REVIEW: ‘Mór’ – Agnar Már Magnússon

MUSIC IS NOTHING if it doesn’t elicit a response (any response) from us; and it’s no embellishment to say that Mór, this new septet recording from established Icelandic pianist Agnar Már Magnússon, first arrested my attention in an unexpected, emotive fashion – so much so, that it has since been listened to repeatedly.

2016 album Svif revealed a classy piano trio of unpredictability and grace, melding folk-styled homeyness with an oblique jazz sensibility. However, this latest project elevates Magnússon’s creativity into a more expansive range. Perhaps unusually, he partners his trio (completed by double bassist Valdimar Kolbeinn Sigurjónsson and drummer Matthías Hemstock) with four brass players from the Iceland Symphony Orchestra – French hornists Stefán Jón Bernharðsson, Asbjörn Ibsen Bruun, Frank Hammarin and tubist Nimrod Ron. The resulting textural weave available to him, as arranger and composer, clearly brings much to these new expressions of traditional Icelandic folksong, bookended by two of Agnar’s own pieces.

In jazz piano terms, subdued hues of Tord Gustavsen or Esbjörn Svensson may be discernable; but there’s something else at work here, likely to be influenced by the culture and subarctic environment of the artists’ Nordic homeland. These are exquisitely crafted and blended sounds – often restrained, searching, even solemn – and for those reasons, their measured route into a receptive mind can feel almost spiritual.

The horn section’s significance, and a beautiful sense of enfoldment, is heard in opening title track Mór – a slow, Bachian trio chorale gradually infiltrated by their closely-harmonized rise and fall; and Magnússon’s skilful, sometimes unanticipated chordal changes even suggest shadowy, filmic drama. But Blastjarnan’s melancholy shifts into the ensemble’s ‘alter ego’ – an attractive, rhythmic persona to support Agnar’s pellucid improvisation and the horns’ subtle underpinning of its recurring three-note motif. These are certainly melodies and phrases which stay in the memory, now welcomed each time they are heard. In gradually-ascending Hliðskjálfs sjóla haukur rólið missti dfnn and Ísaspöng af andans hyl (‘An iceberg from the abyss’) there are hints of the precise sound world of e.s.t., the latter coloured by alluring bass resonances and waves of brass.

Softly dissonant medieval horns announce Almáttugur guð allra stétta sdbsggn, a lively, percussively-ornamented modal exploration, while sunlight breaks through onto the landscape with the free-flowing, pirouetting piano melodies of Modir Islands. In fact, there’s the impression of Agnar ‘receiving’ his extemporisations from a ‘higher’ source and instantly relaying them, with care and rubato, to the keyboard – as in Grafskrift Sæmundar Klemenssonar, and also in the choice chordal meshes of Ísland farsælda frón.

The final, four-minute work, I find the most affecting of all – Magnússon’s Svordur. Led by solo horn, then gradually joined by the full section and piano trio, it possesses incredible longing and humanity; a kind of Purcellian majesty along the lines of ‘When I Am Laid in Earth’, with a reassurance that ‘all will be well’. This is undoubtedly one of the finest pieces of new music I have heard amidst this troubled year.

For its imaginative musical symbiosis, with a profound ability to move the soul, Mór is fervently recommended.

Released 1 September 2020, the CD can be purchased through email addresses shown at the websites of Agnar (agnarmagnusson@gmail.com) and label Dimma (dimma@dimma.is), or as a download from Bandcamp.

 

Agnar Már Magnússon piano
Valdimar Kolbeinn Sigurjónsson double bass
Matthías Hemstock drums

Stefán Jón Bernharðsson French horn
Asbjörn Ibsen Bruun French horn
Frank Hammarin French horn
Nimrod Ron tuba

agnarmagnusson.com

Dimma – DIM 87 (2020)

‘Seaside’ – Liane Carroll

Seaside

BREATHE IN DEEPLY, and you can almost sense that familiar, hazy blend of aromas on the breeze: salty sea air, fish’n’chips, candy floss… and then the distant sounds of brass band vibrato and children’s play against a reassuring, shingle-stroked ebb tide. It’s all conjured by eminent, award-winning British jazz/soul singer Liane Carroll in a new coastal-inspired collection of songs – Seaside.

