Known for his emotive, spacious melodies, grammy-nominated pianist and composer Jan Gunnar Hoff spoke from his country home in Northern Norway about the influences behind his music, Norwegian jazz, and the extent to which one can even call something jazz. Jan Gunnar’s music incorporates a fascinating blend of genres and influences, from the people and landscape of Northern Norway to his personal experience and emotions.
Whilst there is a distinctive expansive and expressive sound to what Jan Gunnar calls his ‘pianistic’ repertoire, his fusion albums such as Gladiator and Magma incorporate synths with elements of funk, pop and rock. For Jan Gunnar it is natural to be versatile, and to reflect this variety of personality in his music. Recognised as one of Norway’s leading jazz musicians, Jan Gunnar’s music has won him the prestigious Edvard-prize in 2005 for composition, and the Norwegian Buddy-award in 2013, the highest distinction in Norwegian jazz.
Often ignoring the unique sound of each Scandinavian country, people speak of a ‘Nordic sound’ in Norwegian jazz. Whilst this is perhaps a cliche, do you feel that there are influences in your music from traditional Norwegian music?
It’s an interesting question. There is definitely a ‘folkloristic’ touch to much of the so-called Nordic sound in Norwegian jazz. It’s kind of a cliche, however the compositions lean on ‘simpler’ melodies, often in minor and with a focus on sound, and the listener has more time to dwell on single elements instead of moving restlessly to the next chord.
There is some downtempo in the music, which actually Quiet Winter Night reflects well. With American jazz you have the forms, you play the improvisations. In Nordic jazz you lean more on each platform like a landscape.
“For me, jazz is a tool for improvisation and not necessarily the genre itself.”
Quiet Winter Night’s music is very inspired by folk music. So, when jazz musicians play those tunes, there is a lot of space in there which gives jazz musicians the headroom to interpret the music and add their artistic signature. For me, jazz is a tool for improvisation and not necessarily the genre itself. Jazz emerged in the US, and the musicians who perform on Quiet Winter Night have been inspired by, and learnt from playing American jazz standards and learning the handcraft, in addition to other musical inspirations and sources. But when you’re performing some new music, you have to focus on the sound, the melody and the overall feeling of the musical situation and the concept. All your influences will add to the interpretation.
I received classical training as a pianist and was fascinated by the music of Edvard Grieg and other composers who draw inspiration from Norwegian folk music in their compositions. Whether one can hear the reflections of Northern Norway specifically in my music is hard to tell. I try to let the heart come through in the touch of the piano and in the way I interpret the tunes, also my own tunes.
Your latest album Home is, in part, a homage to Northern Norway. Please can you tell us about the connection with Northern Norway in this album which you are trying to explore and convey?
I was born and raised in the North of Norway, and in such a sense nature and the landscapes are a part of my identity. Right now I’m sitting in our place in the country by the fjord. We have an enormous contrast between summer when the sun never sets, and winter when it’s very dark with the northern lights. The connection is everywhere because of this contrast, unlike living in London or Oslo where the weather and light are more simillar all year round. People are different here, I live in Bodø, a town of 50,000 people. Whenever I’m out, I can have a little conversation with someone I don’t know. There’s an openness in the North. The smaller the town, the more you can just talk to people. The whole idea about music is that it’s coming from somewhere – from nature but also from people.
“Everything I experience in life is reflected in the music, in some sense.”
Defining the album Home is also a systematic work, building the overall mood and concept. It is not only about the connection with Northern Norway, it’s also about the people you work with. Morten Lindberg is a very creative guy, he takes part in the whole process, not only the sound engineering. He even came up with the title for the album!
I think Morten is triggered by the creation of a new “child”, by the creation of music and new concepts, to see it emerge and to contribute in several ways. He is the first person I have worked with who is capable of delivering quality and high standards in all these fields: sound, music, concept and textual.
After working on Quiet Winter Night in 2011, Morten asked me to make a solo album. At the time, I wasn’t really that into playing solo. Given the challenge, I had to dig really deep. It’s very nice for me as an artist to have people that challenge you and come with ideas.
Stormen Concert Hall in Bodø is located above the Arctic circle with a backdrop of mountains and fjords. Was the soundscape of the region influential to the music of Home whilst recording?
