Sinikka Langeland: The Magical Forest (ECM 2448)

the-magical-forest

Sinikka Langeland
The Magical Forest

Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Trygve Seim
 soprano and tenor saxophones
Anders Jormin double bass
Markku Ounaskari percussion
Trio Mediæval
Anna Maria Friman vocals
Berit Opheim
vocals
Linn Andrea Fuglseth
 vocals
Recorded February 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: August 5, 2016

On The Magical Forest, Norwegian kantele virtuoso Sinikka Langeland reconvenes her “Starflowers” quintet (with saxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer-percussionist Markku Ounaskari), adding to that quilt the patchwork of voices known as Trio Mediæval. Any of these names will be familiar across the spectrum of ECM followers, but their shared love for Scandinavian folk music has never been so clear as in this latest project.

In contrast to previous albums, the kantele is a largely supportive presence, almost airy in its backgrounded-ness. This gives Langeland’s unaffected singing—and, more importantly, the imagery laced into it—room to roam. Of central significance in that regard is the sacredness of space. Not only in the immaterial sense, but also in the physical landscapes of nature at large and their shaping of reality as we’ve come to understand it over millennia of spiritual seeking.

The album’s opening trifecta sets its thematic charge as the rising sun ignites the day into breaking. “Puun Loitsu” (Prayer to the Tree Goddess) is based on a rune song text from the Finnskogen, or Forest Finns, whose migratory settlements in Norway and Sweden have become reliquaries for creation myths and other origin stories, glistening anew in the varnish of Langeland’s diction. The wiry strains of the kantele offer hints of song, which emerges first in monotone before being taken up in Trio Mediæval’s chanting response. “Sammas” crystallizes the running theme in its evocation of the “world pillar” (axis mundi), a column of infinite energy binding Heaven to Earth and circling around the North Star. The lyrics, with their Trinitarian framing, demonstrate one way in which Christian elements have found their way over the centuries into these mystical traditions. The light-bearing qualities of Henriksen’s trumpeting deepen these underlying messages, which “Jacob’s Dream” makes even more apparent. This retelling of the biblical Patriarch’s vision emphasizes the permanence of verticality over the fleetingness of horizontality. The “ladder,” then, is not climbable by the body but constitutes the body itself: a DNA helix spun from godly breath. Once the words are sung, the instrumentalists brilliantly unravel an improvisational second half. Seim’s tenor and Henriksen’s trumpet move in tandem, drawing rungs between them as they travel.

Trees continue to dominate the landscape in “Køyri” and “Karsikko.” The latter, which names a memorial trunk on which the names of the dead are carved, is based on a variant of the hymn “I Know of a Sleep in Jesus’s Name,” and Langeland’s communications with Henriksen make for some picturesque unfolding in both songs. “Pillar to Heaven” likewise strengthens an interconnectedness of things.

As so often happens on a Langeland album, animals figure heavily into the symbolism of The Magical Forest. “The Wolfman” recounts a man named Johan who, according to legend, lived as a wolf yet died as a man. The inseparability of soil and sky resurfaces, as Ounaskari’s cymbals seem to scale the clouds. “Kamui” takes a relatively documentarian turn in its depiction of Hokkaido, Japan’s indigenous Ainu, whose annual ritual killing of a bear cub is described in empathetic detail, while Trio Mediæval intones the titular “Kamui,” an Ainu word meaning “God” and referring to both the sacrifice and the deity honored by it. This leaves only the title track, an instrumental foregrounding the bird-like calls of Seim (now on soprano saxophone) and Henriksen while Jormin’s arco bassing slithers in the underbrush.

All of which makes me think that the album’s title is somewhat misleading. For indeed, what the listener encounters here is not a forest that is magical but a magic that is forested.

