Image by: Album Artwork
Album Reviews

Album Review: Mathias Halvorsen & Jan Martin Gismervik - On Goldberg Variations (Backlash Music)

John Fenton

It has long been acknowledged that Bach’s DNA is deeply embedded in Jazz practice. While Bill Evans surprised some fans when he named Bach as a primary influence, the Baroque composers influence is actually widespread in all of western improvised music. Over the years there have been numerous Bach crossover albums and while the best were marvellous, others sounded slightly awkward. The more recent Bach referencing albums have moved beyond the swing approach and in doing so they have reached deep inside the essence of the music. Like a good Jazz head-arrangement, Bach’s music provides an exquisite architecture for improvisers to explore. I am enthusiastic about a number of these modern explorations.

Watch album on Vimeo here

A few days ago a review copy of On Goldberg Variations (Backlash Music) arrived. I was immediately intrigued, as the album was recorded in Reykjavik. The musicians are classical improvising pianist, Mathias Halvorsen and Jazz percussionist, Jan Martin Gismervik. Both are Norwegian although Halvorsen is at present living in Iceland. I am an enthusiast for Nordic and Icelandic artistry and I wondered if those spacious northern landscapes would influence their approach. After listening, my answer is yes. Halvorsen pointed out that the two are more closely aligned with the Norwegian scene, but it is no stretch to imagine how recording in Iceland can add a layer of influence.

While the album is directly informed by the notation of the Goldberg Variations, it is also referred to as new music. Here, the musical ideas have been examined with care, extracted and then reduced to their essence. In the track titled ‘other voices’ a sub-minimalist approach is evident; with the musicians utilising fragments; and the results are both familiar and unfamiliar. To quote Halvorsen:

(It) can best be compared to looking at a familiar world through a continuously changing kaleidoscope ’.

0020854508 101

Image Supplied

Stripped  of ornament, and elided, the silence between the notes becomes essential in the decoding. We sense what lies between and it is visceral. We follow and are surprised as the motifs and rhythms fall into place. Those familiar with the Goldberg Variations will find themselves attempting mental reconstructions as fragments of rhythm or melody, appear and then vanish. Humans are hard-wired to look for patterns, and in searching for them here, we are drawn inside a spacious pristine world. We compare what we know, or what we think we know and out of that comes the new.

mathias halvorsen

Pianist Mathias Halvorsen

The pieces reveal a filmic soundscape of stark beauty. 'Numbers' beguiles us with long ostinato passages and again the minimalist approach allows us to explore the sonic subtleties. ‘Running’ takes us closer to a known form but then injects long bars of silence between the phrases. ‘Together’ comes closer to Jazz sensibilities with its resonant voicings, which dance. Everything merits a deeper listening here as the journey is in part, subliminal; it will stretch some listeners toleration as avant-garde music frequently does. It worked for me and took me back to the extraordinary Bley/Giuffre/Swallow albums such as Freefall (ECM). 

A 3309291 1430340033 9637.jpeg

Percussionist Jan Martin Gismervik

For those keen to hear some other contemporary approaches to improvised Bach, I recommend Brad Mehldau’s After Bach (Nonesuch). This album achieved tremendous cut through and juxtaposes Mehldau’s own compositions with Bach’s. That album references The Well-Tempered Clavier. It is closer to the original Bach charts. A sumptuous delight from start to finish. 


For another unusual look at the ‘Goldberg Variations’, people could check out Uri Caine’s Goldberg Variations album. This was released by Winter & Winter and is gorgeously packaged. Like Mehldau, Caine plays some of the variations as written, but the rest appear as blues, electronica, gamba quartet and in many unusual ensemble configurations. There is also humour and joy.

If you’re afraid of iconoclasm, these will not be for you; but if you are up for sonic adventures, dive in and go with it.

Click here to stream or buy

Radio 13 appreciates our partnership with John Fenton. Check out his other writings and reviews at jazzlocal32.com 

Written By: John Fenton John Fenton was educated by books and bohemians; the equivalent of being raised by wolves. His interests: jazz, poetry, philosophy, literature & the visual arts. He is a jazz journalist, music blogger, Gonzo journalist, guerrilla commentator & social activist. He lives in Auckland, is married, and wrangles several cats. His long running blog is https://jazzlocal32.com/