Words by Laurence Pike Photos by Clemens Habicht – PART I
In March 2015 Laurence Pike travelled with veteran pianist Mike Nock to record at Rainbow Studio in Oslo, Norway with legendary engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. The Sydney-based drummer/producer gives Jazz Australia a personal account of their journey and the creation of their exceptional new album ‘Beginning And End Of Knowing’.
So you might be asking why we’d travel all the way to Norway to improvise an album. The simplest way to explain it is that the music Mike and I make together is very much about embracing possibilities, and that includes the way a particular space or location can influence the result. So, no better idea than to do it in a location outside of our usual zone by my thinking. Mainly though, the decision was based on one thing; sound.
Rainbow Studio and the recordings of Jan Erik Kongshaug have always represented a sort of place of imagination for me. I’ve been listening to his recordings since I was 14. So naturally when the opportunity to make a new album with Mike came about as a result of receiving a project fellowship from the Australia Council, I couldn’t think of any other place I’d rather be.
Jan Erik also happens to be the engineer who recorded Mike’s album ‘Ondas’ for ECM in 1981. It’s a touchstone in Mike’s career, and a really important album for myself (and a couple of generations of Australian jazz musicians too I imagine).
Someone recently asked me how you go about preparing to make an album of improvisations. The best response I could come up with was that you prepare to be prepared. We didn’t have much time to play together at all in the weeks leading up to the session. In fact, Mike had been in Burma immediately beforehand on what he described as a harrowing trip, and called me in a panic the week before we left saying he didn’t want to go, all the travel was too much. ‘Fuck it’ he said resolutely. Needless to say he came around to the idea again by the end of the call.
There’s only two occasions when I really consider or notice the fact that Mike is actually older than my father; one is travel, the other is when he uses Facebook. Aside from that he’s got more energy than me most of the time, and he’s been doing it for so long with the best in the business, that the well to draw from is deep, deep down. Not having ‘rehearsed’ enough as such wasn’t a concern, we both knew when the moment came we’d get a result.
We arrived in Oslo a couple of days prior to the session to acclimatise. It was the start of spring and the feeling couldn’t have been more perfect to make this music. There was still snow on the ground; it was around 5 degrees, but clear skies. We were staying right by the Akerselva River in the fashionable Grunerlokka neighbourhood. Both Mike and myself took to walking and/or running along the river in the morning taking in the several waterfalls along the way.
After a day or so of jet lagged wandering in Oslo, we dropped into the studio the evening before the session at Jan Erik’s invitation – a chance to meet, see the studio, and for Mike to get accustomed to the piano.
The piano itself is one of the best instruments I’ve heard. A concert Steinway handpicked for the room by the tuner who Jan Erik has been working with for 40 years (who, I should say, came in every morning of the recording to tune and overhaul it). Mike seemed to think he may have even been there for the ‘Ondas’ sessions 35 years ago, and distinctly remembered that it was the only time he’d had a piano technician listen to him play first and then adjust the instrument to how he thought it should subsequently sound for him.
The main studio space itself is beautiful – a long white room with wooden floors, high ceilings, natural light and separation booths off to the side.
Jan Erik’s recording technique is seemingly nothing out of the ordinary, but his craft is extremely well honed, which is evident as soon as you start playing.
We barely even specifically sound checked to be honest, the mics were up and when we felt comfortable he said ‘We can start recording whenever you’re ready’.
A lot of people talk about the ‘ECM sound’. I don’t think that the record label has an inherent sound as such, if anything depth and diversity marks their approach, but Jan Erik’s studio and recordings certainly have one, and he’s made over 900 albums for the ECM label. It’s hard for the space itself and the surroundings not to seep into you. The quality of the sound itself whilst recording is unlike anything I’ve experienced. There’s a depth and intimacy you hear while tracking with him which makes you play with clarity, and gives you a sense of trust in your abilities, and greater confidence to say more with less.
It occurred to me that this, and the location itself is potentially such an important element of so many of the incredible recordings of his that I’ve admired for over two decades now.
The drummer Simon Barker and I were talking recently about this in regards to our mutual hero Jack Dejohnette (whose drum kit I coincidentally used for the session, which was a huge thrill for me. Jan Erik told me he left it at the studio in 1975 and it’s been there ever since…). Simon commented that he felt Jack always played differently on the sessions for ECM in Europe, and played at his best too. After recording at Rainbow Studio I can begin to understand why.
So he hit record, and we played. Mainly in brackets, almost like sets at a gig. All in all we captured about 6 hours of music across a couple of days. As is always the case when we play together, we traversed all sort of territory, everything from the quite abstract electric/electronic to the purely acoustic.
Beginning and the End of Knowing, released October 1, 2015
Mike Nock – Piano
Laurence Pike – Drums/Drum pad sampler
Music by Mike Nock and Laurence Pike
Published by Fourth Way Music (ASCAP)/Control
Recorded March 4-5th, 2015
Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Laurence Pike