A Christmas album. Of all the CDs and LPs I have, the grand total certainly having passed the 5000 items mark, it just had to be a Christmas album that has stayed at #1 of my all-time best list, ever since it came out. You have to read this properly, so you get the importance of that statement. I have close to 44 meters of neatly arranged music, I have downright eclectic taste, I’ve been known to switch my listening habits on a whim, radically, and everyone who’s ever been to my place knows how freakishly broad the musical range they’ll be subjected to can be. “It’s Snowing on My Piano” is still in the top spot. After 8 years of its existence.
A Christmas album of all things.
And, it gets worse.
I listen to this album all year round, when the early rays of spring reach my living room window, when my thermometer is about to burst at 40 degrees Celsius in the summer, when it’s pouring down outside in the fall and, of course, I listen to it almost exclusively from December until January. For once I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this CD, which I have thrice, has been played more than a 1000 times … since 1998, only a few years away. It has become part of my life and always travels along when I’m absent from home for an extended period of time.
I’m also not kidding when I admit that I used to have a standing order with a supplier who sent me batches of this CD whenever I needed to replenish the reservoir I take presents from whenever I need them. I actually kept a list once to make sure I didn’t give someone the CD twice, although, of course, there would not have been anything wrong with doing that. Every person who has ever invited me, received a present from me or got a small “Thank You!” note for helping me out with something got a copy of this CD. Every single person.
To top it off, this CD is the only one I can do concentrated work to. As a teacher I have to do some extensive correcting, especially of complicated (and sometimes close to illegible) higher-level exams and tests, and by now, I need this CD to do get that work done. I ripped it to my harddrive at the best possible lossless quality and set it to repeat, and it might well play up to 10 times before I’m done.
Just call me nuts, but this recording is such a rare thing of beauty, of sublime artistry, of downright perfect interpretation, improvisiation and minimalism that it is simply impossible to explain. It’s got to be heard and, most importantly, experienced. You need to sit down one quiet night, in front of a good pair of speakers powered by a warm amp, have a glass of very good wine or a steaming cup of tea or coffee … and listen with your heart.
Although I’ve never ever encountered anyone who didn’t like it, there might well be many people out there who don’t. You know how it is with things one loves to death: When you present them to someone else, the beauty or the importance of the thing are all but lost on them. A depressing experience at times, but with this CD it hasn’t happened to me yet. I’ve had punk rockers decline, only to tell me months later that they thought it was actually pretty good (a huge compliment), I’ve had people who hate the piano say to me that this CD is maybe the one they could live with, and I’ve had people fall into the chorus, praising this CD to the high heavens.
Yes, it’s that good.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself here, as usual.
Bugge Wesseltoft from Norway is the man who recorded this album and, to be quite honest, I didn’t really have a clue who that was until I bought this CD. Of course, due to my interest in Scandinavian music, I had heard the name before, but it didn’t really tell me anything.
Not that “It’s Snowing on My Piano” is the archetypical Wesseltoft album, quite the contrary actually, but it has brought this man a lot closer to my heart and has made me develop a deeper interest in what he has done or does.
In the early 1990s, Wesseltoft was a member of Arild Andersen’s band and participated in Andersen’s commission to Vossajazz (a Norwegian Jazz Festival), “Sagn” (first performed April 7, 1990), which was published by ECM, and, towards the end of that year, he participated in Jan Garbarek’s commission to The Molde Jazz Festival, “Molde Canticle”, another recording for ECM.
After having been a member of the often changing Terje Rypdal Quintet in 1991 and of Jon Eberson’s Jazzpunkensemble (together with Nils Petter Molvær, who will be featured on this site sooner than you think), he entered his own commission to Vossa Jazz entitled “A Little War Story”. That same year, he participated on Sidsel Endresen’s commission to The Molde Jazz Festival (again, an ECM recording) and in 1994 he could be heard on Arild Andersen’s recording “Arv” and released “Nightsong” with Sidsel Endresen.
1995 is the year in which Bugge Wesseltoft stepped out. That year he formed his own band, the now almost legendary “New Conception of Jazz” (the first CD release was awarded a Norwegian Grammy in 1996) and founded his own label, “Jazzland”.
