Mette Henriette: Taking Off

Nick Hasted
Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Saxophonist Mette Henriette is one of the most intriguing artists on the ECM roster, a musician of ambition and vision

Mette Henriette (photo: ECM Records / Anton Corbijn)
Mette Henriette (photo: ECM Records / Anton Corbijn)

“I’m quite adventurous, and also curious,” Mette Henriette reflects. “And when something feels right, I will lean into it, and see what happens.”

As the Sámi-Norwegian saxophonist releases Drifting, her beautiful second album on ECM, her memory of meeting the label’s legendary boss Manfred Eicher bears out her questing MO: “We were at the same concert in Oslo, and he actually stumbled over me on a staircase!” she laughs. “We started talking, and he wanted to listen to my music. People around me had a much stronger sense of what ECM meant, and maybe dreamt of it being released on it. I actually didn’t. But it made sense when I met Manfred, because I could tell that he understood the anatomy of my music, from the way he was listening, and the questions he asked. It made me want to release a record.”

“In the music industry, often it seems the records are the only thing that matter and create momentum... And I’ve wondered about that sometimes”

Henriette’s self-titled debut in 2016 was an ambitious double album bringing together jazz, classical and tango musicians, with cover photos by Anton Corbijn, who helped define the images of Joy Division, Depeche Mode and U2, and who lauded her “talent and presence and… other-worldly appearance”. Plans for a large ensemble on its follow-up became abruptly illegal during Oslo’s 2020 lockdown. Henriette duly scaled down to a trio and, as its title suggests, Drifting became another demonstration of how life and art can happen if you let it. She found herself able to record in the eerily wondrous setting of Oslo’s new Munch Museum, before a soul or artwork had moved in.

“By a coincidence we could work there when all other places in Oslo were closed,” Henriette recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is really special.’ Playing in such a historic building before it had even begun was a humbling and very unusual feeling.”

Drifting’s trio recordings with pianist Johan Lindvall and cellist Judith Hamann focus on limpidly unfolding melodies and warmly organic ambience, moments of contemporary classical abrasion barely breaking the sylvan calm. Much of the music’s affect occurs beneath the surface, seeming almost to have a subconscious. “I feel it’s more alive than my previous music,” Henriette agrees, “and still alive inside of me now.”

Henriette’s formative years in Trondheim forged an unusual sensibility for a jazz saxist, being less inspired by the instrument’s past greats than by a broader world. “Back then, I was interested in all kinds of things,” she remembers fondly. “Trondheim had a really good jazz university, and a lot of students were into improvised music, so there was a lot of space in the city’s creative consciousness to experiment. I loved dancing, and kickboxing, and felt like there were musical rhythms and accents in my feet in kickboxing. I would saw down a branch in the garden, and try to make a percussion instrument! And I read all kinds of books in the library. I loved language, and I found my family background and Sámi culture interesting. I was really curious in general, and that brought some perspective into my life.”

Henriette’s career since has been similarly varied, with an enviable array of residencies, commissions and collaborations, and time living in Paris and her 'second home' (New York) as well as Norway. Amidst all these adventures, Drifting is only her second album in eight years. This seems to reflect a ceaseless artistic life, in which the musician’s usual LP markers are simply one part.

“In the music industry, often it seems the records are the only thing that matter and create momentum,” Henriette reflects. “And I’ve wondered about that sometimes. Because for me some of the most fulfilling experiences have been in other spheres. Records are such a great format, I love recording music. But at this stage, they’re a facet of a much bigger whole.”

In 2016, for instance, Henriette found herself invited to duet with the legendary performance artist Marina Abramovich, though the latter had never heard her play: “I remember bringing my saxophone to her flat and improvising for her, and when I’d finished and looked into her eyes, she had this enchanted grin on her face, and she said, ‘I knew it!’ Then we took a taxi to the gallery, and it was a crazy, crazy time as we jumped out, because so many people had arrived to see Marina, and also Barack Obama was having dinner across the street! By the time I arrived onstage, people were in a really receptive state, it was so quiet, the ceiling was so tall, and the lights were far away. The atmosphere was electric, and it was really, really special.”

February’s premiere of a Henriette composition commissioned by the Arctic Orchestra in Norway’s far northern outpost Svalbard was equally memorable. “It was performed inside a coal mine,” she laughs. With yet more of the synchronicity Henriette attracts, an earlier Svalbard residency had inspired her to research her Sámi family’s connections to the isolated arctic area.

“I found a documentary showing my great-grandfather leading the first coal mine demonstration in Svalbard in 1911 – the miners there still know about him. And now years later this commission that I started back then was premiered in a coal mine, and they had no idea about any of those connections. It’s such a circle coming together, I almost couldn’t believe it.”

Henriette is, it seems, still drifting in the right direction. “That’s what I’m talking about!” she laughs. “The strangest things will happen!”

Subscribe from only £6.75

Start your journey and discover the very best music from around the world.


View the Current

Take a peek inside the latest issue of Jazzwise magazine.

Find out more