Once the curious listener digs into the music on Bow Shoulder it becomes difficult not to ask why it’s taken a decade for its impeccable contents to see the light of day. The recording was made in Chicago at the Loft—the studio and rehearsal space of Wilco, the exploratory rock combo, whose members Nels Cline (guitar) and Glenn Kotche (percussion) contributed to this album—the day after Huntsville performed in the city’s Millennium Park, sharing a bill with On Fillmore, Kotche’s duo with bassist Darin Gray. That evening Cline and Kotche joined Huntsville for the final part of its set. In the studio Huntsville’s Ivar Grydeland, Ingar Zach, and Tonny Kluften were joined at the Loft by Cline, Kotche, Gray and keyboardist Yuka Honda (co-founder of Cibo Matto and an accomplished composer) for a fully improvised session.
The vitality and focus of improvised music can suffer under the weight of so many voices—the old “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome—but among the reasons that Bow Shoulder succeeds so well is that the guest players expertly maintained their own personal identities while utterly subscribing to the percolating strain of ambient drift, textural interplay, and dusky melodicism that Huntsville had developed over the years. As Grydeland marvels, “I think it is pretty amazing how Nels, Glenn, Yuko, and Darin managed to blend into our project, our music, our way of improvising, our aesthetics.” His trio had previously improvised with outside musicians, but for this project he envisioned “a recording that sounded like Huntsville, but with these amazingly great musicians as guests—not just seven musicians improvising with no preconceptions. Like most of our other recordings, decisions about amps, instruments, positioning, volume, the sound in the recordings space, etc., are important factors that contribute to the direction of the improvisations.”
“For me, it was almost easier to improvise in that setting since the parameters were a bit more clear and focused,” recalls Kotche. “They do have a sound and it was nice having a rough idea ahead of time of how I might be able to best fit into what they do, of course, all the while still keeping it free and me still being me. I just viewed it more like an expanded chamber band setting, with Yuka and Darin bringing their brilliance and that Huntsville sound at the core of it all, with all of us bringing something personal to the music and it all branching out in various ways.”
The members of Huntsville and guitarist Nels Cline have been part of a mutual admiration society dating back to 2006, when they both performed at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec, Canada that spring. Huntsville guitarist Ivar Grydeland was a fan of the Chicago rock band Wilco, but at that point he hadn’t realized that Cline was a member of the group. After catching Huntsville’s performance and sharing a ride with the group to a neighboring festival, he purchased a slew of the trio’s recordings. They promised to keep in touch, and the following year when Wilco and Huntsville were both programmed at the Kongsberg Jazz Festival, Cline and Kotche agreed to join Huntsville on stage. The results were so strong, the connection so simpatico, that the extended piece, “Eras,” filled the entire second disc of the trio’s magnificent 2008 album Eco, Arches & Eras (Rune Grammofon).
They didn’t reconvene again until the summer of 2010, for the performance and recording session. “I remember it as quite chaotic in the studio,” says Zach. “A lot of people with lots of sounds. A bit difficult to hear each other, but there is something about the vibe of the recording and also the mix, and how it turned out that I like a lot. I think the presence of the four guests just amplifies the music that Huntsville did at that time, and also slightly tilt it in other directions because of the lovely contributions from the four of them.” Cline and Kotche would go on to play with Huntsville again in 2012 at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada, and the trio had hoped to release the music in conjunction with further performances, but Wilco’s often relentless touring schedule prevented it from happening. Bow Shoulder provides potent evidence of how successful the collaboration was.
Grydeland embarked on several marathon mixing sessions in subsequent years. “In the end Ivar started to work on a new mix and that changed everything,” says Zach. “The music changed and we found the drive again to try to finish it.”
“It was a massive job to dig into this,” says Grydeland. “There is a lot going on: two basses, two drum kits and percussion, two guitars, and often what Yuka plays sounds like a third guitar to me.” Indeed, apart from the astonishingly locked in playing, where each musician deftly subsumes individuality into a sharp ensemble aesthetic, the most impressive thing about Bow Shoulder is the masterful balance Grydeland achieves. The album builds with exquisite patience, as layers of tender, probing guitar lines spread out in lush vaporous waves over the pulsing bass tones and exquisite percussive clatter and bowing. It recalls the beautiful work Huntsville has created as a trio, but the timbre is richer, the interplay is more complex, and the melodic shards are denser. As Huntsville gear up to make new music, this transmission from the past delivers both a powerful reminder of its strengths and a thrilling realization of its flexibility and generosity.
Berlin, April 2020
released September 25, 2020
Ivar Grydeland: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar, banjo, electronics, tabla machine
Tonny Kluften: electric bass
Ingar Zach: drums, percussion, tabla machine, drone commander
All music by Huntsville (TONO/NCB), Yuka Honda (Luminescent Invertebrates Music/BMI), Nels Cline (Nebsonic Music ASCAP/admin. BMG), Darin Gray (Gray Label Music/BMI, admin. BMG), Glenn Kotche (Pear Blossom Music BMI/admin. BMG)
Recorded at Wilco Loft, Chicago June 29, 2010 by Pat Burns
Track 1, 2 and 4 mixed by Ivar Grydeland and Johnny Skalleberg at Amper Tone, January 2019
Track 3 mixed by Ivar Grydeland, April 2020
Mastered by Giuseppe Ielasi, April 2020
Produced by Ivar Grydeland