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.)

Benedicte Maurseth/Åsne Valland Nordli: Over Tones (ECM 2315)

Over Tones

Over Tones

Benedicte Maurseth Hardanger fiddle, voice
Åsne Valland Nordli voice
Recorded May 2011 at Strype Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Audun Strype
Production coordination: Guido Gorna
An ECM Production

Over Tones is among a recent crop of ECM recordings featuring young duos playing some of the most absorbing music from the label in years. Unlike the unexpected microscopy of Vilde&Inga or the cavernous implosions of Kappeler/Zumthor, however, the interests of Benedicte Maurseth and Åsne Valland Nordli gravitate toward the traditional folk music of their native Norway. Both hail, in fact, from Hardanger, after which the fiddle at Maurseth’s fingertips was named. The instrument has had its finest advocacy on the label so far from Nils Økland, but Maurseth and Nordli are special for adding their own singing to its sympathetic strings. That they once worked regularly with Berit Opheim (now a fulltime member of the Trio Mediaeval) should come as no surprise once you hear the clarity of their voices. So effective was their overlap that they paired forces in this seamless program of old and new music, and it makes a welcome addition to ECM’s new directions.

Over Portrait
(Photo credit: Ingvil Skeie Ljones)

While this album will speak most directly to fans of Økland’s premodern sets, and despite the fact that Hardanger fiddling is very much its own entity, those familiar with the alpine visions of Swiss violinist Paul Giger (see, for example, Alpstein, to which I have also compared Økland’s Lysøen) will find much to admire in the duo’s free improvisations. “Overtone” in particular expands on likeminded impulses of dance and drone with the fleshiness of human voices. “Ales” is another silhouette of externalized thought in which history appears as a glowing exchange between the self and its double. In this sense, Nordli’s purely vocal presence is an integral part of the music’s solution and dissolution, for its power may carry us out softly on a woven raft even as it readies the next one.

Norwegian folk singing, known as kveding, encompasses a range of styles and encourages the performer’s spontaneous detailing, but in the context of Over Tones its core religious aspects are lovingly foregrounded. Despite appearing in lyric form on only two songs culled from the villages of Luster, in western Norway, the overtly redemptive themes of “Jesus gjør meg stille” and “Kilden” turn also on the instrumental axes of the duo’s original tunes. The origins of Maurseth’s opening “Adle,” for one, are unquestionably divine in origin. The patience with which its harmonic-only melody turns the fiddle into a choir of glass is like seeing the moonlight through a forest canopy, but knowing it speaks in a dialect of sun. And Nordli’s own “Veverskens tid” matches the fiddle’s keening heart with a leaping vocal act that pulls relics from the past in the manner of a bird catching worms.

Any secular inclinations are to be found in two traditional dances from the southern valley of Setesdal. The combination of human-possessed and human-made instruments lends three-dimensionality to every step and shows that each, like the musicians themselves, has a little of one in the other.

(To hear samples of Over Tones, click here.)

Jean-Louis Matinier & Marco Ambrosini: Inventio (ECM 2348)

Inventio

Inventio

Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Marco Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Although French accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier and Marco Ambrosini, Italian virtuoso of the nyckelharpa (a Swedish traditional instrument that is something of a cross between hurdy-gurdy and vielle), have existed as a duo since 2008, it took a period of refinement and an invitation to record for ECM Records in 2013 before their music at last saw the digital light of day. Anyone who has followed the career of Anouar Brahem in the 21st century will have encountered Matinier alongside the Tunisian oudist on 2002’s Le pas du chat noir and 2006’s Le Voyage de Sahar. Ambrosini is recognized as a leading proponent of the nyckelharpa and has carried that instrument in fresh directions across a varied terrain of recordings. Matinier has elsewhere characterized his musical relationship with Ambrosini as “a total dialogue,” and the description could hardly be more appropriate. They complete each other’s sentences.

Inventio Duo

The first strains of “Wiosna,” among the lion’s share of tracks penned by Matinier, immediately recall another duo: Argentine bandoneonista Dino Saluzzi and German cellist Anja Lechner. Both partnerships are savvy in terms of rhythm and atmosphere, morphing from tears into triumph at a moment’s notice. And yet, if Saluzzi and Lechner could be said to treat the listener like a canvas, Matinier and Ambrosini treat the listener like a movie screen on which to project moving images. This analogic difference comes about through both a distinct timbral palette and an unprecedented program. It is virtuosic and gorgeous all the same, but in its own way indivisible.

