Terje Rypdal’s Vossabrygg op.84 is a stunning piece of work, because not only does the Norwegian guitarist and his stellar supporting cast of Nordic jazz luminaries manage to evoke the sound and feeling of Miles Davis’ masterpiece Bitches Brew, they build on that, track by track, fulfilling the spiritual and emotional promise of Davis’ music by taking the music to new places. Unlike many tributes to the Dark Magus, Miles might have enjoyed Rypdal’s work because rather than merely revisit something that had already been done, it builds on that music and that spirit, creating a work that is both reminiscent of the most interesting aspects of Davis’ work while at the same time moving beyond that work to a more personal statement.
Rypdal’s ensemble here is incredible: Bugge Wesseltoft plays electric piano and synth, while Stale Storlokken plays the same plus Hammond organ. Bjorn Kjellemyr plays both electric and acoustic basses, and there are two drummers: Paolo Vinaccia and ECM stalwart Jon Christensen. Rypdal’s son, Marius, provides electronics, samples, and turntables, helping to move Miles’ sound to the next level, and at times helping to recreate the editing of Teo Macero.
The final piece of the puzzle is Palle Mikkelborg, who ‘stands in’ for Miles on trumpet. Mikkelborg doesn’t emulate the density of Miles’ effects-laden trumpet playing, even though he has his own bag of sonic tricks. Rather, he insinuates his presence with a great deal of space punctuated by crystal clear statements. And then there’s Terje Rypdal himself, offering some of his finest guitar work in a while. Rypdal plays in a style all his own, not emulating any of the great guitarists that Miles worked with during his electronic years. One has to suppose that the reason Rypdal plays this type of music so well is that it allows him to play at his best.
Things start off firmly in Davis territory, with “Ghostdancing,” a track that uses the feel, structure, and some of the same riffs as “Pharoah’s Dance,” the Joe Zawinul composition that leads of Bitches Brew. In fact, the first notes heard are the familiar fluttering electric piano notes underscorded by a relentless, but muted drumbeat of that track. But as the tune opens up (it’s eighteen and a half minutes long, so there’s plenty of breathing room) it manages to emulate not only Bitches Brew, but other Davis works such as In a Silent Way. Rypdal’s solo really opens things up—it’s somewhat reminiscent of his earlier work. Then it shifts back to the ‘Pharoah’s Dance,” mimicking Teo Macero’s original edit that replayed the opening section of the work in a very early example of sampling, before the keyboards take over and ride it into another dimension. And there are other periodic reminders of the apparent source of Rypdal’s inspiration: the floating, spacey Zawinul-esque electric piano and energetic drumming on “That’s More Like It,” the heavy guitar work over spacey atmospherics on “You’re Making It Personal.”
But there are other things happening here as well, things that don’t come directly from Miles, but rather from the spirit that he evoked. For example, the samples on “Hidden Chapter” create additional textures that don’t require bringing in extra musicians—choral samples, a violin loop create new vistas just as surely as the electronics these musicians and their listeners now take as a given. Over a grandiose, almost progressive rock landscape Rypdal pitches his electric guitar, playing in as rock-oriented a style as he has ever done.
In honoring musicians who have stretched the vocabulary of the electric guitar with effects and loops—Robert Fripp, Bill Frisell—one cannot forget Terje Rypdal. Vossabrygg allows him to return to fertile territory without merely retracing his past experiments. “Waltz for Broken Hearts/Makes You Wonder” is the disc’s supreme lyrical statement. The first half features Mikkelborg’s gloriously lonesome trumpet statement, while Rypdal and bassist Kjellemyr get to play pretty in the second half. “Incognito Traveller” stutters along on a drum n’ bass rhythm, some samples and plenty of electronic effects. Near the end, even as Terje Rypdal and Palle Mikkelborg explode into skittering shards of sound, samples provide a chordal structure that implies a sweeping cinematic scale. The brief “Key Witness” sounds very much like the kind of sonic experiment that Radiohead has increasingly explored on their last few outings. This type of electronics-as-sound experiment has some parallels with free jazz as well.
In fact, one could say that there are four major stops in this performance: “Ghostdancing,” “Waltz For Broken Hearts/Makes You Wonder,” “That’s More Like It,” and “You’re Making It Personal,” and that each of these performances is linked by several smaller, often more experimental soundscapes. Recorded live in 2003 at the Vossa Jazz Festival in Norway, Vossabryg op. 84 is an extraordinary accomplishment: it both evokes one of the more groundbreaking jazz innovations of the past while using that link to create vital music that can move today’s listeners equally well.