After three acclaimed and highly original solo albums the Bergen-based composer and slide-guitar master Stein Urheim is backed by six cherry picked musicians on his new album: Kjetil Møster (Møster!), Mari Kvien Brunvoll (Building Instrument), Per Jørgensen (Jøkleba), Ole Morten Vågan (Trondheim Jazz Orchestra), Jørgen Træen (Sir Dupermann) and Kåre Opheim (Real Ones).
‘Utopian Tales’ offers strange yet beautiful soundscapes inspired by microtonality - the little gaps between the notes. Just as the rigid divisions of the well-tempered scale in Western music mirrored hierarchical structures in society at large, so microtonal music, which uses intervals smaller than a semi-tone, can be reflective of a freer and more fluid social order. Urheim´s ‘Utopian Tales’ takes this overlap between music and society as its subject, creating a richly imaginative riverine meander through multiple ideas and associations, drawing on references from speculative science fiction and countercultural communities to alternative art, architecture and philosophy. Musically, the journey covers an equally ambitious expanse of territory, touching on aspects of acoustic Americana through Urheim’s expert slide guitar playing, together with ambient electronic soundscapes and various diversions into contrasting musical cultures, with everything grounded by the unifying aesthetic of state-of-the-art contemporary jazz from a specially formed ensemble, The Cosmolodic Orchestra.
Much of the music on ‘Utopian Tales' has its origins in a commission from Vossajazz for the Voss Jazz Festival 2016, with Stein Urheim (who in 2010 received the Voss Jazzfestival-Award) further adapting and extending the material through later re-recordings and additional solo pieces. The result is a continuously changing tapestry of styles and textures that forms a kind of evolving commentary on the concept of microtonality and its various social and intellectual connections. Common to many eras, cultures and forms of music, and strongly associated with particular styles (for example, the blues) and certain musical instruments (for example the slide guitar and its numerous variants worldwide), microtonality has since the mid-twentieth century become a powerful cult influence on contemporary music makers, a tradition exemplified by the ‘maverick’ US composer and instrument-maker Harry Partch, who revived the ancient idea of ‘just intonation’ through microtonal tuning for his own custom-made instruments.
Stein Urheim wittily incorporates aspects of this history into ‘Utopian Tales’, whose titles make reference to the imagined places of Mikrotonia, Carnaticala and Just Intonation Island, as well as the real-life milieu of the Selegrend Movement, a utopian ‘alternative community’ of the 1970s established near to Bergen, Norway, where Urheim lives. Despite the heavy external baggage of ideas with which ‘Utopian Tales’ is freighted, the music itself proves intensely rewarding whether one follows the context or not. While the range of styles provides echoes of influences and exemplars drawn from often wildly different types of music, from the eccentric ‘primitive’ guitar patterns one hears in John Fahey and his followers, to the ambient slide-scapes associated with Roger Eno or Pink Floyd, through to the electric fusion of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, everything somehow remains all of a piece, and can best be appreciated as a continuously developing suite. On the beautiful penultimate track, ‘Ustopia - Part Two’, the atmospheric muted-trumpet of legendary Nordic musician Per Jorgensen and the other-worldly voice of Mari Kvien Brunvoll (with whom Urheim has already made three critically acclaimed duo albums) add their own distinctive identities to Utopian Tales’ strange yet beautiful sound-world, which ends as it began, in a meditative solo piece for Urheim’s guitar.