As a solo pianist, Hoff is one of those inventive performers who can sit in front of a keyboard and improvise endlessly. His style is fluid and lyrical, but at the same time he can connect to a wide range of emotions--it certainly isn't just pretty piano music he's playing. There's bite and there's thunder.
In Stories, however, Hoff does an amazing thing. Those beautiful improvisations are blended with familiar songs, familiar passages, even fleeting moments. Aside from a glorious and thoughtful cover of "God Only Knows," a rearrangement of the traditional Norwegian folk song "Varmlandsvisan" and Gerhard Winkler's "Answer Me," these are all original compositions from Hoff, so those gentle moments of recognition are wonderfully ethereal. At various points, through Stories, I'm reminded of everything from Thomas Dolby to Alan Silvestri's original score from Cast Away. These are incidental, however--the moment I lock in with a flash of realization, Hoff has moved onto something else.
This wavering between pure improvisation and surreptitious homage make Stories one of the most rewarding solo piano works I've heard in some time. By now you know that 2L Recordings are perhaps the most lifelike and natural you can buy in 2017, so I don't need to tell you how warm and spacious the Sofienberg Church sounds, or how producer Morten Lindberg has a better handle on how to bring out the wood and the wire of a piano out into the open better than anyone else.
Just grab this recording and wait for a snowy day, like today, and stare out the window and think about everything that matters to you.
Stories is Jan Gunnar Hoff’s third solo piano album on the 2L label, though this is the first time I’ve come across him. The Norwegian 2L label is very much an audiophile concern, and the package for this release comes with versions in Surround and Stereo. The piano sound is a real treat here in DSD, but as the song goes, ‘things can only get better.’
There’s a minor-key sentimentality to most of these tracks, but there is a certain amount of contrast with some lively improvisatory swing here and there to add verve to the proceedings. On his own work, Jan Gunnar Hoff writes that "music for me, as pianist and composer, is a quest for depth and a quest to find a bridge between my emotions and the piano. When I begin I am uncertain about where the journey will take me and how it will end. It is important that compositions and improvisations constitute a natural whole. And classic songs like “God Only Knows” are stories and they must be told in a personal manner.”
Stories is the perfect title for such an album, with most of the tracks having a distinctive narrative character. These are all finely crafted and beautifully played with considerable style and panache, but as the titles suggest there is an overall mood of soulful nostalgia, wistful longing, and poetic musing, and you might find this working on you as a potent depressant after too long. This is the case even with major-key pieces such as The Elder, which does, however, have a good tune and builds to a powerful climax. Playground is also more animated but clings to fairly ordinary tropes above its rolling bass and doesn’t really go anywhere really inspired. The two ‘standards’, God Only Knows and Answer Me receive a similar treatment, and in the end, these all begin to sound like Keith Jarrett encores. Tastes will differ, and this is, of course, one musician’s very personal journey so in terms of content is to a certain extent immune from criticism, but I for one found myself longing for just a bit more balance, with perhaps one or two more fun-filled Dave McKenna-like pieces.
The Figment tracks are the release from this general atmosphere of blueness, flying off into more abstract realms with some virtuoso rhythmic invention and dextrous fireworks. I will certainly be looking out for Jan Gunnar Hoff’s name in the future as he is clearly an artist of skill and stature, with an expressive lyrical touch and a fine sense of color and harmony. I have a feeling Stories will however be held in reserve for special moments such as when the cat dies.
Audiophile Audition -
Recorded during August 2016 in the fine acoustics of Sofienburg Church, this is Jan Gunnar Hoff’s third recording for the Norwegian label, 2L, and his sixteenth in total.
Hoff is a composer-pianist with wide interests, including classical, rock and jazz idioms; he’s an academic at the Universities of Tromsø and Agder and finds time to organize festivals and camps and to tour as a solo artist. And to make fine recordings, such as this one.
The works on this release are largely his own works, and link together in a nicely varied fashion, alternating the introspective and musing with the more upbeat energetic works. The whole program is a remarkably satisfying hour’s listening. The recital opens with Värmlandsvisan a Swedish folk tune; this will be especially familiar to those who love the work of Billy Mayerl who used this in his Song of the Fir Tree.
From the thoughtful The Elder to the more upbeat Playground the listener is made aware of the variety to come, and the ability of Hoff to communicate with immediacy the varying moods. Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows is most effectively done. The three Figments make interesting listening, and Journey Home and Reminiscence bring the recital to a peaceful and satisfyingly relaxed end.
Jan Gunnar Hoff had a lovely instrument at hand for these sessions, a Steinway Model D. Morten Lindberg has captured the sound of this glorious piano in a thoroughly realistic way. Listening in 5-channel surround I found the results quite marvelous in its accuracy, not only of the instrument but also of the acoustic. Recordings of the piano do not come better than this; it really is a stunningly good sounding album.