Nils Økland Band: Kjølvatn (ECM 2383)

Kjølvatn

Nils Økland Band
Kjølvatn

Nils Økland viola d’amore, Hardanger fiddle, violin,
Rolf-Erik Nystrøm alto and baritone saxophones
Sigbjørn Apeland harmonium
Mats Eilertsen double bass
Håkon Mørch Stene percussion, vibraphone
Recorded June 2012, Hoff Church Østre Toten, Norway
Engineer: Audun Strype
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 8, 2016

Since his 1996 solo debut, Blå Harding, Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland has charted a range of melodic waters, always docking at the intersection of traditional and contemporary music. His relationship with ECM has produced a series of artistic statements, each more cohesive than the last. His first for the label was 2009’s Monograph, a solo album of great scope that led to 2011’s Lysøen, in duet with Sigbjørn Apeland. And now we have Kjølvatn, for which he has assembled a full band under his own name. Apeland rejoins the fray, here playing harmonium, along with saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and percussionist Håkon Mørch Stene. Each has lived in that gray area between folk, jazz, and classical, and funnels his unique experiences into Økland’s sound-world like grains of sand through an hourglass.

Having worked with these musicians for years in some configuration or another (all except Nystrøm played on Bris, released in 2004 on Rune Grammofon), Økland revisits a trove of older material with special familiarity. A look at even a few of the tunes shows the breadth of his network. He wrote “Mali,” for instance, after attending a concert by Swedish rapper Timbuktu. The band’s profiles cohere evocatively in this opening piece, as in the album’s title track, a retroactive score for the 1933 Scottish silent film The Rugged Island. “Undergrunn” (Underground), too, feels quite integrated, arising as it did from a collaboration with the London Sinfonietta around folk motifs. Such diversity of origins suggests that Økland’s influences are as complex and fragmentary as life itself.

NOB
(Photo credit: Ellen Ane Eggen)

Økland employs a variety of open tunings on the album, each of which has its own special name. The “dark blue” tuning (D-D-A-D) is heard on the processional “Drev” (Drifted), wherein are bolded Stene’s percussive colors, and “Start” the so-called “troll tuning” (B-E-B-D#). In the latter, Økland combines ancient structures and modern minimalism, both of which he sees as relying on short motifs multiplied to form larger structures.

Økland has been increasingly inspired by the viola d’amore, which like his mainstay instrument has extra strings that vibrate sympathetically beneath the main four, and on tracks “Puls” and “Skugge” (Shadow) he draws a darker soul from this cousin. In the former piece, the heartbeat is evoked by Stene on kettledrum, while Eilertsen explores kindred frequencies. Over this, a flight from Økland’s bow touches the ocean with a wingtip in search of nesting territory.

Location matters a lot in Kjølvatn, which was recorded at the Hoff stone church in the countryside of Norway’s Oppland county. Økland’s go-to engineer, Audun Strype, captures the church’s resonant bounce, allowing the rougher, more organic aspects of the performance to exude clarity. One may hear this especially in “Fivreld” (Butterfly), an alluring piece of ambience in which the harmonium breathes like sunlight through foliage. Made for a ballet performance at Haugesund Theater in Økland’s hometown, it veritably dances.

Other references to Økland’s past are found in “Blå harding” and “Amstel.” Earlier versions of both appeared on the aforementioned debut. The first is something of a blues dedicated to his Hardanger fiddle teacher Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa, while the second, which closes out the album, is greener, its organ-like harmonium reminding us of where we are.

Kjølvatn rarely bubbles beyond a simmer, but its flavors are all the purer for it. It’s a significant move in Økland’s career, and exemplifies an artist who, despite denying any underlying message, understands the value of careful construction. And in a way, that is its practice: to create art for its own sake, devoid of political baggage and free to roam in search of new and welcoming ears.

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

The Gurdjieff Ensemble: Komitas (ECM 2451)

Komitas

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Komitas

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Emmanuel Hovhannisyan duduk, pku, zurna
Armen Ayvazyan kamancha
Avag Margaryan pogh, zurna
Aram Nikoghosyan oud
Davit Avagyan tar
Mesrop Khalatyan dap, dhol
Vladimir Papikyan santur, voice
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Norayr Gapoyan duduk, bass duduk
Eduard Harutyunyan tmbuk, cymbal, kshots, burvar, bell
Levon Eskenian director
Recorded February 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: October 2, 2015

Since forming the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble in 2008, musician and director Levon Eskenian has moved beyond delineations of the group’s namesake, even while staying truer than ever to the roots such an association implies. His ECM debut, Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, drew from a well that had already been dug into the label’s landscape by Keith Jarrett and Vassilis Tsabropoulos/Anja Lechner, and deepened by Lechner’s subsequent duo with François Couturier. It was only natural, then, that Eskenian should turn his attention to that spiritual progenitor of Armenian classical music: Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), a.k.a. Komitas.

