Agnes Buen Garnås/Jan Garbarek: Rosensfole – Medieval Songs from Norway (ECM 1402)

 

Agnes Buen Garnås
Jan Garbarek
Rosensfole: Medieval Songs from Norway

Agnes Buen Garnås vocal
Jan Garbarek synthesizers, percussion instruments, soprano and tenor saxophones
Recorded Autumn 1988 at Bel Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Ingar Helgesen and Ulf Holland
Produced by Jan Garbarek and Manfred Eicher

One can hardly overstate the innovativeness of saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Having started as a strong arm of free jazz impressionism, Garbarek quickly turned to the future by mining the past, regaling the world of recorded music with an historical dimension. The crowning achievement of these efforts remains Rosensfole, for which we put the spotlight on folk singer Agnes Buen Garnås in lush settings of synthesizer, percussion, and tenor and soprano saxophones. These two complementary forces touch their cool torches to a tincture of medieval songs from their native Norway, making for an album that could exist nowhere but on ECM, a label ever at the forefront of vivacious interpretations of antiquities with the languages of the here and now.

Such explorations had by then already manifested themselves in Garbarek’s work, but with Garnås his vision was deepened in an entirely new direction. It is also because of her that we have the current program, which reads like a catalog of her work in the field. The scope of her commitment is clearest in “Innferd,” which comes from none other than the singer’s mother. Her bright calls to power blend the word into image and both into air, filling the listener with countless narrative possibilities. (On that note, one needs hardly a translated word within reach in order to appreciate the evocativeness thereof.) The title song carries forth an especially potent vibe, which is heightened by Garbarek’s attentive percussion and synth dulcimer strains. Like many of the tracks thereafter, its spell breaks all too quickly, leaving us still and in dire need of the nourishment that comes in the 16-minute “Margjit Og Targjei Risvollo.” Here the music heaves with the weight of legend, bringing the freshness of its wounds to bear upon the unsuspecting listener with unwavering drama.

In the wake of this epic statement, “Maalfri Mi Fruve” peaks above the mounting waves in an intimate call and response. This stunner sits at the edge of a towering abyss of life (and a love of the same), segueing us into sonic flowers like “Venelite” and “Signe Lita” that morph into drum-heavy expositions of the plains. The latter, along with the droning “Grisilla,” unlocks its secrets one string at a time, floating freely and with the tinge of a lullaby—its sweetness veneered by a hint of mortality—before riding into the sunset on a steed of light and poetry. “Stolt Øli” gives us an even bolder taste of the salty air, furthering that ride through a cloud-shadowed landscape of crumbling stone castles and widening vistas, while “Lillebroer Og Storebroer” diffuses its gallop with electronic voices surrounding a blacksmith’s beat.

Garnås ends this timeless date with “Utferd,” which yodels across the skies with the surety of a shepherd folding into pasture and melts into Garbarek’s plaintive whale song. The latter’s reeds are similarly understated throughout, providing nary a leading line but thickly drawn chords and ephemeral appendages.

Although Rosensfole may not have caught on so noticeably stateside, it proved to be an eye-opener in Norway, where generations of up-and-coming jazz musicians took it as a window into the neglected corners of their craft. One can still hear its influence in the work of Steve Tibbetts and in crossover acts like Vas. A fitting companion to Trio Mediaeval’s Folk Songs, Rosensfole shows a side of Garbarek’s evocative abilities heard only on his solo albums and, more importantly, has in Garnås introduced many to a voice for the ages.

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