Matinier’s writing comprises a folk music all its own. Whether in the cartographic flybys of “Hommage” and “Kochanie Moje” or in the briefer passages of “Taïga” and “Balinese,” an underlying pulse finds consummation in the musicians’ synergy, which is so seamless that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where one instrument ends and the other begins. Even in Matinier’s two solo tracks, the nyckelharpa’s droning spirit lingers. Of those solos, “Szybko” is particularly moving and brings to mind the flute playing of Guo Yue. Like the “Siciliènne” (by accordionist-composer André Astier) that closes the album, his are fleeting portraits of places out of time. Also out of time are Ambrosini’s own compositions, through which the nyckelharpa’s sympathetic strings resonate like a life force. His “Basse Dance” best exploits the duo’s interlocking sound and might just as well have been lifted from a Renaissance manuscript. In this context the nyckelharpa sounds for all like a viola da gamba and signals the titular dance with a locomotive pulse. His “Tasteggiata” and “Tasteggiata 2” are likewise steam-driven, chugging through a full spectrum of color.

The album’s circle rounds out with segments plucked from a tangle of Baroque repertoire by Giovanni Pergolesi, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, and Johann Sebastian Bach. A “Presto” from the latter’s g-minor sonata for solo violin is reborn at Ambrosini’s fingertips, which imbue this familiar piece with an ancient air, while the “Inventio 4” from Bach’s Two- and Three-part Inventions yields not only the album’s title but also its most luminescent notecraft. Folk touches from Ambrosini again pull this music into a deeper origin myth. Such integrations make the Baroque selections something much more than obligatory nods to an established canon. Their placement stirs the waters with a certain depth of interpretation that links them to a chain across borders.

(See this review as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine and listen to samples here.)

The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble: Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff (ECM 2236)

GFIE

The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble
Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff

Emmanuel Hovhannisyan duduk
Avag Margaryan blul
Armen Ayvazyan kamancha
Aram Nikoghosyan oud
Levon Torosyan oud
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Vladimir Papikyan santur
Davit Avagyan tar
Mesrop Khalatyan dap, dhol
Armen Yeganyan saz
Reza Nesimi tombak
Harutyun Chkolyan duduk
Tigran Karapetyan duduk
Artur Atoyan dam duduk
Levon Eskenian director
Recorded November and December 2008 at Teryan Studio, Public Radio of Armenia, Yerevan
Recording producer: Levon Eskenian
Engineers: Armen Yeganyan and Khatchig Khatchadourian
Mastered by ECM at MSM Studio, Munich
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of esoteric spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff has been a lucid, if sporadic, touchstone of ECM set lists since Sacred Hymns, released in 1980. Keith Jarrett’s solo album was an appropriate place to begin such an association, as Gurdjieff’s inner melodies were made available to the outer world through the piano transcriptions of his student, Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. Music was an integral part of Gurdjieff’s teachings, and much of his oeuvre of over 300 pieces came from a place unknown. The energy of his melodies molded the skeleton of its own sacred geometry, and to have an entire ensemble of musicians dedicating their musical lives to casting its patterns across the oceans is a gift, pure and simple.

On a mission of his own to nuance this romantic vision is Levon Eskenian, whose program draws from Gurdjieff’s experiences in lands where the instruments of this ensemble would have been heard in context, singing of the earth even while soaring above it. Eskenian and his talented musicians thus shine Gurdjieff’s light through the prism of the traditions he would have encountered as an itinerant (anti-)ascetic. There is an unmitigated sensibility at work in their extraction of the Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian, and Caucasian sources Eskenian heard echoing in Gurdjieff’s music. At last, we can experience them in interlocking contrast.

Four pieces link to cellist Anja Lechner and pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos’s Chants, Hymns and Dances, the 2004 album which took Gurdjieff as starting point for improvisational pathways. Excepting the brightly inflected “Bayaty,” the present versions put the Armenian double-reed duduk at the center of the picture. The “Chant from a Holy Book” places three duduk alongside a single oud. Structured as a tagh, or Armenian sacred song, its cantabile enchantment opens the program at dusk. In comparison to the previously recorded reading, this one suspends itself, rendering the oud a current of wind beneath feathers. “Duduki” adds to this instrumental configuration the dap, or Persian frame drum. With such flexible tension in tow, the melody coheres by way of a mournful finality, even as it extends back toward infancy. Four duduk and one dap form the evocative palette of “Assyrian Women Mourners,” which is as cleansing as it is heart-wrenching.

