by Howard Lawes
The word Yūgen comes from the Japanese and can be defined as "An awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words".
Norwegian trumpeter Marius Gjersø has used this word as the title for his new album acknowledging the impact that Japan has had on him during and after his travels around the country. In fact, each of the nine tracks on the album has a title in Japanese that conveys a feeling or state of mind and a helpful booklet is supplied with the album giving both a translation and explanation.
Listen to the track Komorebi (The Sun Seemed Warmer Then) here.
The music itself may be described as ‘ambient’, a term that was first coined by Brian Eno to describe a "variety of expansive, sonic, constructions". Eno's 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, although not the first album of ambient music, was the first to declare itself as such and apart from the title was notable for the use of tape loops, a technique pioneered by the American composer, Steve Reich. Eno wanted to create background music that was both original and intellectually satisfying in contrast to the ubiquitous muzak which seemed to pervade every public space at the time. Eric Tamm in his book Brian Eno : His Music (1989) described Eno's music as "surrounding the listener with a sense of spaciousness" while Eno himself was of the opinion that "ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting". Other notable examples of ambient music include Through the Looking Glass by Japanese percussionist Midori Takada, first released in 1983 and Selected Ambient Works Vol. II (1994) by Aphex Twin (a.k.a. Richard D. James) which is entirely computer generated.
You can listen to Mr Henri Rousseau's Dream from Through The Looking Glass here.
The early use of electronics in jazz is often credited to Miles Davis creating a style called ‘jazz fusion’ typified by albums such as In A Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1969). John Fordham describes Bitches Brew as "The most influential of all fusion records of the late ‘60s, and one that uses studio editing as creatively as any other technique. Davis blurs the distinction of frontlines and rhythm sections ever further, turning the whole band into a restless, spacey generator of funky rhythmic textures, through which soloists loom and vanish like ghosts". Marcus J. Moore writes of In A Silent Way saying: "its hybrid of acoustic and electronic sound leads to something gorgeous and ambient, active yet serene". An early example of ambient music in jazz is the 1977 album Dis released on ECM featuring Jan Garbarek on reeds and Ralph Towner on guitar. While one track includes music from a brass ensemble it is the use of a wind harp that gives this album the distinctive properties defined by Brian Eno, evoking the wide open spaces of coastal Norway and incorporating the Garbarek trademark tinge of folk music. In 2000 the album Solid Ether by Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer revisits jazz fusion in what was described in a Jazzwise review as "a compound of Miles's funk density and fierce intensity with influences drawn from European jazz and contemporary ambient/dance music". Molvaer went on to release further albums of jazz soundscapes referred to as ambient or nu-jazz.
Here is a video of Nils Petter Molvaer playing Solid Ether at the Hamburg Jazzport Festival in 2001.
Now trumpeter Marius Gjersø continues this tradition of Norwegian ambient jazz with his album Yūgen on which Marius also provides FX (effects) while Kaja Fjellberg Pettersen plays cello, Sebastien Haugen, double bass and Jo Berger Myhre, electric bass. All tracks were composed by Marius Gjersø, engineering and production by Marius Gjersø and Viljar Losnegard with additional guitar and production from Stian Larsen. Talking on the phone from Oslo where he was at home looking after his two children Marius described his own musical education, playing classical music on the trumpet. Like many children in Norway, he was a member of a school marching band and he now directs three such bands himself. In high school he started to play jazz, inspired by Chet Baker and then went on to study musicology and jazz in conservatoires in Paris and Oslo, and has recently completed a course of electronics in music. Marius has been working as musician, composer and producer in Norway for over a decade working with such diverse bands as kÖök known for electronic ambient and experimental jazz; the energetic horns and vocal unit Blåsemafian and the hugely successful South Asian-inspired hip-hop urban dance group Quick Style. Working with such an eclectic mix of musicians it was perhaps unsurprising that on a trip to Japan, Marius Gjersø became enthralled by the calm and serenity of the country's lifestyle and culture.
On his return to Norway and over a long period of enforced lockdown Marius Gjersø has endeavoured, in his music, to capture the feelings and emotions that were engendered in him by Japanese culture. One of the Japanese attributes that he particularly admires is attention to detail and he has replicated that in this album by spending those endless Covid lockdown hours fine-tuning the sounds to exact requirements. The results are nine beautiful, and sadly sometimes quite short, pieces that feature Gjersø's solo trumpet creating a range of sounds from plaintive bamboo flute to triumphant brass. Sometimes, little snippets of almost recognisable melody emerge from dramatic soundscapes, teasing the listener before disappearing and leaving them full of anticipation about what might be next. Although there are nine tracks, each with a title in Japanese that does not readily translate into English, the album is probably best listened to as a whole or, as might be appropriate with ambient music, over and over again.
Listen to Natsukashi (Shadows Are Falling) here.
There has been some debate about whether ambient music is music at all, emphasising as it does tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm, in fact there is one piece by John Cage called 4'33" which requires the orchestra to remain silent throughout. However, the music heard on Yūgen includes both composed and improvised music that employs pentatonic and modal scales to create sounds and moods reminiscent of Japan.
Marius Gjersø has been told already that the music on Yūgen has created a sense of calm in listeners, like a stroll through a forest, and a school teacher has reported that her class settles down to read more quickly when it is playing. Marius Gjersø is hoping to bring Yūgen to the UK and if that happens audiences will be able to enjoy extended performances that are longer than on the record. In the meantime why not let this beautiful album work its magic, do a little Japanese yoga or just stand still for a few minutes.
You can purchase Marius Gjersø's album Yūgen here.