A longtime member of ex-Pat Metheny Group drummer Paul Wertico's trio, enough has already been written about John Moulder's double life as jazz guitarist and ordained priest. Bifrost is Moulder's follow-up to the ambitious and eclectic Trinity (Origin, 2006), where the guitarist's spirituality became a touchstone for music ranging from the ethereal to the grounded, and from elegant folklore to potent, angst-driven fusion. What makes Bifrost even more satisfying is its narrowing of focus down from a larger cast of characters to a quintet, bringing together old friends Wertico and fretless electric bassist Brian Peters with new Norwegian ones, double-bassist Arild Andersen and saxophonist Bendik Hofseth.
That Andersen collaborated, early in his career, with Terje Rypdal makes this transatlantic first encounter all the more successful, given that Moulder's visceral, overdriven and often whammy bar-centric electric playing is unmistakably influenced by the Norwegian guitar legend. And while he certainly possesses his own voice, the sound of another Norwegian notable and early Andersen cohort, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, is an equal touchstone in Hofseth's tone and approach.
Here, Moulder's high energy electric is juxtaposed and combined with six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars to to create a context that hints, in some ways, back to Ralph Towner and Solstice (ECM, 1975). Bifrost's opening title track, in fact, speaks deeply of Towner's harmonic language and, with Wertico's light cymbal work and Hofseth's soaring lines, could easily fall into similar territory were it not for Andersen's in-the-gut double-bass and Moulder's searing electric solo. Moulder's serpentine melody weaves around ambiguous harmonies, as the piece builds dramatically?and inevitably.
Moulder may drive some of Bifrost with hard-edged electricity, but he's also capable of softer lyricism; his solo acoustic intro to the ultimately more buoyant "Watch Your Step"?where his acoustic melody is bolstered in strong, lilting unison by Hofseth and Peters? sounding like an outtake from Metheny's One Quiet Night (Nonesuch, 2003). "Echoes of Home," driven gently by Wertico's percussion, is another acoustic feature, with Moulder recalling Windham Hill's Alex DeGrassi, but with greater depth.
Andersen's remarkable combination of deep, resonant tone and lithe dexterity is a fundamental throughout the disc, with his solo intro to "Magical Space" a highlight as he builds phrase-after-phrase over a looped chordal wash. Once the group enters, setting a dark context for solos by Moulder (again, on acoustic) and Hofseth, its temporal elasticity recalls ECM classics like Bill Connors' Of Mist and Melting (1978). Wertico's restraint here is as impressive as his more powerful bent on the closing part of Moulder's episodic "Time Being," a 15-minute epic that ends with a repeating series of ascending chords, bringing the album to a strong and definitive close.
Quietly, and with little fuss, Moulder has built his voice as writer and performer, and a rare ability to conceptualize broader narratives. With Bifrost he leverages Trinity's ambitious nature into an album that may appear smaller in focus, but is ultimately even more expansive in overall sound, vision and chemistry.