Some tunes ply the trade of ancient dances. Two selections from Gurdjieff’s Asian Songs and Rhythms explore the ensemble’s percussive capabilities to the fullest. Combining Armenian motifs and spontaneous creation, they allow insight into the meta-level of it all: We can hear Eskenian hearing Gurdjieff hearing something in the world. Others, like the “Caucasian Dance,” draw from a rainbowed palette, relaying ecstatic flights and contemplative landings. Elsewhere, as in the “Sayyid Chant and Dance No. 10,” amalgamations of Greek, Sephardic, and Andalusian influences abound. In these compressions, the receiving body becomes a sheet of paper folded until its resistance as a single molecule can no longer be doubled.

The most transformative moments are reserved for the Kurdish tunes: a “Shepherd Melody,” played on instruments used by shepherds, and the “Atarnakh, Kurd Song,” which traverses continents in single bounds yet with a quiet dignity that feels as effortless as a cloud. At the heart of all this stands a “Prayer” played solo on the kanon zither. By its sounding a nameless portal opens, through which the hesitation of spiritual experience flees into the darkest corners of the mind.

In the album’s booklet, composer Tigran Mansurian describes a silence at the core of this music. Indeed, it moves to what Gurdjieff called the “swing of thought,” that unquantifiable rhythm by which flesh and spirit dance their eternal dance. These sounds are shadows of those movements, and in them is the key to a door, behind which glows the solace of another key.

(To hear samples of Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, click here.)

Giovanna Pessi/Susanna Wallumrød: If Grief Could Wait (ECM 2226)

If Grief Could Wait

Giovanna Pessi
Susanna Wallumrød
If Grief Could Wait

Giovanna Pessi baroque harp
Susanna Wallumrød voice
Jane Achtman viola da gamba
Marco Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Recorded November 2010, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile…

Harpist Giovanna Pessi and vocalist Susanna Wallumrød join forces with Jane Achtman on viola da gamba and Marco Ambrosini on the nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed fiddle). The songs of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Leonard Cohen (80 years old at the time of this review), Nick Drake (1948-1974), and Wallumrød herself are subjects of this unforgettable disc. Drawing on the early music assemblage to which she so artfully contributed in Rolf Lislevand’s Diminuito, but also the genre-breaking experiments of Christian Wallumrød (through whom she met the pianist’s younger sister, Susanna), Pessi describes without words as much as Wallumrød with. Together, they open rear doors into vintage houses, rummaging through dust-covered artifacts until the spirit of each becomes obvious. Only then do they press RECORD.

Portrait of Grief

Among the Purcell selections are references to his opera The Fairy-Queen (“The Plaint”), his incidental The Theater of Music (“If Grief Has Any Pow’r To Kill” and “O Solitude”) and Oedipus (“Music For A While”), and the anthemic Harmonia Sacra (“An Evening Hymn”). Through all of these runs a plaintive thread from which is hung ornaments that sound as spontaneous as they do plucked from the pond of antiquity in which they originated. Despite exploring the most resilient themes of song—death and love—their enchantment feels fresh by virtue of Stefano Amerio’s engineering, which cuts the harp’s glitter with shadow and spikes pools in forest glades with melancholy.

Of Cohen’s craft, which might seem unlikely company were it not for the similarly forested landscapes, we encounter two examples. Pessi and Wallumrød expand “Who By Fire” from its two-and-a-half-minute appearance on the 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony—incidentally, a suitable descriptor for the present album’s reworking of the past—to a four-minute prayer (Cohen, too, tended to play the song for longer durations in live settings). The song’s morbid list of deaths, barely removed from its religious roots in the Unetanneh Tokef of Jewish liturgy, cuts an especially intimate silhouette. “You Know Who I Am” reaches back further to Cohen’s second album, Songs from a Room, released in 1969. Its poetry embraces a rare combination of vulnerability and fortitude that glistens as it beckons and turns the planets like elements of a larger-than-life mobile. All the more so for being so lovingly recreated here.

It is through such passion that Wallumrød the singer can be superseded only by Wallumrød the composer. Her rustic “The Forester” travels diagonally across fairy realms. Like an Arthur Rackham illustration come to life, it takes shape in leaves and brambles, flowing dresses and birdlike bodies. Her refrain of “Who are you?” explores curiosities of interaction much akin to Cohen’s. “Hangout,” too, reveals a songwriter keenly aware of spaces in which nature comes down like a mist and descends on those who breathe it in, so that they might exhale a language of dissolution.

