Splashgirl: Doors. Keys. (2007)
As exciting as Norway's annual Punkt Festival always is, there's inevitably one group that stands out as the sleeper hitunexpected and lesser-known, perhaps, but delivering an especially memorable performance. Splashgirl's show was the hands-down sleeper hit of Punkt 08, and its debut disc, Doors. Keys., further bolsters its reputation as a group to watch. A piano trio at heart (though augmented with a pedal steel guitarist at its Punkt performance), its expansion to a sextet on selected tracks only clarifies the innate classicism that informs Splashgirl's unique approach to composition and improvisation.
Pianist Andreas Stensland Lowe is the group's primary composer, and while his virtuosity is rarely in plain sight, he does hint at it on "forsok." Based on a knotty, cued theme, the tune opens up into a gradually intensifying free-for-all that hints at Paul Bley, but with raucous support from bassist Jo Berger Myhre and drummer Andreas Lonmo Knudsrod, Splashgirl makes clear that the iconoclastic pianist is only one of the group's many reference points. "Leo" is a quasi-majestic piece with a lyrical, serpentine melody that unfolds slowly, with violinist Sebastian Gruchot, saxophonist Joel Wastberg, and violinist Lars Holmen lending it a chamber music vibe, even though Myhre's soft but turbulent underpinning keeps things on edge throughout.
As little as there is to reference the American jazz tradition, Splashgirl is part of a new wave of piano trios that, while conceptually grounded in some aspects of that tradition, look farther afield for inspiration. There's a repetitive aspect to the group that's a clear nod to minimalist composer Steve Reich, but unlike Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch's Ronin, who performed the evening before Splashgirl at Punkt 08, it's less about hypnotic iteration and more about something a little more dangerous. Despite the maelstrom created by Myhre and Knudsrod's sawing arco on "Headpiece," Lowe combines a cautious approach to improvisation over a core theme, with persistent repetition and a block chord harmonic sensibility that references the more oblique side of classical composer Erik Satie.
Splashgirl may sport a generally serious disposition, but it does possess a dry sense of humor. The brooding "Shut Up and Dance!" shifts time throughout, from 3/4 to 4/4 to 5/4, making it about as danceable as a Christian Wallumrod compositionanother clear Splashgirl root with the downbeat completely obscured by the sextet's contrapuntal interweaving. Shifting tempos make "Haplosning" equally wry, even as it breaks from its quirky theme into brief improvised passages.
Doors. Keys. leans towards the cerebral, but its occasional forays into fiercer territory ("Tre veckor i en lada") give it a physicality that belies its overall dark nature. Party music it isn't, but Splashgirl's debutas with other Norwegian piano trios including Eple Trio and Maria Kannegaard Trioposits a new direction for an overburdened format, keeping it fresh, innovative and, most of all, thoroughly modern.
Track Listing: 4 is 3 is 2 are one; Leo; forsok; Shut Up and Dance!; Haplosning; Tre veckor i en lada; F.M.S.; Headpiece; Hals.
Personnel: Andreas Stensland Lowe: piano; Andreas Lonmo Knudsrod: drums; Jo Berger Myhre: bass. Guests: Sebastian Gruchot: violin; Joel Wastberg: tenor saxophone; Lars Holmen Kurverud: bass clarinet.