In the sense that there is a soundscape in the region? It turns back to the idea of Northern Norway – what is that? It’s the people, it’s the light and the dark. It’s the whole package. It’s the open space. I have written different music in different places. When I wrote some music in Sweden looking over the Baltic sea with that openness, the music had a loneliness to it. So, there is a loneliness to being away from people, if you sit and compose with just the fjord and the mountains, you have a special feeling that opens your heart and mind to some special music.
It’s definitely triggered by nature and surroundings, but it comes from your personal emotions and experiences of life as a whole. To get that out you need to move, to go out on a boat or sit by a fjord. You might even go to a big city. I was sitting in Florence in a flat where I didn’t see anything, but I wrote some nice music. So, it’s about changing the scenario.
“there is a loneliness to being away from people, if you sit and compose with just the fjord and the mountains, you have a special feeling that opens your heart and mind to some special music.”
The song Barndomsminne fra Nordland in Home is the unofficial National anthem of Northern Norway. Kanskje is my version of a song written by Terje Nilsen, a friend and famous singer/singer songwriter in my hometown. So, whilst those are very northern and regional, that is the reason why I picked them, so it’s a more direct Northern Norwegian interpretation you might say.
Of course, being from Northern Norway, all this stuff is in my blood, and it all has something to say. So in that sense there is a soundscape of this region – a combination of all of this.
Please can you tell us about the recording process with Morten Lindberg and experience recording in this venue? Stormen Concert Hall has won awards for their outstanding acoustic design, did the building itself influence the improvisations?
The acoustics of a venue will of course always affect the recording. My previous albums for 2L were recorded in churches. In Stormen Concert Hall there is less reflection and a different experience on stage. This also affects improvisations, especially the rhythmic stuff which actually can sound tighter and better in this kind of room. It was a different scenario in Home than we had in making Living.
Do you have a preference which piano you record on? What was used for Home?
The grand piano in Stormen is quite new, and you need to work harder to get down to the core of the sound. Older instruments can often produce more personality right away, which makes my job easier. So we had to work a little more on the overall process. It sounds different to Living, Stories and Stille Lys.
My solo piano albums, including Home, have all been recorded on a Steinway D, while on the trio album Polarity we used a Steinway C. Steinway is my preferred instrument, with its depth and complexity of sound at all registers. As it happens I am a Steinway Artist. I believe that Steinway represents a genuine depth in music that goes hand in hand with musicianship in a way that human emotions can be fully expressed and communicated.
Then again, the piano is one thing, there are several factors that make out the final result. Firstly of all the pianistic touch and feel, then the composition itself and the interpretation of the music. Then when you get to the instrument, there is the quality of the intonation and tuning of the piano. And there is of course the acoustics. You have the room itself, the technician and his/her way of recording everything. So you actually have many links in the chain that eventually ends up as a recorded track or album.
Our playlist Snow Drift features winter-themed jazz, much of which comes from Norwegian artists such as yourself. Your outstanding album Quiet Winter Night with the Hoff Ensemble was nominated for a Grammy. Can you explain more about the influences behind this album, was it conceived as a studio album recording project?
Yes, it was a ‘pure’ studio recording project and has never been performed live. I was approached by the composers Geir Bøhren and Bent Åserud a year or so ahead of the recording in 2011. I needed some time to consider if I could picture this project in my musical concept, and to find the right songs from their very popular TV-production Jul i Blåfjell (Christmas in Blue mountain).
I suggested a collection of songs that I believed would fit the concept, and together with the composers we decided on the program and picked the musicians and the singers for each tune. We met in Sofienberg church mid August 2011 and recorded for 3 days.
“I started to think very positively that this was an exciting musical journey…and luckily we had such great musicians”
It was intense, and this was also my first encounter with Morten and his process. Normally in studios we record and ‘repair’ single instruments in the tracks. With Morten, we’re all performing in the same room, so everything sounds together and cannot be separated the same way as in the studio.
This of course, required full concentration from all involved to play everything perfectly from start to finish. As the musical arranger, leader and pianist, I had to keep calm yet focused on each tune and mood, and get the intensity that we needed. I started to think very positively that this was an exciting musical journey and luckily we had such great musicians as Arild Andersen (bass), Rune Arnesen (drums), Børge Petersen-Øverleir (guitar) and Mathias Eick (trumpet) in the main band. They brought in their experience and also their unique sound and other qualities.
