Somnambule - Writing About Music


From the conservative perspective promulgated by the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and Ken Burns, the idea of mixing jazz with electricity is a veritable recipe for disaster. As Greg Tate noted recently in a Village Voice article “Marsalis once refused to book George Russell's big band because Russell used an electric bass.” Hybridising jazz with electronica is sure to produce a Frankenstein’s monster: the two forms are antithetical. Jazz is about lung-funded breath, muscle-driven percussion – the transcendent union of heart and soul. Electronica is cerebral at best, at worst and most often lacking in humanity, the skinny product of circuits and chips. However, Norwegian quartet Wibutee along with other players of their generation have been weaned upon dance music culture. Without the aid of samplers and drum machines the most popular musics of the past 15 years – hiphop, techno, r’n’b and their brethren – would wink out of existence. Wibutee’s mission is to ride the ineluctable wave that this observation implies. Accordingly they deploy all manner of synthesizers, computers and samplers with relish. Just don’t expect them to be playing Jazz at Lincoln Centre anytime soon.

So who - or even what - are Wibutee? From the foregoing it might be feared that they’re more beetle-browed manifesto than living, breathing band. This couldn’t be further from the truth: for example the graphics produced by the group’s saxophonist betray a playfulness involving, amongst other things, the ironic deployment of Norwegian cable-knit jumpers and miniature horses. Wibutee comprises Per Zanussi on acoustic and electric basses, Wetle Holte on drums and percussion, Rune Brøndbo on keyboards and electronics and Håkon Kornstad on tenor, flutes, keyboards and sundry other instruments (all of them are also credited with programming). Particular electronic expertise is provided by Brøndbo aka Sternklang: “When people his age were jumping around chewing up their neon glowsticks in underground car parks in Alnabru (Oslo), he was home working with his electro music.”

Wibutee have traced an upward arc over three albums released on Jazzland, Bugge Wesseltoft’s label that is home to an eclectic and fascinating roster of Norwegian new music, much of it in the vanguard of electronic jazz. Wibutee are clearly uncomfortable with their first release, 1998’s Newborn Thing, which might slide a little too snugly into the Nu-Jazz slot. However its two successors chart significantly more interesting courses. 2001’s Eight Domestic Challenges delivers haunted dreamscapes: Kornstad’s sax swoops over Holte’s clattering dance rhythms and Zanussi’s muscular double bass like a ravenous crow on the lookout for carrion. When a sampled vocal begins to expound on the subject of heartbeats, hypertension and galloping horses it’s as though Andre Breton has taken over the mixing desk. Two characteristics really mark the album out: its electronic soundscaping and its fluidity. There’s a cathartic sense of flow, of music happening in the moment despite (or perhaps because of) the exercise of digital manipulation. Its title, by the way, arises from a happy congruence: “[it] was made entirely in Wetle’s bedroom... the title was even better when Håkon found some old pictures in a seventies Norwegian interiors-magazine, an article on possible home incidents.”

Despite the three year silence in which members explored solo projects, Wibutee’s new album Playmachine sounds very much like a logical progression from Eight Domestic Challenges, though it's more colourful and more varied than its predecessor. Rather than smoothing out their sound, however, the title track sounds like Miles Davis’s On The Corner rejigged for the new millenium. There’s the insistent 4/4 rhythm knocked out on woodblock, delicious wah bass and echoing chords, Kornstad’s solos play like shattering glass caught in slow motion. Second track Gloer changes pace and tiptoes in on notes that sound like they’re wrapped in cottonwool. Meanwhile Brøndbo’s glitches twitch and quiver and Kornstad introduces a gorgeous, wistful melody taken up by synths reminiscent of the more luxuriant moments of Autechre’s 1994 album Amber.

Playmachine is electronic jazz full of sonic and musical detail and the abundant presence of the former underlines a key difference between electronic jazz and its acoustic forebears. The exploitation of newly affordable and increasingly powerful tools for sound manipulation – otherwise known as computers – has opened up whole new vistas of textural and tonal possibility. As a result Wibutee’s sound has more in common with the rich production techniques developed by pop producers like Timbaland or the Neptunes than the jazz productions of Mannfred Eicher or Alfred Lion. Jazz musicians – and not just the establishment voices mentioned earlier - have been notably reluctant to explore such techniques. An article by Stuart Nicholson entitled Jazztronica in the March 2003 edition of Jazztimes revealed a number of vanguard players including Dave Douglas and Brad Mehldau who were very suspicious about exploiting the new technologies. Such guardedness is surprising 30 years after Miles Davis began to mix jazz with funk and rock to such delirious effect on In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and 15 years after Techno and House lit up dancefloors across the globe. When asked how much of an influence Miles’s techniques were upon Wibutee, Kornstad declares that they didn’t listen to his electric period at all while studying at Trondheim Music Conservatory. It was only when Kornstad heard In A Silent Way at the opening night of Oslo’s club Blå in 1999 that he “...realized Miles was doing already in 1969 what we were attempting.” He goes on to note that “the Miles/Teo combination has been very inspiring, and I find a total link from that to what Bjork is doing today; putting underground musicians together in the studio to make something "bigger" together, not afraid of using the technicalities of that time.” Such connections both within jazz and to popular music are an essential reason for the music’s continued ability to reinvent itself a century on from its inception. As Kornstad indicates with his reference to Bjork, today’s popular music isn’t Surrey With The Fringe On Top, it’s Underworld’s Born Slippy or Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up Look Sharp. In recognising this, Wibutee are creating one of the most refreshing examples of electronic jazz to date.
Colin Buttimer
September 2004
Published by Signal To Noise magazine