Having appeared on Kim Kashkashian’s Hayren and Savina Yannatou’s Songs of Thessaloniki, among others, the music of Komitas has been something of a leitmotif in the ECM catalog, where its expressions of folk sentiment feel right at home, and nowhere so fully as on this first disc dedicated to him alone. As with Gurdjieff, Eskenian and his ensemble have gone as far back to into this music’s past as is conceivable, arranging it for the very instruments whose sounds first inspired Komitas to put pen to paper. Eskenian has, in essence, “re-composed” them as physical environments around on which listeners can walk to absorb every detail.

Gurdjieff Ensemble
(Photo credit: Andranik Sahakyan)

Eskenian, for his part, provides—in both the music and liner notes—a loving account of Komitas, whose approach to diverse interests imbued his writing with metaphysical levels of beauty. Even when composing for western instruments, he would often notate with traditional instruments in mind, and so Eskenian’s instinct is in keeping with the origin story at hand. Komitas and Gurdjieff share one degree of separation by way of the latter’s student, Thomas de Hartmann, but even more in terms of philosophy, lifestyle, and artistic engagement. I asked Eskenian whether these connections had anything to do with how he put this album together.

“Gurdjieff sent de Hartmann to Yerevan, where he immersed himself in, held concerts of, and gave lectures on the music of Komitas. Later on, de Hartmann would found the Komitas Society with the goal of collecting and printing the composer’s music. There are some pieces in which Gurdjieff and Komitas used the same folk tunes. Both of them were truth-seekers. Like Gurdjieff, Komitas would also talk about vibrations. He consulted ancient manuscripts and believed in the healing powers of music, the effects of modes and how each string of the knar [a traditional harp], for example, had on a different part of the body. He taught movements rooted in ancient ritual dances of pre-Christian temples, and often referred to himself as a teacher of dancing. In all cases, I consider the music of Komitas to be an essential key for a better understanding of the music of Gurdjieff and of the many other classical composers who have based their compositions on folk motifs.”

Eskenian’s gentle and respectful assertions of the significance of this music further explain why the album seemed to take form of its own volition. Eskenian elaborates on the genesis of the project, which began with a suggestion on the part of producer Manfred Eicher to center a follow-up to his Gurdjieff debut around Armenian folk and sacred music:

“For many years I’d thought about the Komitas dances, to have them performed on traditional Armenian and ancient instruments. I knew the pieces long before my encounter with the music of Gurdjieff and they had always served as a reference for me, but arranging the piano scores for authentic traditional Armenian instruments was in fact a bold labor which required additional research along anthropological, historical, and ethnomusicological lines in order to have a certain level of objectivity that wouldn’t ruin his work. Manfred left me free to decide the program. During the recording session he was actively involved in creating a comfortable atmosphere in which the musicians might better hear their inner sound, and with the assistance of engineer Markus Heiland recorded these instruments in their full timbrous colors. During the mixing session, Manfred paid strict attention to the sequence of pieces, and to the ‘silent’ pauses between them. The album cover was also of his choosing, a beautiful photo and one of the first of biblical Ararat Mountain ever taken at the beginning of the 20th century.”

In his own briefer liner note for the album, Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian—onetime director of the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan—expands on the cultural iconicity of Komitas, whose piano pieces he goes so far as to describe as “documentary works,” preserving as they do the spirit of his Armenian heritage. The “Yot Par” (Seven dances) represent one such set of piano pieces, recalibrated here to suit the spectral qualities of Eskenian’s peerless ensemble. These dances are centered around the capital of Yerevan, the contentious city of Shushi, the village of Karin, and the Turkish provincial capital of Mush. Whether the binary star of bowed kamancha and hammered santur in “Manushaki,” the duduk and tar in “Yerangui,” or the pogh flute and tmbuk drum duet that is “Het u Araj,” each dance flows in measured contrast to surrounding tunes and highlights a different instrumental color. That same pogh flute, in tandem with oud, embodies perhaps the deepest entanglement of ancient impulse and contemporary realization in “Karno Shoror,” which is about as close to experiencing history as this music gets. Even “Masho Shoror,” another piano work newly fashioned, is rife with textures that feel much older than we can articulate by any other means. The present rendition cross-hatches the double-reed zurna with the santur’s metallic lines. At just under 12 minutes, it is an album in and of itself, gathering as it does many influences in a single hearth of understanding.

“I often think about this piece,” says Eskenian, “which was a series of mystical pagan dances accompanying pilgrimage to St. Karapet Monastery in Mush. The monastery was one of the main pilgrimage sites for Armenians and served as their temple even before Christianity. After the Armenian genocide inflicted by the Ottoman empire, when most Armenians were killed, this marvelous monastery was destroyed much like ancient monuments in the Middle East have been in recent years. It was a great loss, to be sure, but I reflect on the fact that we have these sounds and traditions encoded into the piano music, now brought back to their inspirational sources. Through this process, we are reconstructing something of what has been lost. I am grateful to be able to share this with the world: a piece of the past reaching out to us from unrecoverable times.”