Finally, Drake’s “Which Will,” off the tragically short-lived singer’s final album, Pink Moon (1972), is the flipside to “Who By Fire.” Its agile, seeking lyricism yearns for love in brighter places. As with the smattering of Purcell instrumentals that rounds out this disc, it cages dancing airs and sunrises within the cold hands of experience.

If Grief Could Wait is a must-have for fans of John Potter’s Dowland Project, and for those who appreciate the art of song, magnified.

(To hear samples of If Grief Could Wait, click here.)

Saluzzi/Lechner/Saluzzi: Navidad de los Andes (ECM 2204)

Navidad de los Andes

Dino Saluzzi
Anja Lechner
Felix Saluzzi
Navidad de los Andes

Dino Saluzzi bandoneon
Anja Lechner violoncello
Felix Saluzzi tenor saxophone, clarinet
Recorded July 2010, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Building on the fruitfulness of their previous collaborations, Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner have never sounded so beautiful together as they do on Navidad de los Andes. Their unity reaches profoundest depths, more attentive than ever to the value of spaces between them. This achievement proves to be the album’s blessing and its curse.

In light of their groundbreaking Ojos Negros, the Argentine bandoneón master and German cellist welcome the former’s brother Felix, a reedman of exquisite talent who has graced such classic records as Mojotoro, Juan Condori, and more recently El Valle de la Infancia. Where in those larger contexts the Saluzzi “family band,” as it has come to be known, worked wonders in selective navigations of original and traditional sources, in this more compact setting Felix’s contributions on tenor saxophone feel somewhat excessive. Thankfully, they appear only on three tracks, working progressively better from the incongruous “Requerdos de Bohemia” to the jazzier “Candor/Soledad” and lastly to “Ronda de niños en la montaña,” where it fits best for being more like a voice singing a lullaby.

Lechner and the Saluzzis

Felix’s clarinet, on the other hand, is a revelation. Whether nominally fronted in fragments from the “Trio for clarinet and two bandoneóns” or exploring the tango in “Variaciones sobre una melodia popular de José L. Padula,” his heavenly tone deepens the atmosphere of everything he touches. On that point, the trio functions most effectively when duties are shared in equal measure, as in “Son qo’ñati,” a lively dance that finds each musician handing off motives to the next in a continuous chain of technique and ingenuity. Breathtaking.

But it is, again, the bandoneón-and-cello center that mines the purest ore. Each collaboration in this vein develops its own film of a faraway ecosystem. The whistles and birdcalls of “Flor de tuna” give way to the cloudless sky of “Sucesos” and finish the album with the egalitarian “Otoño.” Along the way, the duo gives “Gabriel Kondor,” last heard on Saluzzi’s ECM debut, Kultrum, a nostalgic makeover.

Despite the tenor’s minor setback, the album stays true to its title, which translates as “Andean Nativity.” A spiritual sense of family and community across eras has always been at the heart of Saluzzi’s music, through which those dynamics thrive. Indeed, life would be nothing without them.

(To hear samples of Navidad de los Andes, click here.)

Sinikka Langeland: Maria’s Song (ECM 2127)

Maria's Song

Sinikka Langeland
Maria’s Song

Sinikka Langeland voice, kantele
Lars Anders Tomter viola
Kåre Nordstoga organ
Recorded February 2008, Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim
Engineer: Ove Berg
Editing: Ove Berg, Jean Lewis (Suite, Chaconne)
An ECM Production

ECM may be nominally dedicated to contemporary music, but Johann Sebastian Bach has been a vital touchstone in its classical recordings. Whether acting as a foil to modern works in Thomas Demenga’s multi-album traversal of the Cello Suites or as the exclusive subject of fresh interpretations by Keith Jarrett and András Schiff at the keyboard, Bach has either existed as a point of reference or as a master being reckoned with anew toward the asymptote of definitive interpretation. Only Christoph Poppen has gone a step further, weaving Bach into the work of Anton Webern (as Webern himself had done) and exploring hidden chorales of the solo violin literature. That was, until Maria’s Song, which is by far, and may always be, ECM’s profoundest reckoning with Bach.

