Håvard Wiik Leans Into Nordic Tradition with Atomic

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Berlin-based pianist Håvard Wiik has mastered a stylistic hodgepodge on three recent recordings.

(Photo: Cristina Marx)

Atomic, a tirelessly creative free-bop quintet, has carved out a niche in the Nordic jazz scene.

At the center of its bracing free-improv trips is the troupe’s de facto leader, Håvard Wiik. A piano wizard who writes the bulk of the group’s material, the Norwegian-born, Berlin-based Wiik is both heady freewheeler and laser-focused virtuoso, drawing deep inspiration from myriad genres including, American jazz, European free-improv and classical music. And the stylistic hodgepodge seemingly has been mastered on three recent recordings that Wiik’s contributed to: Atomic’s Pet Variations (Odin), his trio’s This Is Not A Waltz (Moserobie) and Concurrences (Trouble in The East) by collaborative trio Der Lange Schatten.

The pianist also is gearing up for a South American tour with Atomic prior to U.S. dates with Der Lange Schatten and a recording with a new quartet led by Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen.

DownBeat recently chatted with Wiik over Skype from his home in Germany about the eclectic choice of covers on Pet Variations, his embrace of Nordic jazz and his first trio record in more than a decade.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the idea of Pet Variations being primarily covers come about?

We had been doing our own music for so many years and we always talked about trying to play other people’s music, just to see how that would work out. Then we got a pretty big commission from The Trondheim Jazz Orchestra to do a project which involved all new music. We didn’t feel like writing a whole new record, so we thought, “Let’s do this cover record idea.”

Did you come into it knowing what songs you’d like to cover? It’s a pretty eclectic mix.

Yeah, Atomic has always been about [being] eclectic in many ways. We’ve always drawn influences from a wide variety of inspirations, so [Pet Variations] reflects that. It really reflects that way we’ve been working from the beginning, drawing inspiration and just doing what we want to do.

Your playing seems just as informed by classical music as jazz. What were you introduced to first? Are there specific composers crucial to defining your path?

I don’t have much formal training as a classical pianist, and was more interested in improvising and composing from the start, although it wasn’t necessarily jazz back then. I’ve listened to a wide range of composers—Messiaen to Morton Feldman, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Frederic Rzweski and so on.

Why did you decide to combined an original composition with Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” to open Pet Variations?

Well, that’s an interesting thing. That whole piece is basically a variation of the Brian Wilson tune: All the melodic fragments, the bass lines and everything is actually packed into the original arrangements in [our cover of] “Pet Sounds.” Because [the arrangements on the record] are so dense and there’s so many details, it gets lost if you don’t really listen to them. So, I took them out and brought them up front and made music out of them instead, so they wouldn’t be hidden in the background.

Atomic has been described as “Nordic jazz.” Is that something you push back against?

No, not at all. We don’t have any negative ideas against the Nordic sound or anything [laughs]. It’s hard to escape what you’re born into; it’s been a part of us from the beginning. I still think Atomic sounds “Nordic” in many ways—it’s not full on Brötzmann-style all the time. There’s a lot of space at times, too.

On Pet Variations, you cover a tune by Jan Garbarek, a saxophonist who helped spearhead that Nordic sound. Is he someone who was a major influence for Atomic?

At least the early stuff. I know people in the band have listened a lot to him and [“Karin’s Mode” is] one of his first compositions. You can’t really escape the tradition you come from. ... For me, personally, not so much, but people in the band have listened a lot to it. It’s there.

Looking at the covers on Pet Variations, American jazz and European free-improvisation played a big role in Atomic’s direction. How big of an influence was American jazz for you?

I was very into American jazz in my late teens and early twenties, and along the way a lot of other influences come along. European jazz, European free-jazz and ’60s American jazz, and there’s a lot of influences coming from new-music and rock. It’s all there.

On Pet Variations, you cover Jimmy Guiffre, and I’ve read he was a big influence on you as well.

Oh, yeah, definitely. For me, those trio records with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow have been very important from a pretty early stage.

In addition to Pet Variations, you released a record with your trio, This Is Not A Waltz, last year. Is Atomic more of a collaborative group, while the trio is your own vision?

Yes, as a composer, a lot of my strategy is to write for the people I play with. So, the kind of tunes I write for Atomic [are] formed also by and also influenced by the people who play them. The same goes for the trio. I know Håkon [Mjåset Johansen] and Ole Morten [Vågan], the drummer and bassist, have special qualities, so I try to write for that sound that they have and that we make together. So, that’s the difference: different people for me, I get different ideas for writing music.

You also have played a lot of with Chicago-based musicians, like Ken Vandermark and Joshua Abrams, and last year you played with a new group called The Chicago Project. Why do you think you have such a kinship with them?

I met Ken in 2000 in Oslo, so everything I’ve done through Chicago has always been through Vandermark. That’s my big connection and to the people who I’ve met and worked with. I’ve been going there since 2004. I already recorded with The Chicago Project. I was there in January; Atomic was touring the States and the last gig was in Chicago, and I stayed on and did some playing and then recorded with that group.

Can we expect a record soon from The Chicago Project?

[laughing] If somebody wants to release it, yes. DB




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June 2019
Jeremy Pelt
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