Lena Willemark and Ale Möller: Agram (ECM 1610)

Lena Willemark
Ale Möller

Ale Möller mandola, lute, natural flutes, folk-harp, shawm, wooden trumpet, hammered dulcimer
Palle Danielsson double bass
Mats Edén drone fiddle
Tina Johansson percussion
Jonas Knutsson soprano and baritone saxophones, percussion
Lena Willemark vocal, fiddle, viola
Recorded March 30–April 3, 1996 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Although Lena Willemark and Ale Möller surely made a lasting first impression with Nordan, Agram was for a long time my only exposure to the Swedish duo. This sequel of sorts finds them carrying the project to new heights (and depths) among a more intimate group. The pared-down roster makes for an open sound and leaves room also for Willemark’s fantastic compositions. In the latter vein is the title piece, which rests her vocal powers on a bed of dulcimer and bowed sentiments. It is the hallmark of an album wrought in soil and breath, and realized in a landscape distant but ever familiar. The soprano saxophone of Jonas Knutsson is a distinct voice throughout, drawing water for the fiddle’s inky swirls in “Syster Glas” and hanging a wreath of tradition on the door of “Sasom Fagelen.” As in the likeminded Dowland Project, the high reed’s presence is welcome one, dovetailing to bagpipe-like effect in “Fastän” and bringing ancestral energy to “Blamairi,” another Willemark original. Arousing percussion from Tina Johansson provides traction for that liberating voice, which, as it rings out across the plains “Samsingen” and “Josef fran Arimatea” (two standouts among ECM’s folkways), tells a story as much with words as through the music that is its shelter. Meanwhile, bassist Palle Danielsson works his own divinations along trails of cast bones. These share the same destination: “Lager och Jon,” an exhilarating chorus of activity that buffs the clouds to invisibility before rushing headlong through a stream of bows and alley-oops. Möller unfolds his shawm’s biting wonders in “Slängpolskor,” leading us into the epic “Elvedansen.” The images here feed on sound, each a chariot of belonging rescued by the hands of “Simonpolskan,” a flowing script of a piece that throws us into comforting waters and closes our eyes, adrift and safe.

In addition to the unfailing music, Agram is yet another benchmark for production and sound quality for the label. It delineates a space where voices and instruments are shadows of one another. Willemark need hardly sing, because even when she stops, her voice lingers.

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