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

David Virelles: Antenna (ECM 3901)

antenna

David Virelles
Antenna

Ove Johansson review for The NYC Jazz Record

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On Christmas Eve, 2015, Swedish jazz lost an undisputed maverick in Ove Johansson. All the more fitting then that the tenor saxophonist’s swan song should span seven discs in as many hours. Although just as comfortable tying his laces on straight as he was yanking them off his shoes and throwing them in the listener’s face, over the years Johansson settled into a trademark solo style, marrying long-form improvisations with electronics. While on paper this may recall John Surman’s classic reed-and-synthesizer experiments of the 80s, in practice Johansson’s is a less cohesive art. Which is not to say it doesn’t bond in accordance with its own clandestine rules. For while the electronics—which range from drum machine beats to impressionistic waves—at first seem like a cheap application of retrospective blush, over time their dated quality reflects these danses macabre with clarity. Still, seven hours of such clarity will test your resolve, if only because Johansson’s playing is so engaging on its own that anything added to it feels secondary at best and, at worst, intrusive.

The first four discs, along with the last, consist of hour-long improvisational treks over amorphous landscapes. Each is named after a month, November and December being the synth-heaviest and most meandering of the bunch. Discs five and six, which together boast 45 tracks, are the most exciting, spotlighting Johansson as they do in live settings. The compactness of these pieces makes them visceral, so that one can almost smell the sweat of their kinesis. All of this feeds into the seventh disc, which reveals the album’s sharpest edges and rewards the journey with rawness.

Just as Johansson was a self-taught musician, so too does his music require self-taught listening. There’s no roadmap or manual: just a splattered terrain that begs the tread of an adventurous ear. Listening to this set is like breaking a hermetic seal, out of which come spilling years of pent-up energy, which in light of his death reads like messages from the other side.

(This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Zakir Hussain & Niladri Kumar: A Match Made on Earth

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Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Niladri Kumar (sitar)
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
October 14, 2016
8:00pm

In 1987, Zakir Hussain released one of my favorites among his “nontraditional” albums, Making Music. It was a prophetic title for the world’s leading Indian classical tabla player, whose dedication to doing just that is never clearer than when experiencing him in a live setting. Ithacans had that very fortune on 14 October 2016, when a crowd of over 1000 filled Cornel University’s Bailey Hall for his two-and-a-half-hour performance with Niladri Kumar. In characteristic humility, Zakir introduced himself as little more than Niladri’s accompanist, on a mission as he is to promote the rising sitar virtuoso to new, global audiences (for more on this, see my interview with Zakir here). The duo began with a Rageshree, a Hindustani raga following a 16-beat rhythm cycle, before moving on to lighter material for the second, along with a few modern surprises. Such pedantic descriptions, however, evoke nothing of what it felt like to be in the presence of two living masters.

When, after an exchange of tuning (and attunement), Niladri opened with a 15-minute solo, he disclosed not only his dexterity on the instrument but also his ability to speak through its resonant chamber in a language that filled the auditorium, which trembled between solidity and vanishing at the likeminded harmony of intent and surrender pulsing through its molecules. Whereas raga settings often employ a drone via the open-tuned tanpura, Niladri provided his own undercurrent, fingers as effortless as reeds wavering in a river’s current. Whenever he departed from those lower flames to craft a melody from their smoke, he bent the higher strings like time itself, wrenching melodies from their dying breaths in ways that stretched our ears to their limits of perception. The sitarist built a freestanding structure from every variation, picking up speed with the majestic passivity of a mountain peak catching cloud. Whether strumming a single note beyond the embrace of its own vibrations or gracing the sympathetic strings beneath, he was the incarnation of patience as its own reward. His rhythms were an organic heartbeat, the raga its lifetime of circulating blood.

The effect of all this was such that Zakir’s first entrance felt more like implosion than explosion, a changing of the world through synchronicity. He needed barely touch the drum, and it sang with freedom. Like two birds, wandering yet returning at key points to touch wings, he and Niladri participated in equal exchange, bartering in a currency that was beyond the expressive capacity of anyone there to hear it yet inevitable as the tide. Through melodic call and response, especially in the folk motifs to which they later turned, these artists shed the kneejerk divinity of association by way of proving the multidimensionality of earthly art. With delicate yet no-less-enthralling skill, and appropriate touches of humor to make the audience feel included, they expanded their respective toolkits as the night unfolded, each an orchestra unto himself. When, for instance, Zakir ventured beyond his tabla onto the terrain of peripheral percussion, he completed a circuit of expectation we never knew was there. And when Niladri unveiled an electric instrument of his own invention called the “zitar,” he coaxed from his gracious accompanist a global, cinematic palette.