Eskenian

Many of the program’s standalone songs are likewise rooted in nature, by which traces of what came before our current generation continue to thrive, changed but also essential. In the plough songs of the northern Lori region, such as “Lorva Gutanerg,” we almost don’t need to know that Komitas gathered such melodies himself and separated them like chaff from the wheat so that posterity might be nourished by their bread. The medieval influences are clearest in these examples, as in the fortune-telling motivations of “Mani Asem, Tsaghik Asem” (Praises to the flower) and, more so, the strains of “Hov Arek” (Dear mountains, send me a breeze), a high point in the album’s topography that accentuates the talents of santur player Vladimir Papikyan, whose virtuosity unites sentiment and form. Moving through lullabies and other pieces for children, as well as love songs, the ensemble touches on Komitas’s religious affinities in songs like “Havun” (The fowl of the air), in which two duduks express Christ’s Resurrection in metaphor. On the subject of ascendant beings, the pogh solo “Havik” (A radiant bird) evokes its eponym with purposeful flight. Breathy and full of charcoal in its palette, it recalls the sensory world of a Japanese brush painting, trees barely visible as splashes of ink in the background.

Despite any mystical characterizations one might draw around Komitas, it’s clear from this recording that the heart of his music runs on a fundamental energy. It’s the same energy that allows us to listen and to love, to seek out those things which connect us beyond concerns of the flesh. So much so, that no matter what form it takes, the music of Komitas occupies an immediately relatable realm of understanding. In this vein, listeners can look forward to an album of his complete piano music as performed by Lusine Grigoryan, who has worked diligently to reproduce every effect as indicated in the original scores. Where Eskenian has taken those cues to heart by transferring them the very instruments that inspired them, Grigoryan has accepted the challenge of expanding the piano’s vocabulary to suit the ambitious needs of these timeless melodies. The reconstruction has just begun.

(Click here to read the rest of my interview with Levon Eskenian for RootsWorld online magazine, alongside another review of the album by Erik Keilholtz.)

Dino Saluzzi & Anja Lechner: El Encuentro (ECM 5051)

El Encuentro (1)

Dino Saluzzi
Anja Lechner
El Encuentro: A film for bandoneon and violoncello
Directors: Norbert Wiedmer and Enrique Ros
Camera: Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer
Editing: Katharina Bhend
Sound, sound editing, and sound mix: Balthasar Jucker
Production: PS Film, Biograph Film
Co-produced by SRF
Post-production: Recycled TV

In Sounds and Silence, Norbert Wiedmer produced a rather fleeting portrait of ECM Records and its head Manfred Eicher, leaving viewers with, at best, vague sketches by trying to do too much in one go. But with El Encuentro, glimpses of which one might remember seeing in the former documentary, he has given us the film that should have been. Along with co-director Enrique Ros, Wiedmer touches more of the label’s ethos by following only two of its major artists than Sounds and Silence does in profiling many more besides. Despite being from opposite sides of the Atlantic, gentle giant of the bandoneón Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner have bridged waters of their own making since 1998, when they first collaborated in the Kultrum project that featured the Rosamunde Quartett, of which the cellist was founder.

What makes El Enceuntro such an insightful window is the relative clarity of its narrative glass. At its core is a trip taken by Dino and Anja—so one feels compelled to call them after getting to know them so well by the end credits—to Salta, Argentina, where the bandoneonista absorbed the tango that would become central to his life. It’s an art form that would become increasingly important for Anja, who cites her own deep knowledge of, and respect, for the tango as a motivation for forging this intergenerational partnership with Dino. She recalls learning these rhythms for the first time in Argentina, where signatures rendered cut and dry through classical training now blossomed at her fingertips, reinvigorated.

El Encuentro 1

Dino meanwhile looks back on memories of his father, who after working a long day at the factory would sing for their village. Dino took to his father’s love of song like a sunset to ocean and, as the film makes clear, has passed that spirit on to Anja in kind. Indeed, the cellist says that even though Dino is always more comfortable playing with his family, she feels she has become a part of it. Whether dancing with the locals or navigating a recording session with Dino and his brother Felix, she adapts with chameleonic precision—which is to say: unthinkingly.

El Encuentro 2

But Dino’s story is as much about leaving home as finding it. He regales us with stories of putting his home country behind him to support his family, and of finding an unexpected brother in the late George Gruntz, who in 1982, as president of the Berlin Jazz Festival, traveled to Latin America in search of musicians and recruited Dino on the spot. No one in Gruntz’s band had ever seen or heard a bandoneón before, and this opportunity would prove career-defining.

