The recently departed Lou Reed once said: “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” Reed was pointing to the raw power of the three-chord song (or, some would argue, merely the D chord), and joking about jazz’s complexity. A young Bob Dylan was less kind: “I don’t think jazz has ever appealed to the younger generation. Anyway, I don’t really know who this younger generation is. I don’t think they could get into a jazz club anyway. But jazz is hard to follow; I mean you actually have to like jazz to follow it: and my motto is, never follow anything.” Dylan may have just been taking potshots at leftist bohemians in New York, but his observation typifies a common attitude towards jazz music.
It must be asked: How did an American art form, swelled up from the impoverished roots of the Southern black experience, come to be seen as easy listening for the old intellectual elite? Why do people think jazz is pretentious? And who’s to blame for this misconception? Purist blues and folk almost had the same stigma, if not for the fact that much of rock is built on these two pillars, and its structure lends itself better to creating earworms. With the major exception of track sampling as found in rap and hip-hop, jazz has had no such fortune. If someone questions the divisive nature of the genre, do this: put on the genius Charlie Parker at an everyman get-together. Watch as the eyes dash with confusion, the look that asks: “Why are you playing this?”
Those looking to reclaim Jazz or Blues from the hands of the elitist would at first be suspicious of Stein Urheim, an avant-garde musician from Norway with a penchant for experimentation. At first glance Urheim’s work seems like a dream of the stereotypical turtleneck sweater-wearing, IQ84-raving intelligentsia; music for the type of people who occasionally snap their fingers while sipping hard-to-pronounce tea. This would be the case, if the music wasn’t so good, and Urheim wasn’t so talented. Indeed, his self-titled fourth album is not classifiable in any traditionalist mold. There is a little bit of everything, all done extremely well, and it creates moods which mere words can’t conjure. Though he is considered a jazz musician, he brings in many elements from other genres to create a breathtaking mixture in five lengthy songs.
Urheim is an accomplished musician. He not only plays guitar, but the harmonica, fretless bouzouki, gu qin, mandolin, flutes, and langeleik. The album starts with Kosmoloda. Thick guitar pickings straight from the Delta come up, riffing, like some reincarnated bluesman surrounded by a ghostly whisper. The next song, After The Festival, is a flamenco-ish breezy cafe tune, featuring embellished electric guitars. The middle section sounds like, if you could imagine, a luau in Spain. Tensions build and a gorgeous melody arrives, effortlessly repeating in a folk melody you can’t quite place, but it immediately ingrains itself into your memory.
Urheim thrives at crafting vivid, atmospheric soundscapes in the mind. On his track Watch The View, the listener is immediately transported into the sounds of nature, with guitars alternating between comfort and menace with equal skill. Gurgling organ-like phrases pass through the mix in the latter half, contrasting nicely with the panicking, complicated finger picking. The next song, Bejing Blues, is a successful fusion of Old Shanghai and a riverboat on the Mississippi. When the harmonica comes in, all BB King cool, with those thick heavy drums straight out of Chicago, the beat moves you to the bone. Suddenly Hong Kong is New Orleans, and the structure intensifies. It’s a technique Urheim is fond of using. It’s as if he treats the beginning of a song as a rough starting point to be tightened into a different track altogether throughout its duration. The end effect is one of never being bored, and each work possessing its own unique sonic journey.
The last song, Great Distances, evokes The Doors‘ classic End Of The Night. Both feature heavy reverb and moody, twanging guitar strings that create a dream-like sensation. Touches of Ennio Morricone’s famous spaghetti western scores weave through as well. After it ends, the average listener will still have to contend with their own taste and what they require in their music. Do they need words? Singing? Those turned off to open-ended songcraft will find little solace here. However, someone open to new experiences will be rewarded accordingly. It’s more than three chords, but Stein Urheim has created a great album of raw feeling all the same.