If you’re playing all in one room, is that nice as a musician to be close and interact with the other musicians compared to different studio rooms?
Yes, it’s definitely really interesting, even if you need to concentrate on getting a result, you’re actually in there and playing together, and you have the whole thing in a small area. The idea of playing in a studio in different rooms is a very clinical process, in the end it comes out well because producers can make it sound like a great recording. But that’s another world, and I have that kind of setting with my fusion/jazz rock-projects. I definitely wouldn’t record that kind of music in the church.
The interesting thing is that when you play in the church like on Quiet Winter Night, what you hear is what you get. And Morten is trying to recapture that atmosphere, it’s a very admirable process to be able to recreate what happened in that room. Even if we’d never played Quiet Winter Night live, we still have the album and the atmosphere from the actual setting. And when we are doing the surround mixing in Morten’s studios it sounds like ‘sound heaven’ and it’s just like being in there with the music and the musicians.
How much do the winter conditions in Norway influence albums such as this and Stille Lys?
In Northern Norway we say we have “nine months of winter, and three months of bad conditions for the sledges”! It’s winter all the time, we need to be inside a lot. There is something quiet about the landscape in the winter, and there is something special about the light. Not just the northern lights, but the lack of light. It’s hard to say how directly it influences my music, but it definitely has some impact. In Stille Lys it is in the title which means ‘quiet light’ – it’s a way of trying to fill yourself with the mood of the winter and put that out in the music.
“There is something quiet about the landscape in the winter, and there is something special about the light.”
Winter is a part of our lives. It can be beautiful, and sometimes it’s cold. When I wrote the music for Living it was December. In December out here in the country the sun never goes up, but it’s not totally dark, you get a little sun from behind the mountains. There is something we call ‘the blue hour’, it’s a very special light. So that inspired Living and Fly North!.
Was Home mostly improvised? With your improvisation, do your compositions change with time, or each time you perform them? Is there usually a theme you are exploring in your improvisations?
Home is improvised, but some of the tunes, for example What Might Have Been by Mike Stern is played more or less the way he wrote it. Some are written, but still interpreted in a new way. Some are truly improvisations like Hike, Free Flow and Detour. Some are improvisations that I write down. So my idea of writing music is to try to make a good composition and then when I record it I try to play it a little differently. When I improvise it’s not always like free or jazz improvisation. I kind of improvise the interpretation itself. So I can change the melody a little, or the rhythm or dynamics to make it come alive.
That’s the thing which differs between jazz and classical musicians. We can take a piece of music and change it to the benefit of the music, even the content and the melody itself. We are always trying to make the instrument or tune work the best we can and make it sound new and fresh every day. It should actually sound improvised even if it’s composed. But there is a lot of musicians now in a ‘grey area’ between classical and jazz, so things are changing.
“The aim is really to make it come alive. If music stands still and doesn’t move it won’t affect anyone.”
The aim is really to make it come alive. If music stands still and doesn’t move it won’t affect anyone. When you play for an audience, you can really take out everything in yourself and move with them, they will follow you on the whole journey. When there is no audience to receive it in a studio you have to activate other qualities, your sense of music, in a different way – so it is two different worlds. It’s harder to do it in a studio, but still the times I’ve played in the church with Morten, I don’t have to use a headset so I can play the way I play. For good or bad, he captures the whole of me!
Morten takes in the whole thing, and my touch on the piano will be crucial as that’s what he goes for – what is actually happening. In a studio when you have a lot of microphones and reverb, or playing with a group, the piano will be a part of the band’s sound. So the technician might put you in there like one of the other instruments. It will sound like it should, brilliant often, but differently with the reverb and compression.
Morten doesn’t compress it which means I need to pinpoint my touch on the piano, and play as softly and focused as I can. It’s a really demanding process, it’s difficult. You have to take out everything you’ve got, and sometimes even that is not enough.
With your fusion music, you’ve explained the difference in recording process. Is it different musically when you focus so hard on touch and every little thing.