Previously for the label, Norwegian folk singer and kantele (15-string Finnish table harp) virtuoso Sinikka Langeland had recorded Starflowers and The Land That Is Not, both of which sought to explore the shared heart of folk and jazz around the heliocenter of Langeland’s full-throated voice. This time she is joined by Lars Anders Tomter, previously of Ketil Bjørnstad’s The Light, who plays a Gasparo da Salò viola made in 1590, apparently one of the world’s finest examples of the instrument. With them is Kåre Nordstoga, playing the 30-register Baroque organ of Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral. Nordstoga is the principal organist at Oslo Cathedral and a Bach specialist, having performed two complete traversals of the composer’s organ music over 30 Saturday recitals in 1992 and 2000.

Langeland Trio
(Photo credit: Morten Krovgold)

The program is a mixture of Marian texts from Luke set to folk melodies and medieval ballads, then threaded through the loom of Bach’s hymns (and the Concerto in d minor, BWV 596) at the organ. In addition, Tomter plays viola arrangements of the Solo Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 (played an octave higher) and the Chaconne from the Solo Violin Partita No. 2 in d minor, BWV 1004 (transposed to g minor). A few things make this a remarkable project. First is Langeland’s immensity of knowledge, on which she draws to assemble a program of such originality that it feels as seamless as its pairings of word and melody. Second is her voice. Possessed of a luminescent, youthful energy, her intonation makes scripture feel like a sheaf of grain distilled into something digestible by the soul. Last is the utter respect with which the musicians perform, respect that emits a sacred light of its own. And no wonder, considering that the spirit of these texts was at one time forbidden in Norway, where the Reformation of 1537 disbanded monasteries and consigned church relics and artifacts, including depictions of Mary, to state storehouses. Worship of the Virgin thus became the stuff of hidden messages and codes, and in these songs Langeland has enacted their recovery.

“Lova lova Lina” is the first encoding of Mary and, like many of Langeland’s segues throughout the disc, is sung with only the cathedral’s resonant air as accompaniment. Along with the “Ave Maria,” it reappears transformed. At times, Langeland’s fingers find their way to the kantele, both as support for the voice and as a voice unto itself. A reprise of “Lova lova Lina” is especially potent for marrying the two. Narratively inflected singing throughout makes of the shuffled program something of a passion play, in which dialogues between Heaven and Earth come to define the natural order of things. One might expect the viola to brighten Bach’s solo cello writing, when in fact it casts a deeper, more spectral shadow. The feeling is distinctly cyclical, as emphasized by the vocal surroundings, and reaches open-gated confluence in the mighty Chaconne, over which the “Ave Maria” is dutifully papered. The organ, too, sings as it speaks, lifting Langeland in “Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar,” BWV 607 and, on its own, ascending the spiral staircase of the “Fuga sopra il Magnificat,” BWV 733 at hub of it all. Even the Concerto transcription unleashes the Holy Spirit at an intersection of past and future. As Langeland recalls in her liner notes, “While we played our way through time, the Nidaros Cathedral reflected the spiritual currents of a thousand years. The large Russian icon stared at us as we began to record. The dawn light poured through the huge rose window as we finished the night’s recording.” To be sure, we can feel all of these things…and more.

Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico: Terra Nostra (ECM 1856)

Terra Nostra

Savina Yannatou
Primavera en Salonico
Terra Nostra

Savina Yannatou voice
Lamia Bedioui voice
Primavera en Salonico
Lefteris Ahgouridakis percussion
Yannis Alexandris oud, guitar, tamboura
Kostas Vomvolos kanoun, accordion, caliba, tamboura
Kyriakos Gouventas violin
Harris Lambrakis nay
Michalis Siganidis double-bass
Antonis Maratos percussion
Tassos Misyrlis cello
Recorded live in Athens, November 2001
Sound engineer: Vangelis Kalaras
Remixing and sound processing: Yannis Paxevanis, Studio “N,” Athens
Editing: Yannis Christodoulatos
Mastering: Chris Hatzistamou and Yannis Christodoulatos, Athens Mastering

Savina Yannatou is a wonder. As well versed in classical and jazz as in traditional and folk repertoires, the Greek singer turns every melody she handles into an alloy entirely her own. By the time this album was committed to digital in 2001, she had twenty years of acclaimed recordings, performances, and collaborations behind her—five with Primavera en Salonico. From the brilliance of what’s captured on this, her ECM debut (repackaged from its original appearance on Lyra), here’s hoping there will be twenty more.

