible states and meanings: most are self-explanatory, and I assume 1914 refers to the deluge of World War I.
The instrumentation is unusual – a piano, trumpet and drum trio accompanied by an adept string trio. The musicians themselves have backgrounds in jazz as well as Norwegian folk and western and Indian classical musics. These diverse musical and compositional elements could pull unhappily in differing directions but Espen holds it all together perfectly, the pieces united by their melodic strength and sense of joyous spontaneity.
1914 is probably the highlight of the set, its slightly melancholic mood and poignant string feature a reminder of its subject matter, but Hydrophobic also stands out for its raffish viola-led theme, the concluding and lengthy Triple Point Suite for its stately progress and structural coherence.
In its detail and references, Water Fabric is a demanding listen, but utterly worthwhile. Its overall musicality is beguiling, its performance outstanding. Enjoy.
Sun Glacier; Circumzenithal; 1914; Hydrophobic; Acres Of Dew; Duelling Rivers; Triple Point Suite (60.24)
Berg (p); Hayden Powell (t, flh); Harpreet Bansal (vn); Ellie Mäkelä (vla); Joakim Munkner (clo); Per Oddvar Johansen (d). Oslo, Norway, January 2023.