Arild Andersen: Sagn (ECM 1435)

Arild Andersen
Sagn

Arild Andersen bass
Kirsten Bråten Berg vocals
Bendik Hofseth tenor and soprano saxophones
Frode Alnæs guitar
Bugge Wesseltoft keyboards
Nana Vasconcelos percussion, vocals
Recorded August 1990 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Arild Andersen

Sagn was the result of a commission for the 1990 Vossajazz festival that sealed the collaborative spirits of singer Kirsten Bråten Berg and bassist Arild Andersen. Blending folk songs from their native Norway, along with jazz and rock elements, the two shared the stage with percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, saxophonist Bendik Hofseth, pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, and guitarist Frode Alnæs. While we don’t have (so far as I’m aware) a live recording of what was surely an historic occasion, we do have this ECM studio rendition, buffed and polished to a mirror’s shine.

The album’s multilayered concept is perhaps best demonstrated in the title track, which opens with an ambient drone (something akin to the lull of train tracks) before awakening to the rhythm of Vasconcelos’s touches and Berg’s unmistakably equally earthy elements. Her voice binds this album together, even as it scatters its pages to the wind. Hofseth, bearing a proud stamp of influence from Jan Garbarek while being no mere epigon, traces lines in the sand with his tenor. These Andersen is happy to overstep in that gentle way he has.

From here we travel the length of an entire seasonal cycle, each point on the compass like a year divided. “Gardsjenta” continues this wintry mix, whitewashing us into the young dawn of “Eisemo,” in which Andersen’s lyrical swings first come into prominence amid Vasconcelos’s scrapings. The latter offers a deeper, worldly feel throughout “Toll,” for which Andersen offers a head nod to Eberhard Weber. ECM artist influences continue in “Draum,” in which Alnæs lends a Terje Rypdal brand of melancholy to the album’s first intimations of spring before opening into some powerful screaming from Hofseth (a cathartic moment). Wesseltoft cradles the past in the vocal territories of “Laurdagskveld,” while “Tjovane” (heard more recently on Trio Mediaeval’s Folk Songs) sends us forward into the band’s ecstatic synergies. “Sorgmild” is by far the album’s most breathtaking. Hofseth’s tenor sings like the wind and primes us for a tender solo from Andersen. After the diffusion of “Svarm” and “Gamlestev,” the syncopations of “Reven” bring us into a lively summer. It is also a mysterious summer, whose dreams are played out in a smattering of rounded tracks until the winds of “Belare” whip up a storm of leaves, bringing us full circle into the icy depths and ending this masterful album on a trailing brushstroke.

Sagn is a massive effort, one of ECM’s fullest on a single disc, and stands as Andersen’s most personal statement to date.

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