The death of Nana Vasconcelos has brought back memories of a crucial stage in my musical development. By the time I moved to San Francisco in the mid Eighties, I had been listening to records on the ECM label for a long time, usually seeking records that featured guitarists like Terje Rypdal, John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, David Torn, and Bill Frisell. Nana Vasconcelos was also featured on many of them. I was drawn to one he played on by the listing of a guitarist of whom I had never heard, Frode Alnaes. It was Sagn by bassist Arild Andersen and it seemed to relate to me directly. I had been playing with singer/songwriters for most of my career, always looking for creative ways to accompany them. The music on Sagn is based on Norwegian folk music. In typical Scandinavian musician fashion, Sagn ignored all boundaries and couched Kristen Braten Berg’s singing in jazz, rock, ambient, and Brazilian musics.
I was lucky enough to be playing in a band at the time with an amazing singer/songwriter whose open harmonies, brilliant musicianship, and willingness to embrace any idea of accompaniment let me put this inspiration to work. She would open a concert singing an Irish folk song acapella, (which would silence the rowdiest room) and gradually the band would creep in with rubato accompaniment, my guitar providing ambient volume swells. When we did a Joni Mitchell tribute, she chose “Jungle Line” and I looped Adrian Belew-type animal noises created on guitar.
Around the same time, I did a session with Aina Kemanis who had recorded for ECM with Barre Phillips and Marilyn Mazur. After hearing me play she said, “I work with a guitarist in Marilyn Mazur’s band whom I think you would love. His name is Eivind Aarset.” Not long after that, Nils Petter Molvær’s Khmer came out on ECM, prominently featuring Aarset’s amazing sound-based guitar style and continuing to inspire my trip down the sonic rabbit hole.
Here is Aarset replacing Alnaes in the Sagn band live. Alnes disappeared from the international scene around this time but is worth seeking out.