Jazzland, according to Wesseltoft, was founded in order to have a label for his first solo recording, but since then, it has made it possible for him to introduce audiences outside of Norway to Norwegian music centered around a mix of electronic and acoustic music, especially since the distribution of Jazzland recordings was picked up by Polygram Music, opening up markets in France, Germany and other places around Europe and the world. Norwegian Jazz has thus been able to gain a foothold outside of this otherwise very small country.
From 1996 until 1998, Wesseltoft was extremely busy recording and touring with legendary drummer Billy Cobham (Billy Cobham: “Nordic”. Rhythmatix Records, Rhythm 101, CD, Norway 1996), releasing “Duplex Ride” with Sidsel Endresen, participating in the award-winning album “Rites” by Jan Garbarek, and, last but not least, hooking up with Norway’s deep-house / techno / ambient scene with leading club DJ’s and artists DJ Strangefruit, Abstract, and Illumination & Mental Overdrive.
That same year, in 1998, Wesseltoft released his second album with his “New Conception of Jazz”, “Sharing”, and toured extensively, a tour which culminated in a weekend “Jazzland Session” at Oslo’s “Blaa” club, together with Mark Ledford, Eivind Aarset, Richard Thomas, as well as Norway’s DJ elite. BLAA, by the way, is an independent club in Oslo for live, contemporary “jazz and related sounds” which opened in February of 1998, addressing the acute demand for music resources in the capital, and rapidly grew into the largest club of its kind in Scandinavia.
Hitting the Scene:
In 1999, “Sharing” was launched internationally and extensive touring followed. That year, “Existence” was remixed (by Chilluminati) and became a worldwide deep-house/chill anthem, licensed to the best selling Cafe del Mar, the label from that relaxing terrace in Ibiza (San Antonio), specializing in ambient music. Another remix, “You Might Say” (remixed by Andreas Dorau) topped the German Dance charts, and Bugge’s original “Feel Good” was playlisted by Gilles Peterson (BBC)
In 2000, “Jazzland Remixed” was released to worldwide critical & club acclaim and was followed by an extensive worldwide tour, notably The Montreux Jazz Festival, the London & Drum Rhythm Festival (Holland) with Gilles Peterson, and with several TV and club appearances. As the title indicates, this was a remix project of the Jazzland catalogue, including remixes by Chilluminati, Les Gammas, Andreas Dorau, Bugge Wesseltoft, Sternklang and Motion Control, among others. The project was released both on CD and vinyl, and the latter edition was a double pack with two 12″ including 7 of the tracks from the CD.
2001 then saw the release of Wesseltoft’s solo album, Moving”, which was followed by more cooperations, for example on Sidsel Endresen’s “Out Here. In There”.
“Moving” is described in a review by BBC Online:
Whatever, this music avoids the usual chilly atmospherics associated with Nordic jazz; the band set up infectious, often house-derived grooves which, coupled with Wesseltoft’s plangent electric piano on the opening “Change”, superficially echo the likes of St Germain, except that the improvisational skills on show here are miles ahead of the usual jazz housers. Wesseltoft is the featured soloist throughout but he’s more interested in episodic bursts and textures than thematic development; his synth stylings on the almost-techno title track recall ambient pioneers Cluster. “Yellow is the Colour” features Hakon Kornstad’s Pharoah Sanders-esque tenor stylings and is simply beautiful – a sampladelic recasting of classic Impulse jazz which sounds completely unforced. Ingebrigt Flaten’s springy, warm double bass playing is a joy throughout. Beautiful.
Since then, we’ve had the relase of “New Conceptions of Jazz Live” (2003) and his most recent release, “New Conception of Jazz: Film Ing”, thought by many to be his best outing in the New Conceptions series.
Throughout his career, Wesseltoft has largely been involved in electronic music. He has been heard saying that electronic music, especially techno, which he considers to be progressive music, has changed his approach to composing, because everything starts with a beat. What he and his band then try to do, and this he considers to be the basis of his music, is play like a DJ. The music is meant for dancing and they try to get a good vibe going with the audience – communication of sorts, which is enhanced by dynamics revolving around the ever-present beat. There isn’t so much composition involved: “It really starts with small ideas, and we just play from there and try to make good music.”
This electronic side of Wesseltoft is one that is interesting and has, by many, been heralded as “the future of jazz”. I wouldn’t quite agree, especially if you look at E.S.T. (Esbjoern Svensson Trio) or Nils Petter Molvaer, both about to be featured on this site, who are in my mind more capable of integrating classic and modern forms of jazz, but Wesseltoft’s music is a possible future for jazz.
