Hearing Hí¥vard Wiik on a fine Steinway grand is a musical pleasure, but I once saw him play on a clapped-out electric piano, and it was a genuine thrill. That was a couple of years ago, when the Norwegian keyboardist's part-time band Atomic had been booked into a venue with a piano that was way beyond inadequate. Once Wiik had determined that the old upright had too many broken keys to be playable, a frantic search ensued for a replacement, and the best that could be found was a 40-year-old Fender Rhodes that had obviously been rescued from the back of some rock band's van.
Some pianists might have taken the night off, but Wiik dug right in, wrestling sounds from that Rhodes that its designer could never have imagined. Almost as remarkable was the wicked grin Wiik sported for most of the evening—he was working really hard, and enjoying every minute of it.
So it's not entirely surprising that when the Straight reaches the 34-year-old musician he confesses that, more than anything else, he likes a bit of a struggle.
“You have to challenge yourself as a musician, and have fun at the same time,” he says, on the line from a Berlin hotel. “It's important to try to challenge yourself in all ways, I think: not to choose the safe, but to choose the challenging part.”
Granted, that doesn't usually involve working out on an ill-maintained electric keyboard. Instead, Wiik means that in order to pursue his own musical path, he's had to avoid orthodoxies of all kinds. Consequently, his playing straddles the line between conventional modern-jazz harmony and more abstract styles—and a useful clue to his approach can be found on Eight Tunes We Like, the 2005 “covers” record he made with saxophonist Hí¥kon Kornstad.
Among those tunes are pieces by avant-jazz keyboardists Carla Bley and Annette Peacock, as well as an arrangement of an early 12-tone composition by Anton Webern.
“I like all the rule-breakers—and the rule-makers,” Wiik says. “Transitional periods in music are often the most interesting ones, because that's when people try to break or make new rules. In trying to go from the old to the new, you can still hear some of the old stuff and a lot of the new stuff, and I find that interesting.”
Wiik's own trio—in which he's joined by bassist Ole Morten Ví¥gen and drummer Hí¥kon Mjí¥set Johansen—is a case in point. Listen carefully, and you can hear distinct echoes of older pianists: on the band's The Arcades Project CD, the Canadian innovator Paul Bley's complex harmonies are arguably present in Wiik's “Malachi” and “Wiesengrund”, while hints of the young Chick Corea's twisted rhythms turn up in the title track. But Wiik, whose writing is both technically demanding and emotionally compelling, has definitely got his own thing going on—even when he's not playing Fender Rhodes.
The Hí¥vard Wiik Trio plays Performance Works next Saturday (February 20).