Friday, July 13, 2018

2L Recordings' Polarity from the Hoff Ensemble

It seems like I've divided my musical world into at least two distinct realms of late--contemporary jazz and those amazing recordings from Norway's 2L Recordings. I dust this blog with a scattering of indie rock just to keep in touch with my roots, but the truth is that my time is currently dominated by jazz, with occasional sojourns into the challenging and exciting world presented by 2L's main bottle-washer, Morten Lindberg. Since 2L spends its time interpreting classical pieces and the avant-garde, it's rare when the two worlds collide. And yet we have this new jazz release from 2L, Polarity, performed by the stalwarts of the highly-regarded Hoff Ensemble.

The idea of a jazz album from 2L is immediately intriguing, and for several reasons. First of all, you can feel confident that whatever jazz is recorded, it will sound utterly fantastic due to Lindberg's adept balance between technology (MQA, DXD, Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D surround) and innovative recording techniques (the location of the recording venue, usually old churches that produce an incredibly spacious and warm sound). The idea of a simple jazz trio--Jan Gunnar Hoff's piano, Anders Jormin's bass and Audun Kleive's drums--recorded in the unique 2L manner seems like a no-brainer. Jazz trios usually excel in the establishing of space, both the isolation of each instrument and the blending of the whole when it comes to the resonances created by the performers and their instruments. It's all about relationships in time and space, and how they move and develop. It's clear that 2L understands these relationships, even if they're looking for new ways to explore those environments at the same time.

It all comes down to Jan Gunner Hoff's affinity for jazz and his ability to honor the traditions while forging his own way. His piano work has always been lovely and flowing, tethered to an acute appreciation of beauty. He's also a master at improvisation--he's the kind of pianist, like Keith Jarrett, who can sit down at a piano and start playing off the top of his head and the result is something that should be recorded and immediately released. He enlisted two of his favorite Scandinavian jazz musicians, Jormin and Kleive, to provide both knowledge and flexibility to place these original compositions into a jazz setting. "My main goal is to create a specific identity for each album I make," Hoff explains. He goes on to state the importance of the acoustic setting as a fourth member of the ensemble, and how it is active in the rendering of these improvisations.

Of course he succeeds. Hoff is a lover of melody, and the ability of that melody to be vivid and accessible. In a way he's always reminded me of Lars Jakob Rudjord--both of these Norwegian keyboardist/composers have a fascinating way of delivering a beautiful song that is easily absorbed but still quite distinctive in mood. If you think you're just getting piano, bass and drums in a spacious church, however, you're in for a surprise. Hoff has a few tricks up his sleeve, such as programming a Prophet 6 synthesizer so that it "can merge naturally with the trio without disturbing the acoustic sound picture." The synthesizer slips in at the most unexpected moments, usually with the rising tide of emotion in each piece. It works because the synthesizer is releasing its output into the same church space, so it sounds like yet another acoustic participant.

If you're a fan of Hoff's work, you'll be surprised when familiar tunes from his catalog appear. Hoff explains that these themes take on a new life in the jazz trio format, so it might be worth the slog to dig into your collection and make comparisons. He's also not a novice when it comes to jazz, since he's composed for many jazz quartets over the years. He's wanted to perform this specific experiment for many years, and the result is something that moves stealthily between genres, always focusing on how gorgeous it all sounds. This is not surprising in the least, but it does beg the question of whether or not he will continue these meaningful forays into jazz. I'll be waiting eagerly.

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