• André Løyning
  • Ola Kvernberg

Norwegian violinist and composer Ola Kvernberg has strong jazz roots—early in his career he was a feverish exponent of jazz manouche (made famous by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli) before getting involved in more modern, progressive approaches. He’s played in Chicago before thanks to his membership in the long-running quintet led by bassist Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten, who lived here for a few years. But Kvernberg’s latest album reveals a more composition-oriented mind-set—that’s a common thing for creative musicians from Norway, who frequently work in numerous traditions even if they identify primarily with improvised music. Before discovering jazz, Kvernberg was trained in Norwegian folk music, a tradition that still ripples through his playing.

Last year’s The Mechanical Fair (Jazzland) is a knockout that was originally conceived after Kvernberg won the 2012 Kongsberg Jazz Award, bestowed at the terrific jazz festival held in the mining town from which the award takes its name—part of the prize results in a commissioned work debuted the following year. He wrote the suite for a lean quintet featuring drummer Erik Nylander, guitarists Petter Vågan and Even Helte Hermansen, and bassist Ole Morten Vågan—but after premiering the work he felt like he needed to do something else with the music. Kvernberg eventually enlisted the help of the Trondheim Soloists—an adventurous string ensemble—to flesh out his rich ideas.

On his website Kvernberg explains the concept of the work, which has something to do with an imaginary abandoned theme park where mechanical elements seek to undermine the organic ideas of the score—yet by the completion of the seven-movement work it turns out they’re operating in harmony. I’m not sure I really hear a struggle, but it doesn’t matter, because the results are rich regardless of context. At times the melodies remind me of Radiohead, with woozy textures that suggest a noncutesy Andrew Bird, but it’s all assembled with a lush cinematic sweep. The solo lines, played by Kvernberg on violin as well as theremin, viola, and other strings, are gorgeously lyric, and the arrangements are seamless, with the parts laid out by his core band moving in and out of the translucent strings of the Trondheim Soloists with exacting fluidity. You can get a pretty good sense of what he’s after with today’s magisterial 12 O’Clock Track, “Duality.”