Trygve Seim - Going for a sound


Call them the advance party. When Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim and accordionist Frode Haltli appear in Glasgow International Jazz Festival’s two-day contemporary music strand ENvision 2006 this weekend, they’ll be making a case for someone/anyone to bring Seim’s larger ensemble to Scotland.


I wouldn’t bet against them succeeding. Seim’s music can be very persuasive. Some months ago, when I was reviewing his latest album, Sangam, a senior member of staff on this very newspaper phoned to ask if I had a contact number for a colleague and made some disparaging remark about the music playing in the background.


Sangam may not have pop music’s ready appeal – where fellow Norwegian Jan Garbarek’s music is said to speak of his country’s fjords, Seim’s fantastically atmospheric compositions evoke the whole flora and fauna. But its serene majesty can get its hooks into you and by the time I’d fetched the requested phone number, my caller was ready to buy the album.


Seim was a late starter in music compared to his fellow students at Trondheim Conservatory. He was thirteen or fourteen, with musical tastes leaning more towards The Police and Bob Marley, when he heard saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s Eventyr album and was moved to try and recreate the sounds he was hearing.


"My father wasn’t a musician but he had a saxophone that he’d played as a hobby at one time and it was lying around not being used anymore," he says. "So I picked it up and started to try and play it. The sound maybe wasn’t so great at first but I took lessons and by the time I left school I really only wanted to study music."


At Trondheim he fell in with the trumpeter Arve Henriksen, now in constant demand internationally but still one of the crucial voices in Seim’s ensemble. He also met trombonist Oyvind Braekke and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen who, alongside Seim, form the nucleus of The Source, one of the most inspired groups to come out of Norway in the past decade.


"Before our generation went there, Trondheim was already known for producing good jazz musicians," he says. "Nils Petter Molvaer, who’s now quite famous for his ambient and club-beat style of music was a student there and he came back to play to us with the band Masqualero, which was a great example for us. We could see that, from the conservatory, we could go on to bigger things."


The classic example for Norwegian musicians of Seim’s generation had been his first influence, Garbarek. With his music selling in vast quantities internationally through the ECM label, Garbarek showed younger Norwegians that it was possible to be a jazz musician without following the American model.


"Some musicians of my age at home disagree with the concept of Norwegian or European jazz and prefer to play the American way, using the standard repertoire and so forth, but for me it’s important to find your own voice," says Seim. "I listen to Arve Henriksen and he sounds like no one else. His sound is so human and so expressive."


Like Henriksen, whose style owes more than a little to traditional Japanese flute techniques, which he has studied extensively, Seim has found his own voice through folk music, notably Armenian, Indian and Chinese wind instruments. Indeed, when we spoke, he was in Cairo, studying the Arabian scale system and preparing to play concerts in a trio with Frode Haltli and Fathy Salama, the pianist and record producer who piloted Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour’s widely acclaimed Egypt album.


"As a student, of course, I learned from the American jazz masters and learned to play the established jazz repertoire but after a while I became disenchanted with certain aspects of jazz," he says. "There was a preoccupation with technique, which I think can be very off-putting. It got so it was like a sport with a rhythm behind it. It was about showing off without trying to find a deeper meaning in what you’re playing. Then I heard the Indian flute player Hariprasad Chaurasia and that was a real turning point. I hate to say this but I don’t think I’ve bought a jazz album since then, unless you count Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now – I love those arrangements."


Another turning point was touring with the pianist Jon Balke’s Oslo 13, an eleven-piece ensemble that made a big impression on the then twenty-year-old Seim.


"I joined in about 1991, just after they’d released the Nonsentration CD, and I thought, Wow, you can make really interesting music with this sort of instrumentation. Shortly afterwards I heard the Finnish drummer Edward Vesala’s Sound & Fury album, with that wild mixture of clarinets and saxophones and accordion. And at first it was a shocking experience but the more I listened to it, the more I heard in it and I was determined to have a bigger group of my own."


What’s become known – over this conversation at least – as the Sangam Ensemble is a tribute to Seim’s patient dedication. By the time the ensemble recorded its first album, Different Rivers, in 2000, Seim had taken his initial ideas through dozens of refinements, replacing double bass with tuba and constantly rewriting the music to get the voicings for saxophones, brass, clarinets, strings, french horn, accordion and percussion just right.


When the time came to record Sangam, the accordionist who appeared on the previous album was unavailable. Frode Haltli stepped in, the soulful longing in his sound quickly proving compatible with Seim’s orchestrations, and the pair have been working together as a duo and in Seim’s bigger group ever since.


"With the large ensemble everything is written from A to Z, so in the duo, although we play some of the music from Sangam and Different Rivers, we’re more spontaneous," says Seim. "There’s a lot of folk music in what we do – Oriental and even some Swedish influences - and I’m always working at getting more of a wooden flute kind of sound from the saxophone, a more folky sound. Because to me it’s more personal and that’s important in music where, really, it’s all about communicating with people." 


From The Herald, June 30, 2006.


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