I do agree with Wesseltoft, who once said that “no interesting music has come out of America in 20 years.” He was referring, of course, to the sometimes numbing traditionalism in American jazz, but also to the widespread adherence to commercialism, which often stifles new ideas.
All in all, Wesseltoft, E.S.T and Molvaer are still spearheading a Scandinavian movement which has impacted and will continue to influence jazz enormously in the future, not least because this modern style of electronic jazz is capable of introducing jazz to a generation which hasn’t been in contact with it very much.
“It’s Snowing on My Piano”: A Masterpiece
“Where is that CD you were referring to at the beginning?”, you’re probably asking yourself by now.
“It’s Snowing on My Piano”, recorded on two days in October of 1997, is Bugge Wesseltoft’s first and only solo piano recording and, in my opinion, his best recording thus far. Completely removed from all electronic styles, it is an extremely intimate recording of 12 Christmas songs. It is also a true masterpiece of European music and musicianship.
That Wesseltoft dared to record this material is astonishing enough, considering his background, but the result is an absolutely stellar achievement. He removes the “kitsch” that has been surrounding these songs ever since they were discovered by record companies as annual aural attacks on the present-buying public, and songs such as “In Dulce Jubilo”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, “What Child is This (Greensleeves)” and those Scandinavian and German timeless songs close to my heart are restored to what they once were and should be today – almost meditative pieces, embellished with silence and a particular Scandinavian sentiment, both of which restore the beauty of the songs.
There isn’t one single note too many on this recording; there are long-sounding chords, which are held, single soaring notes and quiet improvisation, both of which are simply hypnotic. It is moody at times, it opens up a barren but beautiful Scandinavian landscape before the mind’s eye and manages to warm the heart at the same time. When listened to closely several times, the simplicity and beauty of the sometimes extremely contemplative and thus spellbinding improvisation is astonishing. To me it seems as if, from my past experience with recordings of these songs, Bugge Wesseltoft is the one single being on the planet that has managed to capture their soul. I have no idea what the recording situation was like, but I have never heard a more relaxed-sounding CD than this one. You can almost hear the snow drizzling down outside and I like to imagine a candle-lit, warm and cozy studio in which the sound engineer is perhaps the only person present, equally absorbed by the beauty literally pouring from the instrument. As it was recorded in October, it was probably raining cats and dogs though.
After having listened to this CD a thousand times, I have one small problem with it. The title track, “It’s Snowing on My Piano”, the opener written by Bugge Wesseltoft which is mirrored by the closing tune, “Into Eternal Silence”, does not entirely convey the sheer charme and elegance of the recording. Mind you, it’s an absolutely wonderful piece, but knowing that today’s consumers usually only listen to track 1 before making a purchase decision, I recommend skipping it and taking in everything from track two onwards to see if you like this CD. Return to track 1 after you’ve heard the core of the CD, and the bookends will become the integral part they were meant to be.
You know the kind of questions one gets asked once in a while: Which concert, recording session or event in music history would you have liked to be present at? I love Duke Ellington and Basie, Miles Davis and Bill Evans, Teddy Wilson and Ray Brown, Janis Joplin and Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Status Quo and Thin Lizzy, the Sex Pistols and The Stiff Little Fingers, but my answer invariably comes faster than any note on “It’s Snwoing on My Piano”: I would have loved to be sitting next to Bugge Wesseltoft, at a respectful distance, watching him record this masterpiece. One day I will attend one of Bugge Wesseltoft’s concerts, try to seek him out afterwards and give him a quiet hug for having put this music into my life.
You think all of this is hyperbole?
To me it ain’t.
If there is such a thing as an afterlife, I’m going to drop by at my own funeral, just to hear “In Dulce Jubilo” one last time and take it with me. On second thought, I might hang around for the rest as well.
I hope that’s possible.
I don’t want to go wherever we go when we’re done with an angry frown wrinkling my forehead.
Music simply does not get any better than this.
It just doesn’t.
Bugge Wesseltoft: This is the “official” Jazzland Bugge Wesseltoft profile.
Jazzland Recordings: The site for Bugge Wesseltoft’s own record label with links to all the artists, some sound files, profiles and an extensive news section.
ACT: The label Wesseltoft recorded “It’s Snowing on My Piano” for, with some basic information and a soundfile to listen to.