There's a balance between form and freedom in the music of Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad. From his collaborations with chamber ensembles to his solo work, the prolific composer demonstrates a respect for arrangements as well as a sly sense of melodic and rhythmic exploration.
Bjørnstad looks like a typical classically trained academic, but as a musician, he's incredibly versatile. He can play Mozart or Schubert with grace, and he can improvise and swing like a lifelong jazz man.
"When you go into the studio, you are prepared for hard work and sudden surprises," Bjørnstad says. "Producers and colleagues know what you're capable of, and they may want to coax forth other elements than the original concept."
Bjørnstad began learning the piano in the 1950s as a youngster in Oslo. He studied in London and Paris and across Europe, too. A career in classical music seemed inevitable, but his exposure to European and international jazz changed his priorities.
Bjørnstad was also active as a journalist and author. From 1972-'98, he was the music and literature critic for Norwegian daily Aftenposten. He's published more than 30 books (predominantly novels) and a number of poetry and essay collections as well.
But music remains his main vocation. On his latest album — a piano/cello duo collection titled Night Song (ECM) — he coaxes more than a few chilled-out and beautiful melodies with cellist/bassist Svante Henryson of the Oslo Philharmonic and Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Two of Bjørnstad's best-loved albums, The River (1996) and Epigraphs (1998), featured cellist David Darling. The conceptual framework of Night Song boasts a similarly atmospheric sound and melancholic mood.
"Prior to recording Night Song, I remembered with great pleasure a duo concert Svante and I had held at the Bath Festival," Bjørnstad says. "I remembered some of the powerful compositions he'd presented to me on that occasion, and, as always, I found it easy to compose for him."
While Bjørnstad's slow-rolling piano style on Night Song reflects much of his recent solo work, the looser, more dynamic embellishments on the 2010 ECM release Remembrance demonstrate his jazzier side. Bjørnstad worked with drummer Jon Christensen and tenor saxophonist Tore Brunborg on the wistful, 11-song collection. Recorded in a single day, it's a smooth collaboration. Bjørnstad's chordal themes serve as the foundation on Remembrance, anchoring the rhythm and melody underneath Brunborg's improvisations and Christensen's feathery brush work and cymbal accents.
Bjørnstad's most recent solo work, The Rainbow, is comprised of excerpts from the three-disc Rainbow Sessions (recorded at his preferred Oslo studio, the Rainbow Studio). As a piano album, the music initially seems light and delicate, but it has motion and momentum. The moods shift in a sneaky manner and the melodies twist unexpectedly, conjuring a variety of emotions.
"All of the major projects in which I had been involved had demanded a great deal of time and energy, and I began to focus on a more minimalist idiom," Bjørnstad said in the album's liner notes. "I rediscovered the pleasure of exploring the grand piano and was once again reminded of the extraordinary richness of the instrument's sound, especially in a small and naked format."
From his early days as a classical piano prodigy to his position as a veteran Euro-jazz pianist, Bjørnstad's deep talent and unique style could help make his solo performances some of the most memorable of the Wells Fargo Jazz Series.