Savina

To describe Yannatou’s relationship with Primavera is to describe the spark of flint and fire. The result is a conflagration that dances with innumerable colors. Some of those colors are easily identifiable as cultural, spanning as they do a variety of locative sources. Others are not so amenable to labeling, for they arise out of Yannatou’s effortless code switching and extended vocal techniques. Among those techniques, we are treated to everything from unadorned lullabies (as in “Adieu Paure Carnavas,” which comes from Provence) and swirling enchantments (“I’ve told you and I say again,” a Greek traditional from Asia Minor) to trance states of speech-song (the Caribbean traditional “Ah Mon Dié”) and cathartic ululations (“El Barquero,” by way of the seaside Spanish village of Asturia). In this vein we have also “Ballo sardo,” a Central Sardinian tune with whimsical touches glinting off an already compelling surface. In it, Yannatou sings, “Be careful, barons, to moderate your tyranny / otherwise I swear to you that you will lose your power,” effectively flagging the shattering power that one sweep of the lips can possess. The pen may be mightier than the sword, she seems to say, but the mouth outdoes them both.

The topography of Terra Nostra is thus varied as the cultures that populate it. The mournful violin that introduces “With the Moon I’m Walking,” a Greek traditional from Kalymnos Island and the concert’s prologue, shifts tectonically beneath Yannatou’s crosscurrents. It’s an appropriate starting point, a place of questioning and cosmos that sets up much of what will soon be answered. Highlights to follow include “Ivan Nadõnka Dúmashe” (Ivan Said to Donka), a song from the Bulgarian province of Eastern Rumelia. The region’s Turkish and Greek minorities can be heard in the kanoun, a Middle Eastern zither that shines starlight across a bed of lyrical regret. Nay virtuoso Harris Lambrakis—of an ensemble rich with instrumental talent—is a noteworthy facet of Primavera’s vibrant sound. His contributions to “A Fairy’s Love Song” (traditional from the Hebrides) and others draw threads of longing throughout.

Since the beginning of the Yannatou/Primavera collaboration, Sephardic music has been a vital part of the group’s programming, and in this performance we are treated to four examples. The upbeat and full sound of such refreshing, if also surreally realized, songs as “Jaco” and “Los Bilbilicos” lends uplift, while the strong percussive drive of “Tres Hermanicas Eran” looses a dream from slumber, made reality by the tactile force of the performance. In these songs we feel Yannatou at the center of crowded streets, where her immediate surroundings curl into a ball at her feet and purr to the tune of her descriptive powers.

Five songs feature co-vocalist Lamia Bedioui, who was born in Tunisia but has been based in Greece for nearly two decades. She brings a likeminded cross-culturalism to the group, beguiling in a handful of Arabic songs, such as the Meredith Monk-esque “Yiallah Tnem Rima” (Let Rim Sleep), a lullaby from Lebanon that carves brief passage through caves and sand with its largely vocal palette, and a rubato version of the undying “Wa Habibi.” She also heads the jangling fragmentations of the Italian Renaissance tune “Madonna de la Grazia” (Italian Renaissance) with equal parts tact and abandon.

What makes this record blossom is the interactive prowess of its musicians. Primavera stays true to its name, gathering all the power of the eponymous season to resurrect these songs from the depths of a long winter. Through clever instrumental pairings (of, for example, oud darting through jazzy bass lines) and juxtapositions of sacred and secular, Yannatou and her band prove that, once everything sprouts, it all becomes one homogeneous field, across which we are bid to run for love of living.

Alternate Terra
Alternate cover

when wings become electric: burning the midnight oil with powerdove

Do You Burn

powerdove
Do You Burn?

Annie Lewandowski vocals, prepared piano, keyboard, guitar
John Dieterich guitars, bass
Thomas Bonvalet harmonica reeds, six-string banjo, amps, microphones, feet tapping, hand clapping, tuning forks, concertina, guitar, dry poppy pods, whistlings
Released March 2013
Circle Into Square

As the high-pitched distortions of a concertina pierce the ether in “Fellow,” the opening track of powerdove’s latest, Do You Burn?, it’s clear they belong to a music comprised of supernal layers. Like emotional specimens under a microscope, each instrumental slice has its own cover slide. At the risk of belaboring the analogy, we might say that Annie Lewandowski’s voice is the clarifying stain. The Minnesota-born pianist, songwriter, and improviser began powerdove as a solo highway before assembling her current car pool with John Dieterich of Deerhoof and Thomas Bonvalet of L’ocelle Mare. Their barbed tangle of feedback and acoustic guitar almost obscures the patter of raindrops that follows in Lewandowski’s wake, each a step toward fractured closure. The classical enunciation of the words adds glint to the rough lyrical edges in a love song that is both invitation and self-cocooning:

Fellow
you’re inside
mellow
to my aching body

Thus initiated, thus torn in two, the listener leaves one self behind while the other drips into the soil, where the only accompaniment can be found in the stirrings of worms, chiggers, and other stewards of long-rotted crops. In this fecund quilt lies the one perfect square, its fragrance more powerful than a tornado.