The vocalist/pianist who brought us such memorable gems as her own, peppy Dublin Morning and a powerfully emotive interpretation of Tom Waits’ Picture in a Frame now reaches new heights in this, her ninth album, surrounding herself with a fabulous array of musicians (notably multi-instrumentalist and producer James McMillan). Prompted by friend and renowned singer, pianist and songwriter Joe Stilgoe (who gifted Carroll the wonderfully evocative and wistful title track), here are ten songs inspired by the singer’s affection for her home town of Hastings; an inviting musical promenade which encounters sunny exuberance, swaggering grooves and tender, reassuring love, sometimes tinged with melancholy.

That title track is, indeed, a winner – its swirling silver band arrangement and classy, solid, melodic hooks (easily redolent of late Lennon & McCartney) combine with lyrics which tell a story of ardent, carefree, though perhaps seasonal companionship (“We’ll always have the seaside”); and love’s exhilaration is embodied in the bubbly piano-trio-and-scat burst of Lerner and Loewe’s Almost Like Being in Love (or Hove, as teasingly alternatively titled by Liane!). One of this album’s exquisite surprises is a thoughtful, mellow rendering of Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee’s Bring Me Sunshine – light years away from Eric’n’Ern’s japes, it might warmly pictorialise the cuddled devotedness of a couple looking out across the waves from their seafront shelter.

Led Zeppelin’s originally heavy-rocking Nobody’s Fault But Mine is effectively reimagined as a gravelly, bluesy strut (featuring Julian Siegel on tenor) – those characteristically wide, soulful vocals as impressive as ever; and the countryfied feel of Fred Lavery and Gordie Sampson’s Get Me Through December (previously recorded by, amongst others, Alison Krauss) becomes quietly majestic in Carroll’s hands. Evan Jolly’s broad, gospel-imbued arrangement of Mary Gauthier’s Mercy Now displays all the brassy stature of an Elton John chart high-rider; and Wild is the Wind (from the 1950s movie of the same name) features the lush piano and brass arrangements of Malcolm Edmonstone, its haunting lyricism emphasised by bowed and sustained vibes.

A guitar-accompanied vocal interlude – popular 1930s standard I Cover the Waterfront, which Carroll has always wanted to record – is delightfully decorated by Rob Luft’s scampering fret work; and My Ship (Kurt Weill & Ira Gershwin), with a playful vocal timbre reminiscent of Natalie Cole, cruises breezily before switching into fast scat swing. Finally, in recognition of the ever-present dangers of seafaring communities, Liane offers a poignant reading of J B Dykes’ familiar hymn tune Melita (words by William Whiting) – For Those In Peril on the Sea‘s reverent vocals are underpinned by Mark Edwards’ sublime jazz piano and organ harmonies, enhanced by James McMillan’s plaintive flugelhorn.

Seaside consolidates Liane Carroll’s position as one of the UK’s most expressive jazz/soul vocalists and pianists in an accessible recording which combines unalloyed high spirits with beauteous, heart-aching emotion. Released on 18 September 2015, the album is available from Linn Records and jazz retailers (take a look at the Seaside video).

 

Liane Carroll vocals, piano
Steve Pearce acoustic bass
Ian Thomas drums
James McMillan flugelhorn, keyboards, percussion, bass, tenor horn, vibraphone
Evan Jolly trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn; brass band and brass arrangements
Andy Wood euphonium, trombone
Julian Siegel tenor saxophone
Rob Leake baritone and tenor saxophones
Mark Edwards piano
Malcolm Edmonstone piano; brass arrangements
Mark Jaimes acoustic and electric guitars
Rob Luft guitar

lianecarroll.co.uk

Linn Records – AKD 533 (2015)