El Encuentro 5

The past, however, is never too far behind. As Dino admits, “I compose with memories and hopes,” and in so doing kneads the passage of time into desired shapes. In this respect, the film is as much a meeting of lives as of minds. Anja lets us in on her own past: playing with rock bands at age 12, among whom she learned to improvise in the heat of the moment; hearing Dino’s music for the first time in Munich, where she’d so dutifully immersed herself in classical music of the European masters, even while surrounding herself with the melodies and forms of other places. And for her that’s the key. You have to go to these places to experience the emotional core of their music. Location is vocation. It’s something that cannot be substituted or recreated.

El Encuentro 4

None of this is meant to suggest that Lechner has abandoned her classical foundations. Far from it, as evidenced in her interactions with composer Tigran Mansurian in Armenia, the country dearest to her after Argentina.

El Encuentro 3

The cameras are there again for conversations with Levon Eskenian, who explains to her the sacred music of Armenia, and how when playing folksongs on the duduk one must always convey a sense of improvisation. Anja thus characterizes life in Armenia as more immediate, whereas in Argentina people truly engage and look into you. Such is the balance of her traveling life.

El Encuentro 6

On Dino’s own travels, no companion has been more constant than his trusted bandoneón. “I can’t conceive of life without the bandoneón,” he says. “The instrument has spoken with modesty since its conception. It doesn’t raise its voice, it only speaks with calmness, simplicity, and directness. All of the words are written here. All of the thoughts are here. All of the difficult equations are here. You only have to serve to bandoneón and understand that you’re letting the human experience pass through other channels.” But he also believes that bandoneonists should explore beyond the tango and create new forms of music. As if his recordings weren’t already ample proof of this advice in action, excerpts from concerts with drummer U.T. Gandhi and singer Alessandra Franco, and with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam’s Musiekgebouw under the baton of Jules Buckley, show just how catalytic the instrument can be.

El Encuentro 7

But it is in combination with the cello where channels of communication open their hearts to the vastest possibilities. Just as Anja says, “Music is a world in which all emotions exist,” so are emotions a world in which all music exists. And at their center, we can feel these two souls creating a third for the listener to inhabit at will.

Saluzzi and Lechner
(Photo credit: Juan Hitters)

Early on in the film, Dino wonders how people can connect at all to his melancholic music, even as he recognizes something that meets the listener halfway. “For me,” he goes on, “doubt is driving force. It’s like gasoline. You use gasoline to run a car. And for us to work, we need doubt. Because if doubt is a driving force, then it can’t become a paralyzing problem. On the contrary, it’s a generator of ideas and desires, of searches and answers to the great questions we have.” And if we must be the electricity that powers this generator, how fortunate we are to be swept up in its current.

Elina Duni Quartet: Dallëndyshe (ECM 2401)

2401 X

Elina Duni Quartet
Dallëndyshe

Elina Duni voice
Colin Vallon piano
Patrice Moret double bass
Norbert Pfammatter drums
Recorded July 2014, La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

When we left that day
losing sight of our land
all the men with one big sigh
called their women with a cry…

“Exile has always been humanity’s burden and love its faithful companion,” writes Elina Duni in a liner note for Dallёndyshe (The Swallow), follow-up to her ECM debut, Matanё Malit. Once more joined by pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret, and drummer Norbert Pfammatter, Duni presents a compelling new set of jazz-infused folk songs from her birth land of Albania, each wrapping its narrative arms around the primal losses of families and lovers broken by separation. With more lucidity than ever, she uses her voice to weave stories of uncompromising intimacy, a feeling only enhanced by the sensitivity of her bandmates. That said, the roles of her musicians aren’t merely programmatic, but pulse like vital organs of the present arrangements.

Elina Duni Quartet
(Photo credit: Nicolas Masson)

Much of that vitality is to be found in Vallon’s pianism, which casts its melodic nets far and wide throughout “Ylberin.” The title makes reference to rainbows, a nickname given to men by the women they’ve left behind. By a similarly ephemeral sense of beauty, Vallon expands Duni’s vocal colors to the indefinable gradients between them. As in “Unë në kodër, ti në kodër” (Me on a hill, you on a hill) that follows it, the lyrics only thinly disguise a vehemence toward separation. Through these songs, Duni puts herself in the hearts of those forced into seclusion, cursing the rifts of years as her sorrow approaches a state of ashes.

Pfammatter’s drumming borrows its tools of expression from those same interstices, moving through the Byzantine channels of “Ti ri ti ti klarinatë,” an onomatopoetic gem from the Arvanites of Greece, with the surety of a vine along a wall, and rustling through the brush of “Delja rude” (Sheared Sheep) like an open wind. The latter is an album highlight and points to the cathartic nature of this music. In a press release, Duni indeed claims an affinity with the blues, noting, “One of the fascinating things about music of the Balkans, in a lot of the folk music, is the idea that the pain has to be sung. And in singing you go beyond it.” This feeling of transcendence is especially audible in the bassing of Moret, who binds his pages with openness, whether bringing lucid attention to the gently propulsive “Bukuroshe” (Beautiful Girl) or drawing a bow crosswise to the low drums of “Kur të pashë” (When I Saw You), a traditional tune from Kosovo.

