Espen Berg Trio ‘Free To Play’ CD (Odin) 5/5

Pianist Espen Berg is one of those musicians who just seems to get better and better with every album release. His trio, with Bárður Reinert Pousen on bass, and Simon Olderskog Albertsen on drums, has a sound and feel that becomes more fulfilling with each recording. “Free To Play” is the trio’s follow-up to their 2018 album “Bølge”, and whilst some of the album is familiar territory for the band, much of it breaks new ground, but rather than being an all-out revolution, this confirms a natural evolution for the trio and their music being performed.

It’s fair to say that Berg’s trio has now found its own voice. There are some obvious influences running through the style of music being performed, as with 99% of music we all listen to, but there is a fresh and inspiring slant to this recording. It has an originality coursing through its veins that suggests an openness and confidence from all three musicians, the interplay and nuances within the tunes a joy to behold. The writing is particularly strong, making for a varied, compelling and very listenable album.

The trippy, contemplative opener “Monolitt” sounds like an intuitive and meditative piece rather than a pre-planned jazz tune. And the tune is indeed wholly improvised. It came about by chance, on impulse, before the session had really started, and the combination of bowed bass and celesta works beautifully well together. We’re on more familiar ground with “Skrivarneset”, a stunning piece highlighting the trio at their most enchanting. Berg’s meandering yet melodious piano sounds very reminiscent of Brad Mehldau at his luminous best. The bass and drums are perfect, working with a delightful intuition and exemplary skill, helping bring out the sparkle in Berg’s incredible playing. The bold side of the trio takes a firm hold of the listener on “Kestrel”, it’s wonderful drums at the beginning of the tune making way for some exploratory soloing from Berg. The gorgeously lyrical “Camillas Sang” once more benefits from a Mehldau-esque melancholic beauty, gradually becoming a voice of its own with its ultimately uplifting resonance. “Gossipel” is an outrageously enjoyable piece. I’m not sure if the likeness is playfully intentional from the trio, but this tune most certainly has its influence firmly rooted in a style going back to Keith Jarrett’s European Trio of the ’70s. I’d even dare to be more specific than that, with the rolling piano chords, groove-fuelled bass and kick-ass drums sounding very akin to Jarrett’s classic “As Long As You’re Living Yours” from the “Belonging” album. The highly original “Episk Aggressiv” is perhaps more akin to what one might expect to hear on a Bad Plus album, with its daring, confrontational sound interspersed with passages of calm reflection. “Oumuamua” has a much gentler nature to it, with piano, bass and drums combining perfectly and hitting the sweet spots just like the days of old with EST at their best. There’s a romanticism here that is very compelling, the tune’s beguiling grace and spirit shining a true, clear light. The iconic “Meanwhile in Armenia” brings together the trio’s skill and awareness in perfect harmony, doing what the very best trio’s do; playing on a different level and inspiring the listener. The final track “Furuberget” is nothing short of a mini-masterpiece. Hauntingly beautiful and sincerely moving, the trio combine their more ethereal skills to create this piece of music that is a stunning end to a wonderful album.

Undoubtedly one of my favourite albums of this year, “Free To Play” is a richly rewarding experience, from a trio who are proving to be not just one of the best in their field of music, but also beyond boundaries. Fabulous music that I have a feeling I’ll be enjoying for many years to come.

Mike Gates

Read also:
Espen Berg Trio ‘Bølge’ 2LP/CD (Odin) 4/5