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.
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
Dimma – DIM 87 (2020)