Music From a Distance? Eivind Opsvik Has Been Making It for Years

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The bassist Eivind Opsvik remembers the first time he heard the term “overseas,” which would become the name of his long-running ensemble. He had recently moved to New York from his native Norway, to pursue a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.

“It was a word that I didn’t really know about until I came to the States,” he said last week, speaking by phone from his home in Brooklyn. “I liked how it always meant ‘somewhere other than where you are at the moment.’ It’s a geographical term in a way, but it doesn’t apply to a specific place.”

As a traveler between two home bases, he found it particularly apt: “When I was here in the States, overseas was Norway, and when I went back to Norway, it was the States.”

Since the early 2000s, Mr. Opsvik has released five studio records with Overseas, full of compositions that knit together the quiet and the loud, the urgent and the dispassionate, the acoustic and the electric, the soothing and the surprising. This is music that never seems to be in only one place, and although the guiding theme is travel, there’s a pervasive feeling of dislocation and longing inside Overseas’s music that seems just right for our socially distanced present.

All of which makes this Friday’s release of “Overseas Live: 2002-2012” — a two-and-a-half-hour mixed bag of live recordings from the band’s first 10 years — feel oddly timely. What insights does this music hold about the experience of living in a kind of isolation; of having only oneself to rely on; of being both at home and stranded in New York?

In its early years, Overseas changed personnel constantly, with some of the finest names in jazz — Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn, Tony Malaby — cycling through. Over the past decade, it has maintained a steady five-person lineup. All along, it has been first and foremost a laboratory for Mr. Opsvik’s immersive compositions, which represent some of the most slyly fascinating music on the scene today.

In them, he writes toward a range of influences — modern classical, Scandinavian pop and electronic music, 1960s free jazz, ’80s hip-hop — without ever settling into a single direction. And in the same way he avoids concrete references to genres, he doesn’t point directly to emotions or moods. The richness of the instrumental sound becomes its own emotional content: The music is not telling you where to be or what to feel.

“We kind of have an elastic approach to time and pitch; everything is floating a little bit in the sound,” Mr. Opsvik said, doing his best to put words to it. “It’s like a slowly morphing mass.”

As a child growing up outside Oslo, Eivind associated American jazz with home. His father, Peter Opsvik, a famed designer of ergonomic furniture, kept a wide variety of jazz records playing in his home studio, filling the space with Billie Holiday and Don Cherry.

But even as a child, Mr. Opsvik, now 46, was drawn to colliding ideas, and he saw composition and recording as the ways to do it. “In a way, Overseas is a continuation of what I did as a teenager in the basement on a four-track tape recorder,” he said. “Even some of the tunes are based on sketches from that era.”

He studied at the Norwegian Academy of Music in the 1990s, part of a generation of young musicians who had grown weary of the Nordic-jazz sound that by then was a kind of cliché, typified by the somber elegance of countless ECM albums. He leaned into the freewheeling spirit of the avant-garde, and joined an intergenerational band featuring a couple of lost elders from the Norwegian free-jazz scene of the 1970s, the saxophonist Carl Magnus Neumann and the bassist Bjornar Andresen. He also continued pursuing his interests in electronic music and pop.

In 1998, Mr. Opsvik moved to New York. After receiving his master’s degree, he found work as a side musician and in 2002 recorded his debut, “Overseas,” with a hodgepodge of rising talents on the city’s scene. From the very start, he had a clear idea of how he wanted his music to sound: It had little to do with any prefabricated style, and it put instruments to use in quizzical ways.

Take “Earthly,” a simple ballad on that album. Why does a quiet organ sometimes sneak up behind the piano? Why does a tabla crop up subtly, filling sonic space that you didn’t even know was there to be filled, between Mr. Opsvik’s bass and Gerald Cleaver’s drums? The listener is being sneakily overstimulated — swaddled in comforting sound and surprised by it at the same time.

Two albums later, on “Overseas III” (2008), he managed to incorporate a pedal steel guitar — the twangiest and most conspicuously American of instruments — without turning the music into something provincial or countrified. On “Overseas IV” (2012), the longtime Overseas keyboardist Jacob Sacks makes prominent use of the harpsichord, but the instrument’s bright, plinky sound doesn’t crowd out the rest of the band or tip into historical novelty.

It makes a kind of sense that the guitarist Brandon Seabrook first joined the ensemble as a sub not for another guitarist, but for the saxophonist Tony Malaby. Mr. Opsvik writes his layered, kaleidoscopic compositions with great precision, but he also likes to turn things on their side.

In a phone interview, Mr. Seabrook remembered that after Mr. Malaby rejoined the band, “he was playing the parts, so I had to find my own parts and my own way into the compositions.” Mr. Seabrook leaned into the challenge, and Mr. Opsvik loved the result.

Mr. Seabrook is now the greatest sonic wild card in the band, often using echo and distortion and clawed strokes on the guitar strings to put a layer of filth over Mr. Opsvik’s arrangements. Sometimes, he blends in and out of harmony with the other band members, bending his pitch just slightly.

The new album contains recordings from only the band’s first decade, and the quality of the captures varies widely. Mr. Opsvik recorded some on his personal minidisc player, placed near the stage; others come from high-quality board mixes at major venues. But over all, the album reflects the aliveness of Mr. Opsvik’s compositions, which always begin with a meticulous vision but can spiral off in unexpected directions onstage.

Over the years he has let his bandmates become an essential part of the composing process. He said he now writes with the group’s five core musicians in mind, setting up snags that he knows they’ll appreciate, or at least stumble over productively. “The music always takes shape in interesting ways — that I expect and don’t expect,” he said.

“Overseas Live: 2002-2012” is out on Loyal Label, which Mr. Opsvik started in the 2000s, and through which he’s released not only his own last few albums but also those of other musicians, including Mr. Seabrook, that he engineers.

Mr. Opsvik has engaged in a few side projects over the years, including the chamber-pop duo Opsvik & Jennings (with the guitarist and composer Aaron Jennings) and “A Thousand Ancestors,” a collaboration with his wife, the photographer Michelle Arcila.

Amid quarantine, many jazz musicians have taken up solo projects. But Mr. Opsvik was ahead of the curve on that, too. He already has an album’s worth of material recorded, which he plans to release soon.

That music, unsurprisingly, is a dizzying mix of musique concrète, electronica, Krautrock and ’80s pop, among much else. Mr. Opsvik sings on many tracks, a mix of wordless vocalizations and abstract lyrics. At one point, it sounds like he’s singing: “Holy ruler, crazy watchdog/Good riddance, join in sleeping/Move away, step aside.” Rarely do the words tell a story but they always evoke a feeling.

Articles in this series examine jazz musicians who are helping reshape the art form, often beyond the glare of the spotlight.



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