Jon Christensen, Inspired Norwegian Drummer Heard on Dozens of ECM Albums, is Dead at 76

Feb 18, 2020

Jon Christensen, a Norwegian drummer whose firm yet flowing pulse helped shift the parameters for European jazz, notably as one of the most widely recorded sidemen on ECM Records, died on Tuesday in Oslo. He was 76.

His wife, actor and director Ellen Horn, announced his passing, noting that he had died in his sleep.

Christensen came of age in the 1960s, as the values of an ascendant avant-garde were beginning to find wider purchase in the jazz mainstream. He liked to describe his rhythm concept not in linear terms but rather as a wave — with the implication that it could accommodate all manner of ebb and flow.

He rose to prominence as part of a cadre of insightful young Norwegian improvisers that included saxophonist Jan Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal and bassist Arild Andersen. As a foursome under Garbarek’s leadership, they recorded one of the earliest releases on ECM, Afric Pepperbird (1970).

In short order, Christensen also appeared on Underwear, an early album by Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson (1971); on several more by Garbarek, including Witchi-Tai-To (1973); on a few by Rypdal, including Waves (1977); and on ECM recordings by guitarist Ralph Towner and others. His flexible articulation of time, and the dry ping of his 22-inch Istanbul K ride cymbal, became hallmarks of the ECM sound.

Among American listeners especially, his most prominent affiliation from this period was with pianist Keith Jarrett, who formed a quartet featuring Garbarek, Christensen and the Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson. The first album by this group was Belonging, in 1974; thereafter the band was commonly known as Jarrett’s Belonging Quartet.

In footage of the band from 1974, filmed in a Norwegian television studio, they open with “The Windup,” an Ornette Coleman-informed tune that recently found new life on albums by Branford Marsalis and Julian Lage. Note the shifting details in the drumming — crisp and clattering in one moment, diffuse and airy the next, with equal authority in a swinging or fractured-funk mode.

Jon Ivar Christensen was born in Oslo, Norway on March 20, 1943. He was playing the drums in local big bands by age 15, and by the early 1960s he was a member of small groups like the Arild Wikstrøm Quartet. As a member of the house band at the Metropol jazz club, he met expat Americans like pianist Bud Powell and saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who provided encouragement.

During this same period, the mid-‘60s, Christensen worked with Norwegian jazz singer Karin Krog, and backed an array of visiting artists at the Molde Jazz Festival. He appeared on several albums by composer George Russell, starting with The Essence of George Russell, released on the Norwegian label Sonet in 1971.

Naturally, Christensen also became a sought-after drummer for American musicians on tour; here is footage of a typically dynamic drum solo from a Sonny Rollins concert at the 1971 Kongsberg Jazzfestival. (The tune is “Sonnymoon For Two,” and the others in the band are Stenson and Andersen.)

Christensen was voted Drummer of the Year by the European Jazz Federation in 1975, the year that he appeared on ECM albums by German bassist Eberhard Weber and Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava. The following year, Christensen made the first and only album under his own name, as a collaboration with Andersen, Rypdal and fellow drummer Pål Thowsen; its wry title is No Time For Time.

For roughly a decade, starting in the early 1980s, Christensen and Andersen co-led a band called Masqualero, after the Wayne Shorter composition. Among the younger members of the group, which released several albums, was a sharp trumpeter named Nils Petter Molvær, who went on to form his own brand of hypermodern fusion.  

As Christensen settled into his stature as one of Oslo’s indisputable jazz elders, he also moved within Norwegian high society. When Ellen Horn, whom he married in 1988, served as Minister of Culture around the turn of the century, he met King Harald V, and struck up a friendship over their mutual love of sports.

Along with Horn, Christensen’s surviving family includes their daughter, Emilie Stoesen Christensen, an actor and jazz singer who recently made her own ECM debut on an album by Jon Balke’s Batagraf.

Credit Terje Mosnes

In recent years, Christensen worked with old associates, like Stenson, as well as younger talent like Norwegian guitarist Jacob Young. Another guitarist on the ECM roster, Jakob Bro, featured Christensen and the American bassist Thomas Morgan in a telepathic trio. (On a sterling 2018 release, Returnings, they expand to a quartet with the addition of trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg.)

Much like Paul Motian, perhaps his closest American counterpart, Christensen became the subject of widespread adulation in his 70s, without ever resting on his laurels. One of his final recording dates was with the electronic musicians Bugge Wesseltoft and Prins Thomas, who sought out his touch, almost as a sort of blessing, for their recent, self-titled collaboration. One track on the album, a low-key showcase for Christensen, bears the title “Sin Tempo.”

That phrase, with its suggestion of freeform flutter, would seem like an apt description of Christensen’s percussive legacy — but also, by his reckoning, a bit of a misunderstanding. In a 2005 interview with Modern Drummer magazine, he elaborated on a notion of tempo that eludes the strict definition of timekeeping.

“You could go to a jazz club Tuesday at 8 o’clock and play just one tap on the cymbal,” he said, “then come back to the club exactly one week later and play one more cymbal hit. People would think the two events have nothing in common. But that is a beat.”