More electric, though, was the air shared between us as their students and them as our teachers, between the past and the future. Indeed, here was a glimpse of times yet lived, pulled from minds yet to be born into every absorbent soul. For while these players may have been in and of the moment, they were as much beyond the reach of history as they were makers of it.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Avishai Cohen: Into The Silence (ECM 2482)

Into The Silence

Avishai Cohen
Into The Silence

Avishai Cohen trumpet
Bill McHenry tenor saxophone
Yonathan Avishai piano
Eric Revis double-bass
Nasheet Waits drums
Recorded July 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: February 12, 2016

Following his appearance as sideman on Mark Turner’s Lathe of Heaven, Avishai Cohen makes his leader debut for ECM Records. Bearing dedication to his late father, Into The Silence teams the trumpeter with a fantastic band of his own that includes tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Nasheet Waits. This effort marks the first time the band had, as such, stepped foot inside a studio, and the results hark back to the golden age of ECM in both texture and mood. From its spacious arranging and freely realized originals to its classical roots (the solo piano music of Rachmaninoff was a conscious inspiration) and cross-pollination of styles, Cohen’s musical identity speaks at once from without and within.

Through the six-sided prism of as many tunes, Cohen shines a light as only the darkness of mourning could yield. The muted lines of “Life And Death” feel as much celebratory as elegiac. Cohen thus asserts himself as more than a voice among the voiceless, as if the album’s titular silence were not the absence of sound but a personal choice to protect one’s dreams. Here, however, we are bathed in dreamlike qualities with such melodiousness that it’s all we can do to not imagine the many fates that must have convened to produce this patient bit of magic. Avishai’s pianism is another ripe fruit in the band’s gift basket. Morphing from barest comping to bluesy climatic shifts and sparkling tails, he is a comet in an already starry sky. The end of this opener, though a postludinal afterthought, is just as substantial as what comes before it.

“Dream Like A Child” only deepens the spell craft of its predecessor. Unmuted yet just as vulnerable, Cohen undoes the ribbon of this offering to reveal a melodic ocean just aching to crash on the listener’s shore. The pianism is majestic yet aptly proportioned, mirroring the underlying respectful altitude at every turn: just when you think it has gathered enough momentum to soar, it touches its feet to the earth. Though things do cohere in more groove-oriented ways as the rhythm section builds a higher and higher wall from which Cohen and McHenry must jump, there’s no doubt that the ground will hold its foundation through Waits’s textural reinforcements.

The title track expands on ECM’s evolving ethos of ritualistic jazz, as drums and microtonal harmonies in the piano interlock with downright spiritual patience. Again, the band flirts with groove but foregoes that sweetness for a cerebral savory. These strategies become more evident with repeat listens (for this is, indeed, an album you’ll want to return to time and again). Waits is an organic force here, moving from tumbling abstractions to tight snare rolls at the flick of a wrist, his plumage fully outstretched.

A Cohen

Somberness, however, is never far behind, and “Quiescence” bottles its fragrance like a master perfumer. Cohen’s trumpeting is the center of a vocal solar system, shining through planets forged in thematic space dust. Lengths of days and seasonal changes are determined by the gravitational pull of nostalgia, so that by the next track, “Behind The Broken Glass,” one knows that fragmentation is a universal law. Cohen proves that, in the wake of any emotional shattering, no effort of putting the pieces back together will produce a clean reflection, for it will always bear the scars of its undoing. The breadth of his inspirations has brought him to this humble (and humbling) realization in his career, and finds empathetic amplification in his bandmates that funnels in the solo piano reprise of “Life And Death” that ends the album’s journey.

Having seen this project with a different roster at the 2016 New York City Winter Jazzfest, I can attest to the raw, living power of its music. So much so that, following that experience, this studio date feels somewhat tame by comparison. So: see them in person if you can, but revel in the wonders of this “second best” all the same, for in them is a pilot light that ECM lit nearly five decades ago, and which continues to burn pure and warm despite the winds of change.