All three musicians tell parallel stories throughout the album, no less lyrical than Duni’s—not only reflecting on the narrative at hand but also drawing connections to times and places beyond observable borders. Yet it is Duni who carries the most potent magic in her satchel, into which she reaches and flings the cloud paintings of two modern songs onto canvas. Album opener “Fëllënza” (The Partridge) was written by singer and poet Muharrem Gurra, a trailblazer of Albanian popular song, and is the most embodied of the set. Like the partridge itself, it survives on barest trills and cautious movements, each more graceful than the last. Here we encounter a maternal voice for the world, seeking to use its hands for protection alone. “Sytë” (The Eyes), with music and lyrics by Isak Muçolli, is another classic, this one made famous by legendary Albanian singer Nexhmije Pagarusha. Duni brings out its innermost qualities in an attempt to part a veil of tears.

Music video for “Sytë” (with English subtitles):

But it is in the older songs where her heart carries the most blood to its destination. Duni stands, for all a melodic tower, in “Unë do të vete” (I am going to go) and “Nënë moj” (O, Mother), around which improvisational gatherings abound, while the whispered frame of “Taksirat” (The Mishap) snakes its way through desert grooves. Yet nowhere is her yearning so tangible as in the title song, which comes from the Albanian diaspora of Italy and treads nakedly to the sole accompaniment of piano. The voice is a landscape all its own, Duni seems to say, and my footprints are all that remain. Each has note value, and your soul will be the next one to sing it.

(To hear samples of Dallëndyshe, please click here.)

Robin Williamson: Trusting In The Rising Light (ECM 2393)

Trusting In The Rising Light

Robin Williamson
Trusting In The Rising Light

Robin Williamson vocals, Celtic harp, guitar, hardanger fiddle, whistles
Mat Maneri viola
Ches Smith vibraphone, drums, gongs, percussion
Recorded January 2014, Rockfield Studios, Monmouth
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Assistant engineer: Tim Lewis
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Steve Lake
Produced by Steve Lake

Robin Williamson, perhaps the last true bard on earth, returns with Trusting In The Rising Light. Following a string of intimate programs setting the words of famous poets to music (among them Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, and William Blake), he now dips a quill into his own inkwell and scrawls a masterful new ream of originals. Ten years separate this recording from its predecessor on ECM, The Iron Stone, but the wait has been well worth it, not least of all for the contributions of his fellow session musicians. From that last album he retains violist Mat Maneri and to this nexus adds drummer-percussionist Ches Smith. The result is an attuned, free jazz-folk session that feels at once long overdue and just right for its time.

RW

I caught up via e-mail with the album’s producer, Steve Lake, who described how the project came together:

“I’d been in touch with Robin over the years, and hadn’t realized that so much time had elapsed since The Iron Stone—the clichés about time moving faster as we age are true. In autumn 2013 he said he was in a period of writing lots of songs and read me the lyrics to ‘Trusting In The Rising Light’ and ‘Swan’ over the phone. It seemed like the moment for a new album. Robin said he wanted to work with Mat Maneri again, which of course was fine with me. I talked with [ECM head] Manfred Eicher about a possible vibraphone player for the session and Ches Smith’s name came up. It struck me as a good idea since I knew that Ches had formed a new trio with Mat and Craig Taborn. So inside the Williamson line-up there were two proven associations, Robin/Mat and Ches/Mat. With this as a basis we could confidently get to work.”

Where some voices crack and smolder with age, Williamson’s is like a fine sword: it only gets stronger the more it’s folded in its malleable state. And while he has always engaged larger questions of conviction, politics, love, and sense of place, on Trusting he seems far more content to dwell on the little things: spending time with a loved one, the fundamental pleasures of observation, and, as the album’s title implies, faith in life’s givens and regularities. As a romantic, he is lyrical yet realistic. He seems well aware that the limits of his control extend not much farther beyond his own body and the words and music it produces.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the title song, which turns on a movie with no opening credits. Here is one who stands at harbor, watching the rise and fall of the waves and knowing that some things are better left to their own rhythm:

In every man-hewn stone
The anchored voices murmur
Long long
What they have always to say
As to what of our life
When whence and whither
We born of woman
Born of the Great Mystery

Being a relatively new yet enthusiastic fan, I asked Lake to place the album in the larger context of Williamson’s decades-long career. “It’s a high point,” he answered, “but if I look at Robin’s discography there are a lot of high points, including albums on his own Pig’s Whisker label which too few people have heard (if you can find them I recommend Ring Dance, At The Pure Fountain, and Dream Journals). Robin’s been a working musician for almost sixty years but has never been exactly career-minded. His musical and literary interests carry him forward and as a result he has had, I would guess, a richer and more interesting life than many who have made the career a priority. Trusting in the way of the waves, as he says in the title track…”

Accompanying these sentiments—in truth, embodying them—is Williamson’s trusty harp. Despite being prone to putting on magical airs, at his fingertips it is not an instrument of spells and incantations. Over the years it has become burnished like a well-worn table at which countless meals have taken place. And there, among the dishes and scratched spoons are those same rhythms of life, having left their hieroglyphics behind for deciphering. As he blossoms in a wave of strings, crashing on the shores of a dawn not so far away, he provides confirmation that in the good work one can be grateful for the opportunity to engage with land and sea, to know that it will all be waiting on the other side of slumber.