Yes, when I do the fusion stuff it’s about the band, the musicians. There are some limitations on what I can do on acoustic piano, so I often use a synthesizer or electric piano. Sometimes I put in some acoustic stuff, it has always been an important part of my sound. For instance in the trio I have with bassist Per Mathisen and former Weather Report- percussionist/ drummer Alex Acuña. We combine the acoustic and electric in different ways.
The two most important technicians I’ve worked with are Morten and Jan Erik Kongshaug, the late leading ECM engineer. The last thing I did with Jan Erik was Fly North!, an album which was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy. The recording has a little vibe of synth, but is mostly acoustic. I consider it in the aftermath as a successful concept album with some good tunes and a fantastic sound from Jan Erik. But I was actually considering canceling the whole release after the first studio session! It needed some hard work and in the mixing I got some great help from Arve Henriksen (trumpet/vocals). And of course from Odd Gjelsnes at Losen Records, who ran the whole process around the Fly North! recording.
Can you tell us about your musical background, in short?
I grew up with classical piano, that was my first encounter. My parents bought a piano when I was eight. My teacher was not happy with me in the beginning because I added improvisation to one of the first pieces I played. I did some rhythmical changes to the melody. After a while my improvisations were more accepted and encouraged. I started playing music by ear from an early age, I could listen to a song and recap it on the piano. Then I started listening to a lot of English groups. Emerson Lake & Palmer was my favourite band at the time and still I can listen to ELP and enjoy their innovative work.
“My whole concept of music is probably influenced by different sources: classical, jazz, Norwegian composers like Grieg, and also Liszt, Bach and many others.”
When I went to the gymnasium I was asked to play in a band, which was new to me and a little scary! They were mostly guitar players and they played very loudly. I needed to buy electric pianos and synths to be heard in the group! I listened to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and played all kinds of jazz. My whole concept of music is probably influenced by different sources: classical, jazz, Norwegian composers like Grieg, and also Liszt, Bach and many others. I was getting a little tired of trying to play the classical works perfectly, so my whole pianistic thing turned more improvisatory. So in short: prog rock in the beginning, and then I started to improvise jazz and moved into that area of music and bands.
In the end you end up with something – and it’s kind of music!
What can you tell us about your collaborations with international artists such as Pat Metheny and Maria João, and your international career?
Yes we did a collaboration in 2001 with Pat Metheny. We were booked at the Molde International Jazz Festival in Norway with my quartet, Jan Gunnar Hoff Group. They asked if we could play with some guest artists. I thought ok, it’ll be some local artists, but it turned out to be Pat Metheny! He had received a lot of CDs from Norwegian groups, and really liked the sound of my band and was sure that it would be a great collaboration, so it actually came from his side. Metheny commented that I sounded a lot like Lyle Mays from Pat Metheny Group. I was totally inspired by Pat Metheny’s records from around 1978, the group was one of my favourites so that was maybe not so strange! Anyway, playing with Metheny was an adventure of a lifetime.
Maria João is a world music artist, Portuguese Fado and folklore, but also jazz. She is a very interesting singer with a wide register. A Norwegian jazz journalist tipped me off to perform with her. Maria doesn’t read music, so I had to make new demos with myself singing my tunes for her to learn them. So, you have jazz artists like Pat Metheny and Mike Stern who can read scores, but someone like Maria and other folk singers, you have to give it to them another way, they learn from listening.
“We are human beings with a lot of emotions, a lot in our personalities…there is a diversity that it feels natural to reflect in the music and in the creative work.”
About my International career, I play with a lot of musicians outside Norway. A lot in Germany, Sweden and Denmark. I’ve been around Europe a lot, and they seem to enjoy my style of pianistic playing, a kind of cross over between classical and jazz. I also bring in some elements from rock, pop, folk music. And in the end, what comes out is a mix of all this.
It feels natural for me to be versatile, I want to be involved in more than one thing. We are human beings with a lot of emotions and a lot of complexity in our personalities. One day we can enjoy the quiet, other times we get energy from the hectic and busy lives we live. So in that sense there is a diversity that it feels natural to reflect in the music and in the creative work.
Our playlist in this spotlight explores Jan Gunnar Hoff’s career, and the music mentioned here.
Jan Gunnar Hoff and Hoff Ensemble also feature in our playlist Snow Drift.
Home can be purchased from 2L.