In Memoriam: Jon Christensen

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Jon Christensen (1943–2020)

(Photo: Roberto Masotti/ECM Records)

Jon Christensen, the Norwegian drummer who was the backbone for dozens of ECM releases and was widely considered a crucial element of the Scandinavian jazz community, died in his sleep at home in Oslo on Feb. 18. He was 76. The news was announced via Facebook by his wife, actor and filmmaker Ellen Horn.

“The legend is gone and it feels really sad,” Jaga Jazzist drummer Martin Horntveth said on the social media site after the news broke. “The music lives forever!”

Christensen’s approach to his chosen instrument was akin to a tai-chi master, the smallest amount of movement being used to maximum effect. His gestures behind the kit seemed slight, but through them, Christensen was able to draw out powerful rhythms and expressive shuffles.

Born in Oslo on March 20, 1943, the drummer’s ascendance in the Norwegian jazz community was swift. As a teen, he was playing in local groups, and by his 20s, he was gigging regularly and landing work backing up vocalist Karin Krog and accompanying Einar Iversen on his 1967 bop release, Me And My Piano. But as with many young Nordic musicians of Christensen’s generation, the allure of fusing jazz, r&b, psychedelia and experimental sounds proved irresistible.

Christensen’s drumming helped fuel early albums by guitarists Terje Rypdal and Rune Gustafsson, supported composer George Russell on a series of releases, and spurred a long relationship with ECM beginning with 1971’s Sart, a splashy, acid rock-tinged album where the drummer got equal billing alongside Rypdal, Jan Garbarek, Bobo Stenson and Arild Andersen.

“It was part of defining the sound of Scandinavian jazz,” said Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, a Norwegian bassist who shared the stage with Christensen. “When I was studying jazz at the conservatory in the ’90s, [Sart] and those records he made with Arild and Jan were the Bible. They informed everything that came out of there.”

But what helped introduce Christensen to a wider international audience was joining forces with Keith Jarrett. Playing along with Garbarek and bassist Palle Danielsson, they became known as Jarrett’s European Quartet and were responsible for some of the pianist’s most articulate ’70s work, including the cool textures of 1974’s Belonging and 1979’s Nude Ants (Live At The Village Vanguard).

Through it all, Christensen became something of the house drummer for ECM, supplying the engine for albums by Miroslav Vitous, Enrico Rava and Ketil Bjørnstad, and helping form the ensemble Masqualero, which recorded four albums beginning in the ’80s.

That latter group was also emblematic of Christensen’s interest in supporting new generations of jazz artists in Scandinavia. Along with Andersen, Masqualero featured then-twentysomething players Nils Petter Molvær and Tore Brunborg. And some of the drummer’s last recorded work was backing up Danish guitarist Jakob Bro and lending his shuffling beats to an album by electronic music producers Prins Thomas and Bugge Wesseltoft.

Horntveth, in his Facebook memorial, spoke of Christensen making regular appearances at a Christmas-season hangout, where he offered up support and friendship to a new school of drummers from Sweden and Norway.

As Flaten remembers, Christensen was generous with his time, willing to jump on some live dates with the bassist and saxophonist Håkon Kornstad, and regaled the young musicians with tales from a five-decade career in the music industry.

“We didn’t have many shows with him, but I felt like I really got to know him through those performances,” Flaten said. “He was so easygoing. I don’t think there was one time where he tried to take control and tell us what to play. He just wanted to make a good sound with the people around him.” DB




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