Nils Petter Molvær, 'Solid Ether' (2000)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Solid Ether opens in the established vein of an ECM Records release. Solo trumpet. Whispery, poignant, Nordic. A slow accumulation of glassy underlay. This is Nils Petter Molvær, not quite 40 at the time, setting up one hell of a gut punch.

It lands almost precisely at the two-minute mark: a shuddery premonition of electronics, and then a hard, full-blown drum-n-bass groove. Anyone who'd been paying close attention was primed for this — the previous Molvær album on ECM, Khmer, pointed the way — but still, the lunging audacity of this music was a shock, if not entirely a surprise.

Shock is easy, though. What elevates Solid Ether and its indelible opening track, "Dead Indeed," is the care and concentration that Molvær brings to his sculptural treatment of a theme. I remember a lot of jazz-meets-electronic dilettante-ism on the scene at the turn of the century, but here we have a true connoisseur of the form — a sonic collagist who understands the art of layering, the potential of the technology, and the timeless value of melody. (Hear the floaty trumpet-and-synth theme that moves, implacable, over the heave and growl in the bass clef. "Solid ether" indeed.)

Elsewhere on the album, there are contributions from DJ Strangefruit, a bassist and a pair of drummers. But "Dead Indeed" features only guitarist Eivind Aarset and Molvær himself — on synthesizer, sampler, loops and various other effects. I've seen him pull off this sorcery live, and it's as impressive at it seems. What it augured in 2000 was a smarter, more fully syncretic brand of electro-jazz (ugh, that ungainly term) that was beginning to find purchase in the mainstream.

Buy Solid Ether from Amazon or stream it on Spotify.