Whether through the droning raga of “Our Evening Walk,” in which love begets love, or the heartfelt wonder of “Alive Today,” in which Williamson takes comfort in something as insignificant as the flap of a bird’s wings, such assurances thread every song that follows with the knowledge that all those things we rely on will be there for us, in light or darkness. Sometimes, as in “Falling Snow,” his romance is with the universe at large, pulling together time and space like a massive proof of emotional and spiritual relativity. At others, it is undeniably close to home, calling his wife Bina by name as he does in the sensuously realized “Your Kisses.” For the most part, however, Williamson looks either down at “These Hands Of Mine” or back along the “Roads” that led him to where he stands. The former tune features a jaunty guitar while the latter’s commentating viola weaves in and out of the loom. In both, the feeling of departure is constant, arrival questionable. And in “The Cards,” a song loosely based on a traditional Irish air “The Coolin” but otherwise ad-libbed in the studio, he offers a cautionary tale against prediction, trusting in reality instead of relying on dreams or elusive signs. Accompanied only by guitar, elastic and supportive of any and all possibilities, he contemplates this dance in what he calls the “soul of souls.” It’s as if he were at a bar alone, the last dart thrown along with last call, but it’s the kind of draft of which every sip tastes as good as the first.

Sitting with this album is like traveling somewhere for a while, much as the musicians did just to bring it all together. Lake sets up the scene:

“Rockfield is a residential studio deep in the Welsh countryside with a long history of recording especially rock music. When we arrived, Mott The Hoople were just finishing a mixing session. We spoke briefly with them. It was slightly odd, almost time-warp inducing, to be in the same room with Mott and Mat Maneri, but strange juxtapositions belong to the journey. I liked living at the studio and had some interesting talks with its owner Kingsley Ward about his early life as a session musician working for Joe Meek in London. There’s a lot of idiosyncratic recording knowledge concentrated at Rockfield. For the session with Robin the mood was positive, friendly and committed. Robin had some songs mapped out on which Mat and Ches were given directives and specific things to play, mostly with some improvisational freedom. And there were some pieces that were wide open to improvising, particularly ‘Just West Of Monmouth,’ ‘Night Comes Quick In LA,’ ‘Swan’ and ‘Islands Of The Inner Firth.’”

The latter songs rest somewhere between speech and singing and flower in freely improvised settings. “Youth burns brighter than neon,” he sings in “Night Comes Quick In LA,” a cynical, bird’s-eye view of superficiality gone rotten in the valley. The beat poetry aesthetic only adds to the acuteness of his poet’s eye. In “Just West Of Monmouth,” Williamson nestles himself in a gravelly accompaniment of percussion, whistles, and bows, unspooling his tale of creation in the rustle of underbrush and thirsty plains. Next is a sojourn into “The Islands Of The Inner Firth,” where awaits the mirror into which we must all someday look:

Now in the October of my life
I trace
Beloved and well remembered shore
Your stony verge
You cold and turbulent Scots water
In memory I trace
My kindly haunted past

So begins a summation of a creation and a new beginning of memory strung like a bead on a necklace that is forever growing to fit the thickening neck of experience. And before him is the pond where swims the eternal “Swan,” who joins her “world self / Where air and water meet.” Let us hope that Williamson’s swan has a long time yet before it sings.

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine, where you can also hear sample clips. To hear more of Trusting In The Rising Light, click here.)

Jormin/Willemark/Nakagawa: Trees Of Light (ECM 2406)

Trees Of Light

Lena Willemark voice, fiddle and viola
Anders Jormin double bass
Karin Nakagawa 25-string koto
Recorded May 2013, Konstepidemin, Göteborg
Engineer: Johannes Lundberg
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Angels
Childangels
Opportunities come with the rainbow
and the children
Sing to us
so our hearts come back to us!

Anders Jormin returns to ECM with yet another surprising blend of multi-genre elements. The Swedish bassist welcomes folksinger Lena Willemark and, in her ECM debut, virtuoso of the 25-string koto Karin Nakagawa in settings and improvisations around Willemark’s poetry, sung in her native Älvdals dialect. Jormin has always been one for self-reinvention, and on Trees Of Light he has stepped into some of his most ambitious territory yet. Not because of any sense of scope (although the trio does evoke some rather expansive scenery), but because the import of every gesture is magnified in such an intimate setting.

