In November 2021, bassist Arild Andersen brought his new quartet with saxophonist Marius Neset, pianist Helge Lien and drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen to Oslo’s Rainbow Studio. Norway’s pandemic travel restrictions having ruled out the participation of Manfred Eicher on this occasion, the musicians were on their own, ostensibly to document some of Arild’s pieces. On the second day of recording, Andersen proposed some collective improvising: “With nothing planned, we recorded a first part of about 23 minutes, and a second part of about 14 minutes”. These extended arcs of music became the new focus of the album. “Affirmation Part I” and “Affirmation Part II” are presented, unedited, in their entirety. The album is completed by Andersen’s composition “Short Story”.
“Although the quartet had given quite a few concerts, and we’ve played together a lot, we’d never previously done a full set of just improvising. The idea of listening before you play is so present here, as is the way in which everybody comes up with ideas where interplay is the focus. I called the album Affirmation, where you have to trust yourself and trust the others just as much”
Freely improvised music, of course, has long been part of Andersen’s work method, all the way back to collaborations with Jan Garbarek and Edward Vesala in the Triptykon project, or the energetic interaction in Sam Rivers’s trio in the early 1970s. Now his new group also rises to the challenge in its own way, subtly finding and shaping forms in the moment. For the listener’s convenience, index points indicate where the music takes on a new direction. But the best way to hear Affirmation is to follow it from the outset.
Andersen’s bass sets ideas in motion from the first moment of “Affirmation Part I”, ideas soon embellished by Lien’s rippling piano and Mjåset Johansen’s gentle splashes of cymbal colour. When Marius Neset enters, initially to meditate on an iterative motif, Arild envelops it in an almost orchestral embrace, first with bowed bass then briefly with his pedal-generated sounds, blending acoustic and electronic timbres. The music keeps unfolding.
The quartet has a lot of options at its disposal. The musicians know how to use space, how to hold back and maintain tension, but each of them also has a strong rhythmic sensibility. All four of them are driving the ensemble, in fact, and equally all four are soloists; together, they reach some powerful peaks. “Affirmation Part II” takes off from Mjåset Johansen’s drumming, soon developing into a lively three way conversation with Andersen and Lien before Neset’s entrance, intensifying the energetic feel – maintained until the final section of the improvised music which unwinds in an elegiac atmosphere. Andersen’s “Short Story”, a strongly melodic piece, concludes the album.
Arild Andersen has been an ECM recording artist since 1970, making his debut with the Jan Garbarek Quartet on Afric Pepperbird, long regarded as a classic of the new jazz. Acknowledged as one of the great jazz bassists – “my goal has always been to make the double bass sing” – he’s also an insightful bandleader whose ensembles over the decades have brought many significant improvisers to a wider public. In the present Andersen Group, Arild (born 1945) is joined by Norwegian players of the next two generations – Helge Lien and Håkon Mjåset Johansen (both born in 1975) and Marius Neset (born 1985). Neset and Lien are also bandleaders in their own right, and Mjåset Johansen is one of the most in-demand drummers on the scene, working across a wide range of contexts in groups large and small.
Marius Neset has been hailed as a major instrumental voice, with The Guardian comparing the power of his sound with Michael Brecker’s. A dynamic player, Neset learned drums before taking up the saxophone and a strong rhythmic feeling is at the core of much of his work. He has recorded for labels including Edition, ACT and Chandos. Latterly he has also drawn praise for his compositions, recorded with, among others, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta.
Helge Lien grew up influenced by both jazz and Scandinavian folk music, synthesizing these elements in his popular trio, described by Dagbladet as “the best Norwegian piano trio in a long time.” His many credits include work with Tri O’Trang, Silje Nergaard, and Arild Andersen’s trio, as well as a duo project with dobro player Knut Hem. In addition to musical activities, Lien is a passionate photographer, and the liner photos in the Affirmation booklet are his.
Håkon Mjåset Johansen, from Trondheim, came to the attention of the jazz public with the band Motif whose line-up included Mathias Eick and Ole Morten Vågan. He has had a long association with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, and worked with its guest soloists including Chick Corea and Seamus Blake.
Affirmation is released as the Arild Andersen Group takes to the road for a new round of concerts.