There is a feeling here of three itinerant creators, wandering from one abandoned farmstead to another and playing on whatever battered equipment they can find, thus leaving songs as sigils of their fleeting inhabitation. This doesn’t mean that the proceedings are in any way sparse, for as in “Under Awnings,” despite the minimal appliqué of handclaps and muted piano, there is a mortal weightiness that one can only find in the dreaming body.

One last chance for a kiss
run away to another
under awnings of sheet and steel
I lay me down

So, too, the portal of “California.” It is fiercely emblematic of the album’s deceptive simplicity, for what appears to be nothing more than a drinking song is in fact a veiled paean to knowledge-seeking and the ways in which it is inevitably cracked by, and elided from, the creative process in favor of something new. Such abandonment is also readily apparent in “Flapping Wings,” a scenic morsel to feed the gaping mouth of a landlubber’s heart (indeed, there is something of an oceanic brogue about it).

All the leaves blow off
breeze to take the spring seeds on

The title track pulls harder at the album’s frays of memory as the sun watches keenly, nakedly, holding no judgment but our own.

The quavering bellows provide mechanical respiration in the background, the trembling of a newborn locomotive opening its eyes to the tracks. Unlike the latter, however, powerdove does not submit to the promise of coming together that the horizon throws at us. Rather, it maintains its parallels through a voice’s secrecy that we find in “Alder Tree I,” as well as in “Out On the Water,” which enacts another playful approach to perspective and relays between solo accompaniment and homespun groove and treats size as an ever-changing idea to which ears subscribe at random.

listen hear the refrain
listen now the refrain

“Love Walked In” enacts that part of every journey during which the destination, though still a ways away, nevertheless glistens in the mind as if it were a jewel in the hand. Sprightly guitar layers and an optimistic bass dance their way down endless stretch of road. Rhythms recur with the crunch of granola at molar touch.

We run and laugh and
run under darkened skies

“Red Can of Paint” evokes the microscopic attention of William Carlos Williams. Overturned, it acts as a sounding drum for all activity that shares slivers of its perimeter in this pizzicato postcard.

Light from the hall
wash you over

“All Along the Eaves” is by far the album’s truest to form—not only for the subtlety of its traction but also for its admixture of voice, melody, and text. Through songs like this, powerdove asks us, Why separate the chaff when it is still singing? And in this sense they provide an ethical service, documenting swan songs before they are discarded via the guts of machinery and industry.

On my knees I’m weak
three breaths from my coffin

“Out of the Rain” is a beautiful afternoon-laden choir with a thump following close behind: a peg-legged, Björkian nightscape.

Whisper me my name
your hand resting on my face

Lewandowski has beautiful way of repeating words: drinking, sinking, sung, turning them into compact mantras of poetic evocation.

In “Wandering Jew,” which reads like a travelogue of the voice, that repetition finds in the sensitive instrumental accompaniments a wavering sense of corporeal reality, which seeks shade under the beautiful plucked piano of “Alder Tree II,” a windblown leaf that hangs even though its branch is gone.

I hang my head

Although the album barely surpasses half an hour in duration, it cradles countless more of unraveling in its bosom. There is a sheen to its contours that speaks of the dawn as experience’s signature: not an admission of love but a love of admission.

powerdove
(Photo by Ben Piekut)

An e-mail interview with Annie Lewandowski

> 1. Can you briefly walk me through the evolution of the album from concept(s) to realization?

