Chicago Reader

The rustic minimalism of Norwegian trio Ballrogg

by Peter Margasak 

The three members of terrific Norwegian trio In the Country, who play the Hideout on Wednesday, all keep busy with side projects. Not only is keyboardist and composer Morten Qvenild the "Orchestra" in Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, he plays in the rock band the National Bank and works regularly with singer Solveig Slettahjell (to say nothing of his stints in Shining and Jaga Jazzist). Drummer Paal Hausken has also worked with Susanna Wallumrød as well as singer Hilde Marie Kjersem and jazz quartet Bull of the Year. Bassist Roger Arntzen is no less busy, playing in electric jazz quartet Chrome Hill and the ever-evolving Ballrogg. That last project, which he started with reedist Klaus Ellerhausen Holm, has just released its third album, Cabin Music (Hubro), and once again the group's sound is transformed.
When Ballrogg debuted in 2008 as a duo, it was essentially a jazz project, mixing lovely originals with tunes by Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, but its second album two years later was much less genre specific, exploring minimalist sound and the influence of composers such as Morton Feldman and Philip Glass. A variety of guest musicians, including string players Ole-Henrik Moe and Kari Ronnekleiv (aka Sheriffs of Nothingness), broadened the record's palette, but the overall approach remained lucid and focused, with the austerity balanced by a rustic feel. On Cabin Music the duo has become a trio with the addition of Ivar Grydeland (Huntsville, Les Dans les Arbres), and his work on guitar, banjo, and pedal steel exerts a huge impact on Ballrogg's sound.

Arntzen continues to provide the music's pulse and backbone, with crisp, articulate lines and a warm, woody tone; the other two musicians alternate between intricate, interwoven ensemble patterns and terse soloistic passages. Some pieces on the new album are episodic—"Sliding Doors" traipses through multiple moods, tempos, and textures—and others, such as "Swedish Country" (which you can check out below), feel more sustained and unified even as they drift from idea to idea.

Thanks largely to Grydeland's patient but liquid playing, I'm reminded of the great Austrian trio Trapist—who release their first album in seven years, The Golden Years (Staubgold), on June 15—even though Ballrogg lacks a drummer. Ellerhausen Holm contributes electronics and field recordings as well as his usual alto saxophone and clarinet; the beautiful long tones, frictive pops, and electronic-sounding swoops he can create with his reeds blend wonderfully with Grydeland's guitars.

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