My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of the third studio album by oudist Ahmad Al Kathib and percussionist Youssef Hbeisc, known together as duo Sabîl. Fans of Anouar Brahem are sure to find much to admire. Click the cover to read my full review and listen to samples.
My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of Norwegian singer Solveig Slettahjell’s Poetisk Tale. Slettahjell has collaborated with many ECM regulars, including Tord Gustavsen, Nils Økland, and Jon Balke, and on this album is backed by guitarist Eivind Aarset, the Vertavo String Quartet, percussionist Helge Norbakken, and keyboardist-arranger Kjetil Bjerkestrand. A must-listen for fans of anyone involved. Click the cover to read my full review and listen to samples.
The Magical Forest
Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Trygve Seim soprano and tenor saxophones
Anders Jormin double bass
Markku Ounaskari percussion
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.)
(Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)
March 28, 2017
Cornell University, Kiplinger Theater
I can tell you that Alicia Hall Moran is a singer with countless biographies woven into her lungs; that Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon are poets of vast interpersonal awareness; that LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is a sensitive purveyor of visual and sonic incisions. But this conveys only who they are on paper and not what they became in person when their forces cross-pollinated in Cornell’s Kiplinger Theater on March 28, 2017.
The title of their performance, THROUGHLINE, felt like both descriptor and mission statement as they drew lines through the curio cabinets of our minds even while rearranging them, jumping from soul to soul until only a singularity of verbal perfume was left. Amid top notes of citrus and spice, girlhood’s questioning turned into womanhood’s indestructibility and floral mids scented the skin of forgotten children, while a base of grasslands and burnt umber evoked the muck of conflicting narratives from which these four singular artists excavated common themes.
Moran’s voice carried ahistorical futures written in historical registers. Presenting selections from her debut album, Heavy Blue, as well as new songs composed around the poetry of her sisterly collaborators, Moran spotlighted the nooks of maturation in which understandings take deepest root. Whether intensifying her mezzo brilliance in the original “Open Door” or modernizing the spirit of John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears,” she proved that emotional celebrities must first unlock their own silence before preaching to the silenced. Throughout her collage of serenades and broken dreams, she pulled at the seams of self-proclamation until “self-” dropped off and fell into the lottery of brighter tomorrows.
Griffiths likewise blurred languages of light and grain, ever the auditory bokeh in our depth of field as listeners. She took Moran’s photorealistic impulses of yearning and spun them into a pastiche of reflections. Her lyrics were odes to lived experience. Through pulling of moon and tide, creation and womb, a life-giving dance took place in everything she embraced. In her world of submarine maternity and spirits within spirits, she rendered birth pangs as tactile substances to be fashioned into words. Like a child looking upon her mother for the first time, every poem was precious and beyond worthy of the swaddling by our attentions.
Van Clief-Stefanon drew a vertical axis to Griffiths’s horizontal, exploring hierarchies of musical impulses, chemical time signatures and the types of choices that fuel epiphanies of social justice. Her breaths of transitioning spring held their shape despite the infernos of ignorance that have beset our present age, and tipped her scales of allusion toward the popular canon — polishing, for instance, Rihanna’s diamond until its dark matter threw open the wings of an intergalactic politic. Pulling names from the depths of her blood, she homed in on key tones of physical relationships and lifted valor with gloved tongue as an object worthy of study. Flipping over male dominance like a fish in a pan, she captured its briny smoke in her nostrils and exhaled sweet critique.
Diggs’s conveyance of videos and stills taken by Griffiths was the rhythm section behind the soloists, to which she added her own interdisciplinary foraging as filtered through a tabletop array of electronica. Her digitally altered singing worked at molecular levels, made clear as the artists laid down a path of composites aching from the grammar of their integration. Diggs divided the moon like an egg and deferred her feel for montage to three women who shelter all the beauty of the world in their consonance.
The THROUGHLINE project sees something beyond the obvious. Experiencing it was akin to seeing a dream you once forgot now being laid bare, newborn edges and all. Its discourse was so precise that it sharpened blades of memory until only reality was left by their slice. It was music for those that fortune once threw into a pool of amniotic fluid and walked away disappointed when they didn’t drown. Music for those who’ve since learned that every change of dress is another chance at remembrance. Music that looked us straight in the eyes and said: You want to know what real privilege is? Sharing the duty of those dismantling its infrastructures, throwing away the master’s tools, and rebuilding — letter by letter — the temples of our bodies without warning signs, fire escapes or trigger alarms.
Moran, Griffiths, Van Clief-Stefanon and Diggs were their own microphones, amplified through self-expression — the strongest form of faith — and built on the assertion that nothing is real until spoken, nothing spoken until real. These were the women in the room, voices of a collective body whose signatures imprinted ears and eyes with every individual step forward, and the honor of unfolding said signatures out into this tightly and artfully folded world will stay with us. Perseverant. Honest. Unafraid.
(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)
(Photo credit: Felix Broede)
March 25, 2017
Cornell University, Barnes Hall
Since the mid-1990s, the Jerusalem Quartet has been slinging its unmistakable tone and adroit programming to audiences worldwide, and at last to Cornell University’s Barnes Hall on March 25, 2017. What distinguishes Jerusalem Quartet from its umpteen contemporaries is its interlocking tonal spread, meticulous attention to rhythm and balance of repertoires. For this performance, these spirited musicians presented a trifecta of drama, whimsy and lyricism.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11 in F minor set the stage not only musically, but also technically, as idiosyncrasies came immediately to the forefront. First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky brought a clarion register that meshed superbly with second violinist Sergei Bresler’s warmer colors, while violist Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov completed the picture with an organic rusticity and dance-like undercurrent. From the opening movement’s latticed spaces to the folkish fourth, the playing navigated every change of pace with the adaptability of a racecar driver. The Bach-inspired fugue of the second movement, with its gyroscopic core, was especially moving, and snuggled nicely against the conversational third. Though a pleasant piece with which to begin, one that showed its composer’s penchant for cellular invention and negotiations of ferocity and finesse, it was but an appetizer to the main course of Sergey Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 1 in B minor. This compact yet multifaceted gem spanned only three movements, upending convention by ending with the slowest. That final Andante was as songlike as it was ashen and overcast. Like a memory snagged on a branch, it resisted our attempts to seize it in a most beguiling way. From root to branch, it maintained integrity with solid growth and showed off the flair of cellist Zlotnikov’s way with (and without) a bow. This was preceded by an Allegro which, with abundant rhetorical flourishes, felt like Prokofiev guiding us through a maze, running down certain passages and tiptoeing through others.
After intermission, we luxuriated in the depths of Antonín Dvořák’s Quartet No. 13 in G major. Among the composer’s final quartets, it reaffirmed the fact that few understood the sonority of the genre more than he did. Delightful yet weighed by the ante of human contemplation, every dance-like gesture in the surrounding movements only served to emphasize the anthemic beauty of the Adagio. Like a restless dream during hibernation, it changed colors and textures with almost surreal seamlessness and epitomized what violist Kam in his program notes cited as their goal of showing the string quartet as a “singular instrument.” Likewise the encore, which presented the Allegretto pizzicato from Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 in the manner of master clockmakers offering a glimpse of their craft.
Uniting all of this was a sense of hearing not only composers but also performers unafraid to think out loud. Like a great jazz performance, it reminded us that even within the borders of prescribed music there is infinite room for variation and interpretation.
(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)