In June 2010 I moved to Southampton, England to join my husband, Ben, who had work teaching there. I’d left the Bay Area and also left powerdove, which at that time had consisted of me singing and playing guitar, Jason Hoopes on upright bass, and Alex Vittum on percussion. We’d toured some on the west coast and recorded “Be Mine” (released on Circle Into Square Records) earlier that year. In England I had a lot of time (perhaps too much time…) to myself. No work, no friends. I was inspired by the rain, the grey, the solitude, and very much the landscape. 11 of the 13 songs on “Do You Burn?” were written there, walking along the River Itchen, as sparse arrangements for voice and guitar. Ben and I talked at length about how this next recording might sound. Ben suggested I ask Thomas (Bonvalet) and John (Dieterich) to collaborate. Thomas has a fantastic solo project called L’ocelle Mare that I’d been introduced to in 2006 or 2007 when he toured through Oakland (Thomas is from France). He plays a vast array of instruments—foot percussion, handclaps, reeds, banjo, poppy pods…. He has an incredible sense of rhythm and a fantastic sense of atmosphere. John has been a friend for a long time. He’s an amazing guitarist and imagining his dense guitar sound on this record was thrilling. I invited Thomas to come to a concert I played in Paris in April 2011 to see what he thought about collaborating, and John’s known powerdove’s music since the beginning. Both were on board and we met in Albuquerque to record the album in January 2012.

> 2. How did you come to share the road with John and Thomas? What newness (or antiquity, for that matter) do they bring to the powerdove sound?

Think I answered this in my lengthy response to question one…

> 3. Your lyrics seem personal, at times intensely so. Are they a diary? Are they a travelogue? Are they fantasy?

Yes, the lyrics are intensely personal. Sometimes I’ve worried that they are a bit too personal, but then what else would I write? I don’t think I could do it any differently. I’ve worried about the transparency of the lyrics before, but had a really comical experience a few years back that lead me to believe they maybe weren’t so transparent. I had performed the song “Easter Story” in London and someone came up to me afterwards and asked me if I was a Christian. Another person asked me if the song was about Catholic church child sexual abuse. Needless to say, neither got at what the song means to me.

I’d say that, more than anything, these songs are a diary…things I’ve thought, felt, experienced, that have found their best articulation in music.

> 4. Your music strikes a fine balance between polished and rough ore. Is this balance conscious and, if so, does it arise organically?

I love that you have that experience listening to Do You Burn? This balance is very conscious, and it happens very much organically. At a concert we played in Poitiers in March, someone came up to me after the concert and said they felt like I was the lighthouse in the midst of a storm. I love for the simple clarity of the melody and lyrics to root itself in the bed of sonic wildness that Thomas and John create. It’s exhilarating to sing in the middle of it! I’ve been trying to close my eyes less when I sing but have found it to be impossible. I have to concentrate so completely while I’m singing so as not to get thrown off balance.

> 5. For the most part, the songs feel like they were recorded live in the studio with very little multi-tracking. Was this a practical or an aesthetic decision?

It was an aesthetic decision. We wanted the intimacy and feel of live takes so recorded the album as such. There was a relatively small amount of overdubbing done for this record. We recorded live at John’s house—I was singing in a closet, Thomas was playing his banjo (and other instruments) in the bathroom, and John was in the main room playing guitar.

> 6. Speaking of aesthetics, how would you describe powerdove’s in one word?

jagged

> 7. The song “Wandering Jew” is rivetingly poignant. What does it mean to you?

I wrote “Wandering Jew” after Ben and I had packed up everything in our semi-detached house in Southampton. The movers had taken everything and there was literally nothing left in the house. I’d kept my guitar and wrote it in the days just before moving back to the US. There is a lot about the English landscape in that one, there is a lot about the pain and the exhilaration of having left the religion I was brought up with. It’s my favorite song from “Do You Burn?” I can feel my heart bursting with this complex range of emotions every time I sing it. I owe a lot to John and Thomas for magnifying that feeling in their instrumental parts, which are absolutely exquisite.

> 8. Much of the press surrounding your work talks about geography. How important is landscape to you as a songwriter?

I’ve noticed how much geography figures in my songs, but only in hindsight. So much about water…. I grew up in a small town in Northern Minnesota near the headwaters of the Mississippi. Much of my childhood was spent swimming in the lakes and river in the summer and ice-skating and running around on the frozen lakes in the winter. Maybe after all of those years in and on bodies of water it’s what first comes to mind. Or maybe it’s because I get the lyrics for many of my songs when I’m outside walking and that’s often near bodies of water. We just recorded songs for the next powerdove album and geography still has a presence, but less so than in Do You Burn?

> 9. If asked to cite any musical influences on powerdove, who might they be?

For singing, Nico’s at the front. Instrumentally, all of the wonderful improvisers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing and playing with the last 15 years. And I grew up in and received a lot of my music education in the Lutheran church. When my songs are at their most basic, just me singing and playing guitar, I find they have a lot in common with the hymns of my youth—stark and simple.

> 10. Poetry or prose?

Poetry.