Eivind Opsvik – Overseas III

Eivind Opsvik
Overseas III

Blurring the lines of musical genres in this 21st century western society is no easy feat. iTunes and its digital brethren have practically issued a mandate to the contrary, ensuring that the habitual process of categorizing, organizing, and archiving one’s music is rewarded by a quick and orderly retrieval later. Indeed, working in the vacillating world of musical performance these days requires a high degree of resilience, as our digital consumer culture continues to pigeonhole artists in the name of playlist tidiness. But what of that rare musician who can defy these conventions and still create something evocative and profoundly original, worthy of your precious time and hard earned money? Meet Norwegian-born bassist Eivind Opsvik. His stylings may be comfortably rooted in contemporary jazz, but there’s a strong notion of “everything but the kitchen sink” on this record.

Opsvik and his veteran lineup of Tony Malaby (tenor sax), Jeff Davis (vibraphone), Jacob Sacks (keyboards), and Kenny Wollesen (drums/percussion) have made their mark twice before with Overseas I and II, but this third installment of the triptych is the most engaging listen of all. With agile pedal steel guitarist Larry Campbell (most notably a member of Bob Dylan’s band) on board, the possibility for innovation is even greater. Though occasionally namedropped alongside luminaries such as John Zorn and Coltrane, Opsvik’s compositions, so densely layered with texture and peppered with a sweeping range of influences, are a stunning force all their own. It’s Aphex Twin without the white noise, Pink Floyd without the egos, Neil Young without the lyrics, and Brian Eno without the manifesto. Whether your preference is for a haunting melody, an unnerving sequence of harmonies, or an unconventional song structure, Opsvik and his Overseas Ensemble deliver the goods.

Overseas III starts out accessibly enough with “Neil,” a slow burner that gradually gathers steam as layers of keyboard and a sparse drumbeat give way to Campbell’s silky guitar work and a vaguely atonal melody played by the tenor sax and doubled by the vibraphone. It may be a tribute to Neil Young’s 1972 Harvest album, but Opsvik’s composition is far from an Americana send up. The nimble guitar may cry alt-country, but the slow funk of the rhythm section and electronic noodling scream Medeski, Martin, and Wood.

After such a stunning opener, some listeners may be put off by the nine minutes of ill-boding atmospheres in “Everseas,” but the unusually spacious combination of timpani, whisper-level saxophone, and Fender Rhodes is a compelling way to lead into the more uninhibited “Silver.”

In addition to being the most overtly joyful cut on the album, “Silver” also backs up Opsvik’s claims that he has been “directly influenced by growing up in a thriving Norwegian jazz culture, combined with playing for the last ten years with some of the best musicians in the world in New York City.” The track features a very woozy and sentimental introduction care of Larry Campbell on the guitar, before Opsvik himself sets up an infectious ostinato groove on his double bass. As the song reaches its climax, the drums, vibraphone, and guitar all freely intermingle as Tony Malaby goes for broke with a tenor sax solo that reaches for the stratosphere.

Just beyond the album’s midpoint where we find the ensemble painting a series of soundscapes to compliment your favorite Fred Astaire flick (“Ginger Rogers”), there exists a triage of compositions that are all at once affecting despite the awkward titles. Reveling in the bucolic setting of his youth while also enjoying some alliterative word play, Opsvik presents “Breath Of Bark,” “Whiff Of Wood,” and “Lull Of Lumber.” But the real knockout of the three is the finale, a 15 minute epic which makes good on Opsvik’s natural talent for taking unfussy ideas and expounding on them to give the listener just a bit of everything he has to offer. With a melancholy yet sultry prologue that features some of Malaby’s most undisguised melodies, “Lull Of Lumber” is all jazz at first: extended harmonies on the piano while the tenor saxophone floats above a solid groove from the rhythm section. After almost an entire album of providing texture, Sacks is finally given some of the solo limelight on piano before the song abruptly changes direction at the midway point. Wallowing for a few minutes in the murky territory of “Everseas” and “Whiff Of Wood,” the album’s closer wraps it all up in ensemble mode, with Opsvik’s bass chops finally at the front of the mix while the band’s remaining members groove alongside him in mid-tempo bliss. With all of the atonal frenzy of prior tracks, this is a clever way to bring the curtain down.

Being a veteran of collaboration and having the ability to soak up inspiration like a sponge has served Eivind Opsvik well on this latest release. Let’s hope that more time spent in the fertile New York jazz scene is going to lead to another genre-exploding burst of creativity in the near future.