Poignant, Darkly Thoughtful Jazz and Classical Themes From Nikolaj Hess

by delarue

Pianist Nikolaj Hess‘s latest release Spacelab & Strings – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is the rare album that’s closer to classical music with jazz piano, than piano jazz with classical influences. It’s also poignant, and picturesque, and one of the most individualistically interesting albums of recent months.

It begins with ECM Country, a brooding, expansive, windswept waltz, Hess playing suspiciously blithe, light-fingered, bluesy lounge phrases over the mournful swells of the strings. You want Lynchian?

Likewise, the simply titled Piece begins with bassist Anders Christensen rustling amid a white haze from the strings. Then Hess introduces a bittersweetly symphonic, Ellingtonian theme, drummer Mikkel Hess keeping his distance while his brother shifts into persistently uneasy ripples.

The string quartet – violinists Cæcilie Balling and Christian Ellegård, violist Jakup Lützen and cellist Josefine Opsahl – are more incisively plaintive in Indigo Meadow as Christensen climbs sparely and Hess chooses his spots to color in rivulets behind them. Ravel Reflections, drawing on the second movement from the composer’s String Quartet, is much more labyrinthine, beginning with ragtime flourishes from the piano and shivers from the strings. There’s an interlude that could be the Doors with strings, then an opaque refraction of the original theme before Hess returns with reflecting-pool gleam. Dissociative overlays pack a quiet wallop at this strange epic rustles toward the end.

The Adagio here is a tersely loopy, Philip Glass-ine canon spiced with low-key glimmer from Hess. Christensen shadows Hess as the drums hold the center and the strings lay out for Trio2. Seven Ate Nine has allusively Monkish modalities and tricky polyrhythms, a vivid portrait of persistent disquiet, the piano adding a considerably creepier edge as the band stalk along.

Danish Accents Lost in the Bush (In a Broke Down Yellow Volkswagen in Nigeria)” references the moment when Hess found himself stuck way out in the sticks with Fela and Femi Kuti. One can think of a worse fate, although there’s an increasing sense of terror and dissociation as the rhythm loosens – what spirits, or what hyena ambush, did this unlikely trio encounter?

There’s a devious cello metal starkness and contrasting deadpan humor throughout Kontra Punk. Tinir (meaning “your” or “yours”) is a similarly spare, ruggedly rustic but also balletesque adaptation of a much more lavish Hess choral setting of a Faroese myth.

Christensen’s darkly emphatic accents against Hess’ lingering iciness as his brother’s drums scan the perimeter in the Arvo Pärt-inspired Trio1 combine to create one of the album’s most haunting interludes. Celeste, a minimalist waltz with equal amounts Satie and Brubeck, is even more so, and arguably the high point of the record.

Black & White makes a good segue, a troubled, echoey reflection on Nordic gloom. Hess concludes this often riveting album solo with a fleetingly dark chromatic theme.