Nils Økland pushes traditional Norwegian folk in hypnotic new directions | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Nils Økland pushes traditional Norwegian folk in hypnotic new directions

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There are few sounds that hypnotize me more than the Hardanger fiddle, a traditional Norwegian violin fitted with additional strings that run beneath the fret board, generating a dense web of ghostly overtones. In its purest manifestation music for the instrument deploys regional dance rhythms, but those slicing lines are gorgeously clouded by a sympathetic resonance that rings articulated patterns in spooky acoustic shadows. The remarkable Nils Økland has built a career by transplanting the Hardanger into other modes, developing a hybrid informed by moody jazz, contemporary classical, and free improvisation. His early solo records are daring explorations of the instrument’s dazzling sonic possibilities, and over the years he’s been involved with a number of disparate projects to recast the instrument. His wonderfully draggy trio 1982—which includes keyboardist Sigbjørn Apeland and drummer Øyvind Skarbø—has a brand-new album, Chromola (Hubro), that pushes into a spacey and psychedelic realm, while the eponymous 2014 album from Lumen Drones recalls the grinding poetry of the Dirty Three. But it’s Økland’s quintet that covers the widest range, enfolding meditative melodies, delicate harmonies, and affecting rhythms into one brooding whole. As heard on the stunning 2015 album Kjølvatn (ECM), Økland plays a conventional violin and baroque-era viola d’amore in addition to the Hardanger, and his lines are embroidered by the saxophones of killer improviser Rolf-Erik Nystrom (who also works in the bold new-music trio Poing), the lush harmonium drones of Sigbjørn Apeland, the dolorous bass lines of jazz player Mats Eilertsen, and the muted vibraphone and low-end thuds of expert new-music percussionist Håkon Mørch Stene. Økland played Chicago once before as a member of a group led by accordionist Frode Haltli, but this marks his long-overdue debut as a leader. It’s one of a handful of U.S. gigs built around appearances at next weekend’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville.   v

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