BJ Cole isn’t fussy about who he plays his pedal steel guitar with. From Beck, Björk and John Cale to Olivia Newton John and Paul Young, the list of those he’s worked with is, to say the least, eclectic.
Yet as well as being a varied session musician, Cole’s solo work has been equally diverse and surprising. In 1989, he released the well-received Transparent Music with long-term collaborator, Guy Jackson, which featured covers of Ravel and Debussy played on an instrument usually found on country albums. Indeed, Cole has also taken his pedal steel into the worlds of techno (2000’s Stop the Clock) and drum ‘n’ bass (2004’s Trouble in Paradise).
But now, Cole has ventured into the lesser known world of Norwegian avant-garde instrumentals, thanks to a collaboration with the Bergen-based 1982. Cole and the Norwegian trio had previously played together for a session on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction and, with an urge to invite someone to play with them, Hardanger fiddle player Nils Økland – whose solo work has featured on record label ECM – remembered Cole. The band contacted him and eventually they spent a day together in Bergen’s Grieg Hall studio, which overlooks the North Sea. The result of that day’s recording is a series of soundscapes that would complement Bergenser and Norwegian life.
Opening track 09:03 (you can figure out how long it is) creates a placid atmosphere, with Sigbjørn Apeland’s harmonium and Økland’s fiddle merging while Cole adds a soaring yet peaceful backdrop: images of hazy skies, shrouding the towering Bergen mountains conjured. 01:06 features Cole more prominently, taking a lead with his warm playing while drummer Øyvind Skarbø and Økland chip in spontaneously, adding depth and contrasting tempos. Indeed, in 03:43, Cole’s unhurried playing is supported by jagged, cutting fiddle and high-pitched harmonium, creating an environment that appears tranquil but has a Scandinavian sense of underlying darkness.
What is most notable about 1982 + BJ Cole is considering the amount of improvisation, the short recording time and the difference in instruments, it often comes together in a rather polished fashion. 05:21 best exemplifies this through its systematic build-up, beginning with Cole’s laidback playing before introducing Økland, Skarbø and finally Apeland’s harmonium, which consumes the pedal steel and prompts further unpredictable turns in rhythm. What you get is akin to a fishing trip: gradually setting out to sea, hitting the waves for the prime catch, the struggle and the eventual calm return to shore.
Album closer 02:59 offers something more straightforward, with a natural ebb and flow between all four, resulting in something far less structured and more jazz-like improvisation, complemented particularly by Skarbø’s drumming. But it’s Cole’s pedal steel that stands out particularly, with instinctive virtuoso bursts wrestling control before retreating into the background to let others do the work.
With 1982 + BJ Cole, you come away with not only a recognition of the Norwegian avant-garde, but an appreciation of Cole’s versatility and ability to ply that pedal steel of his with anyone – with very pleasing results. Økland’s hunch was the right one.