Yet it’s Willemark, absent from the label since Jormin’s 2004 In winds, in light, who crafts the center of the current project. Her words and melodies inform every song of the program, with the sole exception of Jormin’s instrumental “Hirajoshi.” The latter piece’s title refers to the hirajōshi mode of pentatonic (plus semi-tonal) tuning in which it is played and foregrounds the koto’s dry-wing rasp, percussive accents, and open field. When Nakagawa sweeps her hands over its waters as Willemark’s viola and Jormin’s arco bass sing their way into union, the trio captures something ancient in its hands.

Around this wordless center flows a veritable ecosystem of dreams, recollections, and impressions. It’s not simply that jazz, Swedish folk, and traditional Japanese music are melding into something new. Rather, it’s that they are speaking to one another in the interest of honest friendship. Both the title and music of “Krippainggler” (If you listen) best exemplify this philosophy, as each musician occupies her or his place. Where Willemark’s voice is like the reed and Jormin’s bass is the riverbed, Nakagawa draws the waterline between them in a song of angels and resuscitation of life forces.

TOL

Pairings occur naturally throughout. Nakagawa and Jormin sometimes beckon their vocal traveling companion as if she were the sun itself, while at others koto and voice share ululations and whispers. Spotlight moments also abound, as when Nakagawa proves her improvising strengths in “Urbanus” or Willemark sings alone on “Minni” (Memories), an arresting segment of horizon. Whatever the mood, the listener can be sure to feel it wholeheartedly. “Ogadh Dett” (Your eye), for one, opens with a bass solo that is muscular yet somehow gentle, giving way as it does to the koto’s fairytale strains and taking lyric comfort in the warmth of unbroken regard. “Uoruo” (Worry), for another, walks the way of sorrow as if it were the clearest path of all.

And perhaps there is some truth here: that which leaves the deepest scar is also the easiest to follow, so that even when we are dancing, as in the title track or the “Slingerpolska” (Winding polska), somewhere in the back of our minds we know that we will end up alone, and all the stronger for it.

I am still standing where I left me
I walk on as another
See that the earth is still there
Still there
That I must remember
I have loved

(To hear samples of Trees Of Light, click here.)

Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico: Songs of Thessaloniki (ECM 2398)

Songs of Thessaloniki

Savina Yannatou
Primavera en Salonico
Songs of Thessaloniki

Savina Yannatou voice
Kostas Vomvolos qanun, accordion
Yannis Alexandris oud, guitar
Kyriakos Gouventas violin
Harris Lambrakis nay
Michalis Siganidis double bass
Kostas Theodorou percussion
Recorded February 2014 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineers: Yiorgos Kariotis and Yannis Paxevanis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Songs of Thessaloniki marks the fourth appearance of Greek singer Savina Yannatou and her second-nature ensemble Primavera en Salonico. Characterized by the artists as “canvases for our imagination to create contemporary narratives on old myths,” the songs gathered here make for an appropriately multicultural portrait of Thessaloniki, a city where Orient and Occident have long blended at a crossroads of actions, peoples, and politics—a city, incidentally, Yannatou’s band calls home. Most importantly for the purposes documented here, it was a place where music could always be heard and can now be heard again.

When the first strains of “Apolitikion Agiou Dimitriou” caress your ear— strings, bellows, and lungs yielding Yannatou’s lullaby out of time— you may just feel at home as well. As a Greek hymn of St. Demetrius, patron saint of Thessaloniki, it paints a door deepest blue and welcomes us as we are. Ironically enough, and with exception of this hymn (and its instrumental variation which concludes the album), the Greek material on this album is tepid by comparison to its extra-cultural counterparts, even as it draws vital connective tissue between the same.

SY

Thessaloniki’s historical influx of Sephardic Jews (Thessaloniki was, in fact, once known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”) is reflected in a formidable assortment. These songs especially reflect the arranging skills of Kostas Vomvolos, who also plays accordion and qanun throughout the recording. Yannatou’s chameleonic abilities have rarely sounded so organic as they do here. Whether in the childlike whispers of “A la scola del Allianza” or the qanun-accompanied “Una muchacha en Selanica,” she finds rawness of emotion in the simplest phrase and, by contrast, treads ever so lightly on danger—as in “La cantiga del fuego,” which tells of a great fire that swept the city in 1917.

More intense theatrics wait in the wings of “Dimo is Solum hodeshe,” a Bulgarian example that finds accordion, violin, and nay in artful concert. Two Turkish tunes, one as hymn and the other as folksong, give further context to Yannatou’s intrepid singing. In “Iptidadan yol sorarsan,” voice and nay practically become one, Yannatou sounding more like the flute, and vice versa, while halting rhythms and surreal beauties in the violin make “Çalin Davullari” a standout sojourn. There’s even an Irish folksong, “Salonika,” which dances, tongue-in-cheek, in the midst of war.

