There are two big traditions in the piano trio: The American and the Scandinavian one.
The former is expansive, ornamental and melodic. It impresses with its technical virtuosity; the richness of forms it is capable of evoking; the wide scope of its influences and inspirations; its link to modern life. The latter is introspective, minimal and rhythmic. It excels by means of its hypnotic qualities; the concentration and constraint it is capable of maintaining; the depth of its moods and ambiances; its roots in tradition.
Helge Lien grew up right in the very middle of these two traditions. Building bridges between different cultures and working with contrasts has always been at the heart of his approach.
Lien has never hidden his deepest respect and admiration for the pioneers, from Miles and Chick Corea to Jarrett and John Coltrane. At the same time, he hit his true stride right at the very moment he dove headlong into his Scandinavian heritage on the sensationally successful Hello Troll. And while his take on the trio clearly shares overlaps with the American one, his piano sound has that recognisable Northern hue to it; that icicle-like clarity, the trance-inducing circling around tiny motivic cells, which gradually build into lyrical worlds.
This duality was present in Lien’s life right from the very beginning. His mother played the accordion and introduced him to gammaldans, a very specific Norwegian tradition with a strangely contemporary feel. Folk music was an ongoing and entirely natural interest, which would eventually lead him to discovering the music of Jan Garbarek. On the other hand, the first instrument he learned to play was an electric organ, later to be replaced by a synthesizer. Little wonder, then, that Dark Side of the Moon, rather than The Cologne Concert, would turn out to be his very first musical love affair.
When it came to jazz, meanwhile, he always felt instinctively drawn to the US-originators. Oscar Peterson was his first true hero, and the artist who would determine the course of his career.
It was one of his teachers at school who introduced him to Peterson, turning an ardent Pink Floyd fan into a jazzhead for life and sent him studying acoustic piano at Stange music university. Later, Lien describes the experience of hearing Keith Jarrett’s My Song album as a “shock”: “I have tried not to copy him too much, even if it’s hard not to,” he says, “I am fascinated by his presence, his way of keeping the thread and the focus, and the flowing sensation in his music. There is so much going on beneath the surface when Jarrett plays.”
Lien did not found a trio of his own piano trio right away. Instead, he became part of and recorded with the intriguing Sandvika Storband, an explorative big band at the cusp between jazz and contemporary composition and a somewhat enigmatic chapter in Norwegian jazz history. He also cut his teeth on the challenging local scene, where he interacted with many formidable talents.
His first trio experience came with Tri Ó Trang, a chamber musical collective with Torben Snekkestad on sax and tuba player Lars Andreas Haug. Their debut album Liker preceded the Helge Lion trio roughly by a year and the ensemble would continue to play and record together well into the 00s. On Fordivi, many of the elements of Lien’s signature sound are already audible: His love for sensual, straight-forward mood play on the one hand, and, on the other hand, his simultaneous need to dissolve the song format, dispense with melody and harmony and allow pure sound to take center stage.
Eventually, this phase of constant playing with a revolving cast of colleagues solidified into the first iteration of the piano trio. Lien had already performed with Frode Berg and Knut Aalefjær in different settings, and he wanted to see what would happen if they approached the core repertoire with an experimental mindset.
Lien recorded their first rehearsal, built around improvisation over some of their favourite pieces, on MiniDisc and was instantly caught by their chemistry. The trio’s explosive debut, What are you doing the rest of your life, was released in 2002, and legendary stories from their live sets abound, from their fascinating de- and reconstruction of Miles Davis’s “So What”, to gigs where Aalefjær sent his cymbals flying across the stage in the heat of the moment.
It is in this early phase, too, that Lien started to build a deep connection to Japan and its jazz scene. He’d already visited the country in 2001 with Tri O’Trang. Even though the band only played a single gig – at the Norwegian Embassy – it left a lasting impression. In the audience at the time were Takashi Yamamoto and Jun Numata of DIW, a jazz label specialising in exquisitely presented re-issues and a carefully curated selection of new releases. They liked Trio O’Trang, but were even more interested in Lien’s newly founded trio. What started out as a mere distribution deal for What are you doing the rest of your life turned into an offer to publish a new album with DIW – Spiral Circle. It was the first HLT release to be recorded at Rainbow Studio under the auspices of master engineer Kan Erik Kongshaug and the beginning of a long tradition. Two more albums for DIW would follow within quick succession: Assymetrics and To The Little Radio.
The early Helge Lien Trio sets and CDs still contained a blend of original material and standards – including a particularly intense, almost hallucinatory take on “Take Five”. To The Little Radio had even been a standards-only affair. But increasingly, Lien’s own pieces started to dominate.
The trio format simply seemed perfect for his compositional aspirations: “A classic piano trio has a perfect balance in the sound between the instruments, and gives a huge amount of space and freedom to each musician,” as he puts it, “The interplay between the three is what matters, the energy they create is like electricity. It exists there only, in the same room where you’re sitting as a listener. This is the true power of the classic trio, as I see it.” Lien’s then-booking agent introduced him to Dagobert Böhm of Ozella, a German label with a strong bent towards Nordic repertoire, who fully supported the move towards purely original material.
The first line-up stayed together for over a decade and went on to record albums which cemented, in the studio, the formidable reputation the trio had built up on stage – most notably 2008’s Spellemannprisen-winning Hello Troll. Although often lumped together with many other folk-oriented Scandinavian records, Hello Troll effectively defined a third stream, perfectly sandwiched in between the US- and Norwegian approaches. It was upbeat without being lightweight, propulsive but inwards-looking as well, melancholic without feeling depressive.
Intriguingly, there had been many precedents of the American and Scandinavian lineages aligning: Already on My Song, Jarrett had worked with a Scandinavian rhythm section and one of Oscar Peterson’s classic trios relied on Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. In a way, Lien was merely following the precedent set by the greats, and favouring synthesis over purity.
When Knut Aalefjær left the band in around 2013, he left a gaping hole. But Lien managed to fill it more than adequately with Per Oddvar Johansen. Johansen, as Lien described it at the time, brought with him a slightly more traditional jazz-affinity without ever causing a break in continuity. Indeed, since his involvement, the trio would go from strength to strength.
Badgers and Other Beings was a formidable follow-up album, and the two records they released with Polish violinist Adam Bałdych on ACT managed to sound more traditional than ever, while also pushing the folk element in their music to new heights.
On the epic double album 10, issued in 2019, the band documented the full scope of their abilities and landed a surprising online sensation with the piece “Popkoral”, which amassed five and a half million streams on Spotify alone.
After this triumph, the line-up changed again: During the pandemic, a phase of worldwide chaos and upheaval, Knut Aalefjær returned on drums and Johannes Eick joined on bass. As the new line-up’s exciting semi-live-album Revisited proves, the trio sound as playful, passionate and hungry as ever. On stage, the trio is not so much a group of fantastic individualists; but a tight machine, each performer pushing the music forward, creating a dense, precisely synchronised group sound and hypnotic, quicksilvery piano runs.
The focus on rhythm and mood is perfectly in line with Lien’s approach to performance. Even after more than twenty years, he likes his music to remain unpredictable, preferring to embark on new journeys into the unknown. And yet, listeners can be sure of one thing: The experience will always leave them breathless and moved at the same time.
Has Lien come full circle? Certainly not. Now in its third generation, the Helge Lien trio is still hungry to take on new challenges. Their imagination is endless – there are still plenty of bridges to build.