Melissa Rosalind White
On stage, Espen Berg captivates the audience with apparently effortless precision. His fingers fly over the keys of the piano, but not only his technical versatility makes him a breathtaking musician. The communication with his trio partners coupled with his intriguing jazz improvisations and melodic storytelling make for a memorable performance. Espen Berg truly manages to embody in his music, his new album and in himself everything that is great about jazz. When talking to him, his passion is instantly apparent. “I’m thinking about music all the time”, he explains, and you can’t help but believe that that is true.
Berg is a self-taught jazz pianist. He got assigned to jazz piano in high school, and – being a typical obstinate teenager – he didn’t really want to do it at first. But he was thrown into free improvisation, and at that time it was all about playing fast for him. Now, Berg has developed a special two-handed technique, with which he can play tunes rapidly. But in recent years, it has become more about expressing what is in his head. “When I’m playing, it’s more that the piano is the extension of my head, my feelings and my inner music. I always try to get a better connection between the instrument and the fingers and my thoughts.” Being a fast player is an advantage in the respect that it allows him a freedom to express whatever is in his mind, without the tempo being being a boundary.
He tried to explore that freedom with his trio in his new album ‘Free To Play’, which is to be released to the world in September. It is available in Japan already, as his label Blue Gleam is Japanese. The manager of the label discovered his trio on YouTube and that is how they got in contact. “I think the album is more playful than ever, more dynamic than we’ve been before”, the pianist describes. When Espen Berg performs with his trio partners drummer Simon Albertsen and Bardur Poulsen, on the double bass, their communication is subtle at times, obvious at others. There are glances, movements, nods. But most of all, they communicate through music. Poulsen misses a cue, they all give each other a grin, but that is the only way the audience gets to know of the imperfections. In the music, it is imperceivable that a mistake was made.
This communication is extremely important. “Jazz has an advantage over many other forms of music in that it is a collaborative work”, explains Ulrich Beckerhoff, trumpet player and music professor at the Folkwang University in Germany. “Much of this music is improvised. If you have pieces that last maybe ten minutes, then it could be that at least eight minutes of them are improvised. This means that a frame is given, but what the individual musicians play is not fixed. And that’s why the concept of communication in improvisation is of course of great importance. And also the musicians in a jazz group have equal rights.”
Of course there is even more freedom to the improvisation when playing solo. “When I’m playing alone and I am doing freely improvised music I can go in any direction”, Espen Berg explains. “I feel very free, even more than when I am playing with the trio because we have to stay within the song, or at least in contact with it so we are able to go back or to the next part. Everything is kind of planned. Playing solo and just improvising is a fantastic experience of freedom actually.”
Berg intends to record a new solo album in autumn. He will be taping one of his concerts, very much similar to how Keith Jarrett has recorded his iconic ‘The Köln Concert’. The famous American pianist and composer, known for having played with jazz legends such as Miles Davis, is an inspiration to Espen Berg. Another is Brad Mehldau, also an American jazz pianist. “I try to combine what I learn from hearing and playing their music with my own way to create music. It’s not just a way of imitating them but a way of learning and integrating them into my own expression.”
Maybe these famous role models lead some listeners to say that Espen Berg’s most recent album with the trio, ‘Bolge’, is rather mainstream. And although he doesn’t agree,Berg also understands this sentiment: “When we consider the dynamics and expression and which range we operate within, then ‘Bolge’ is probably a bit easier to get along with than ‘Free To Play’.” The audio quality could also be a reason as to why audience members might deem the album generic. The album audio resembles the albums produced by ECM records. Various famous jazz musicians have recorded their albums with that label, notably also Keith Jarrett. It’s nothing new when it comes to the sound. “It’s fantastic quality! – But it’s mainstream”, laughs Espen Berg.
‘Bolge’ is the Norwegian word for ‘wave’. The rhythmic approach the trio takes for the album is very fitting in ways of portraying this symbolism. The album is very focused on dynamics. Now, Berg hopes to explore more of the freedom of improvisation, by creating albums such as the freely improvised concert he hopes to record in autumn. He explains that his aim is to combine dynamics and tonalities with melodic storytelling. Melodies that are easy to remember can move the audience in a different way than just playing complex music – and that is what his album ‘Bolge’ really achieves. There are a lot of memorable melodies.
However, Berg says that he has struggled with the idea that commercial music has to be very simple and shallow. He utterly dislikes the commercial side of the music industry. It is not enjoyable for him to be the salesman of his own work. “But this is the way it is: You have to be visible, you have to try to connect and try to sell your product. I do not care for that stuff, I want my music to tell a story on its own and I hope that people who listen to it just discover it and like it. I don’t really want to make all these phone calls and speak to people and say: ‘Hey do you wanna buy my record, you need to come to this festival…’ I don’t really like that part of the job. But I know that I have to do that as well.”
Some streams of jazz are developing into a very commercial area. Along with all the younger forms of music such as pop and HipHop, jazz is still evolving. “There are now so many different trends in jazz”, Ulrich Beckerhoff says. “Above all it shows how diverse this music is.” Especially jazz and pop fusion is gaining more popularity. Many younger up and coming bands combine the commercial music with the freedom of jazz. Espen Berg sees this development in his students, as he is a music professor at the Trondheim University music department in Norway. “There has been a lot of great pop bands that have come from [the jazz department in Trondheim] in the last few years, which manage to create very good popular music with a twist.” This kind of music is getting even more attention because it has something richer, something deeper than the mainstream surface level of music.
And Norway is a good place for music groups to start. The music and jazz scene is blooming. There is a lot of financial support for jazz musicians through organisations and voluntary groups. This makes it easier for the musicians to start up bands and realise musical projects and tours. Berg is not worried about his future although he doesn’t know what he will be doing in the next year. “There will always be something so I’m not afraid or anxious about my own professional life or income”, he says.
His plans only go as far as the end of the year. A few concerts with fellow Norwegian and jazz singer Silje Nergaard are set. He hopes to release an album and tour with Seamus Blake, a Canadian saxophonist. “What’s amazing about him is that he has really good ears. He can hear me play and he always knows what chord or tonality it is. We can just kick the ball back and forth and invent some stuff that is really magic.”
And that sums up what jazz means to Espen Berg – creating a little bit of magic in the moment. And he embodies what jazz, in its essentials, should be. Creating stories onstage and off. To be free, to express whatever he wants to express, at all times. To explore the music and to be inspired by and then give back to the community and to nature. “Jazz can be whatever it’s gonna be, we’re creating something and that gives you a really unique feeling. It is like a lifestyle for me.”