Yet few moments can approach the mastery of “Inchu Bingyole mdar?” and “Qele-qele,” both collected by the great Armenian composer Komitas. In both, the oud makes grander statements of purpose as it sweeps away the sand at Yannatou’s feet, allowing her to process into the distance, where, like the ancient Serbian tree of “Jelena Solun Devojko,” she stands until she dispels specters of violent pasts by virtue of her keening ways.

(To hear samples of Songs of Thessaloniki, click here.)

Sinikka Langeland: The half-finished heaven (ECM 2377)

2377 X

Sinikka Langeland
The half-finished heaven

Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals
Lars Anders Tomter viola
Trygve Seim tenor saxophone
Markku Ounaskari percussion
Recorded January 2013 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sinikka Langeland is that rare artist whose albums feel as if they’ve always been with us, only it takes the divine intervention of recording them to make them perceivable in this dimension. As a virtuoso of the kantele, a Finnish table harp of the psaltery family, she is unparalleled. As a singer and composer, likewise. Yet beyond her physiological understanding of the relationship between text and arrangement, beyond her sonic woodblock printing of an ancient yet personal mythology, it is her willingness to grow into new territory with every project that makes her visions feel so ingrained. And in that respect she continues her rainbow chase toward the achievement of a settled style, freshening the colors of that spectrum by virtue of her very own.

SL

Langeland owes her evolution in part to the respect of collaborating musicians, whom over the years have grown and changed as the seasons. Out of previous ECM sessions she retains, from Maria’s Song (one of her most unexpected and shatteringly magnetic creations), violist Lars Anders Tomter and, from The Land That Is Not, saxophonist Trygve Seim and percussionist Markku Ounaskari. The idea for this album had been brewing since her debut with the label, after which producer Manfred Eicher suggested a solo kantele outing with minimal singing. The half-finished heaven is the compromise: a program of mostly instrumentals from which three songs rise like spruce trees against a listening sky.

The words come from Nobel Prize-winner Tomas Tranströmer, whose naturalist poetry also gives the album its name. The instrumental set-up of the title song feels like sitting down for a meal with someone you can only hope to see again. The sting of finality in the air is as strong as the drink at your lips as you try to focus on the good memories, which come marching through to the beat of Ounaskari’s snare. There is an intensely cinematic quality to the scene before Langeland silences the cameras with her vocal truth. “Each man is a half-open door,” she sings, “leading to a room for everyone,” and with that single statement the world awakens to the possibility of enjoying the God-given light in peace with others.

In captivation of rising arpeggios from the kantele, “The light streams in” unfolds far less checkered table cloths of expectation:

Outside the window, the long beast of spring
the transparent dragon of sunlight
rushes past like an endless
suburban train—we never got a glimpse of its head.

Langeland’s music is inherently attuned to just this sort of spatial and temporal mixture. Every touch of her instrument thus produces an observational moment, bending notes like branches aching with fruit. Ensnared as they are by sunlight so intense that it “makes the statues blink,” Tomter’s grave double stops drag arms along a wasted earth once filled with beautiful mourning yet which is now only mournfully beautiful. And just over the album’s central cusp is “The tree and the sky,” which at surface level links its titular metaphor to us and nature, while at the biological level erasing any distinction between the two. The viola moves like that tree, an Ent-like presence living out of time but in deep connection to all things material. Langeland’s (bene)diction here is a fairytale come to life for those who will believe it.

In the absences of words, we gain knowledge of absences. Throughout the opening “Hare rune,” for instance, we may notice that Ounaskari’s forested drum speaks as much to the effect of branches as to the sky feathered between them. Even the kantele—in this case, a 15-string version—twirls its ribbons of mercury to draw attention to the resulting chain of circles. Seim’s breathy tenor, meanwhile, sounds like an animal horn blown from a great distance, so that by the time it reaches us it is barely clinging to its note. “The blue tit’s spring song” is another 15-stringed tune, one that features goblet drum for a distinctly brighter sound.

With the additional exception of “Hymn to the fly,” a miniature played on 10 strings, the rest of the album features the 39-string concert kantele, which like a piano is equipped with a sustain pedal that allows for longer decay. Such capabilities of resonance enhance “The white burden,” an old piece from 1978 now making its first appearance on record, but more so the album’s faunal illustrations. Whether trailing feathers in “The woodcock’s flight” and “Caw of the crane” or reveling with “The magical bird” (modeled after a traditional polsdans from Finnskogen), each plucked string is hollow-boned and attuned to any change in wind direction. As in the delightful “Animal miniatures,” we may feel the way of every flit and burrowing.

To hear Langeland, be it through strings or song, is to be healed and know the way of holistic music. Like the ancient materia medica, her runic ways turn plants into cures and animals into protections. She is by no exaggeration a living treasure, and this may just be her most invaluable relic yet.

(To hear samples of The half-finished heaven, click here.)