‘Christmas With My Friends IV’ – Nils Landgren

CWMFIV2

‘IT’S COMING ON Christmas’… so thoughts turn to seasonal musical fare to accompany the annual twelve-day celebration.

On a purely personal note, much of my Advent and Christmas listening is based on choral music and the 20th Century British classical tradition. But this series of albums, Christmas With My Friends, has caught my attention since its inception in 2006. Now on its fourth volume, respected Swedish trombonist and vocalist Nils Landgren once again gathers together colleagues from the ACT Music label to join him in this now-distinctive, collaborative selection of music for Christmastide which is both secular and spiritual, bridging genres (including traditional, folk, jazz, pop, choral, classical) with particular warmth, intimacy and harmony.

So, amongst the fifteen numbers: familiar English carol The First Noel, led by vocalist Ida Sand, is given an amiable jazz flavour with the soprano sax extemporisations of Jonas Knutsson; Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday makes it into the festive season with an upbeat, bluesy vocal against gently rhythmic guitar courtesy of Sharon Dyall and Johan Norberg, as Nils Landgren adds typically nimble trombone lines; and a jaunty Santa Claus Is Coming To Town jives to the winsome duet simplicity of the funkmeister’s trombone and Eva Kruse’s double bass. The original SATB precision of John Rutter’s Angels’ Carol is translated into a hearty popular ballad delivered by vocalists Jeanette Köhn and Ida Sand, complete with soft jazz sax break; and Johan Norberg’s evocatively chilly Icicles, played on kantele (similar to a dulcimer), is reminiscent of the ambiences of the Knutsson/Norberg album Skaren: Norrland III (ACT).

Renditions of popular tunes include What A Wonderful World and Wham’s Last Christmas, and enduring carols such as In The Bleak Midwinter (Holst/Rossetti) are bathed in a different, contemporary light. But, so often, it’s the revelatory interpretations of lesser-known treasures that magically become established in the holiday soundtrack – for example, Maria dutch ein Dornwald ging and Det grinner en stjärna for solo voice, embellished by the sensitivity of Landgren’s trombone and shimmering to watercolour kantele. Adolphe Adam’s O helga natt (O Holy Night) is enchanting in its measured delicacy, and the unassuming, closing interpretation of O du fröhliche glistens in vocal/instrumental new-age innocence.

On reflection, this may not be the strongest in the series, occasionally veering a touch close to ‘schmalz’ (though perhaps a vital ingredient for some). Nevertheless, it still makes a very welcome addition to Landgren’s delightful, continuing project – and volumes I-III are now wrapped up neatly in a limited edition 3-CD set (see below) or available singly. As December proceeds, all four are recommended to bring cheer – ‘singing songs of joy and peace’* – in alternative, heartwarming style.

Released on 3 November 2014, further information and audio clips are available at ACT Music.

 

Nils Landgren trombone, vocals
Sharon Dyall vocals, harmonica
Jonas Knutsson baritone and soprano saxophones
Jeanette Köhn vocals
Eva Kruse bass
Jessica Pilnäs vocals
Ida Sand piano, vocals, glockenspiel
Johan Norberg guitar, kantele

*Joni Mitchell’s River features on volume III

I-III_150

nilslandgren.com

ACT Music – ACT 9568-2 (2014)

‘Come To Me’ – The Sirkis/Bialas International Quartet

ComeToMe

THE INVITATION to share in the rarefied, positive atmospheres contained within this debut release from the Sirkis Bialas International Quartet is tangible from an ensemble who evidently love what they create together.

Acclaimed drummer and percussionist Asaf Sirkis’ 2013 album Shepherd’s Stories included amongst its jazz/rock solidity an enchanting, wordless cameo appearance by Polish vocalist Sylwia Bialas whose new-age tones were so intriguing as to suggest the development of a future musical collaboration. This conceptual spark has now ignited a synergetic new quartet with pianist Frank Harrison and bassist Patrick Bettison, featuring the broad scope of Bialas’ vocal dexterity.

Dividing equally the ten compositions of Come To Me, Sirkis and Bialas create expansive landscapes (jazz, folk, world, prog) which are, in turns, contemplative, brooding and joyfully animated. Sylwia Bialas uses her voice either to shape her self-penned native lyrics or to explore more and more inventive instrumental avenues, frequently taking it through seemingly unreachable pitches and athletic rhythmic patterns. And the distinction here is the constant interaction with her fellow players; this is no ‘singer plus band’ set-up, but rather a fully integrated quartet whose conception feels unique.

Patrick Bettison’s conversational electric bass style bears something of a resemblance to that of supremo Jeff Berlin, his fretless-like timbre a good match for Bialas’ various intonations; Frank Harrison displays all the sparky virtuosity and tender lyricism of his own trio albums and catalogue of recordings with Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble; and former Orient House colleague Asaf Sirkis is as commanding as ever in providing the quartet’s complex rhythmic backbone plus typically infinite elaborations (his accomplished Konnakol skills need to be heard and seen to be believed!).

Title track Come To Me offers a first glimpse of the band’s telepathy, its sparse, unison vocal and piano motif opening into Gustavsenesque transcendence, and Bialas’ lyrics evolving as liltingly sung improvisation. The empyreal lucidity of Dreams Dreams is haunting, with a measured pace maintained by Sirkis’ intricate cymbal patterns; and Vortex spins propulsively to Bettison’s mobile bass (entertaining to watch, live, the concentration required to hold his ostinato position against Sirkis’ audacious cross-rhythms) as Bialas stretches out broadly and magnificently.

The otherwise quiet introversion of Sylwia Bialas’ Ismael is pierced by an emotional Middle Eastern vocal style, Harrison displaying his customary high-searching piano finesse, and Bettison’s harmonica extemporisations adding a sophisticated sense of mystery. Recognisably Sirkis’ writing, A Hymn possesses a certain ‘prog ominousness’, showcasing the effectiveness of Bialas’ voice as an instrument, whilst Mandragora builds into a bristling, cosmopolitan melting pot of so many ideas and influences – a great performance.

Bialas’ lucent Polish lyricism in The One shines out, echoed by lofty instrumental delicacy; and the energy of Magnolia is infectious, Sirkis revelling in its percussive possibilities. Inspired by the subject of paranormal light trails in imagery, the band again summon their combined aptitude for conveying fragility in Orbs – spatial and otherworldly, it holds the attention so beautifully. And Sirkis’ rock-driven closer, Orgon, ripples to the eloquence of Bettison’s bass and Harrison’s electric piano, concluding with mischievous, disquieting electronic vocal effects from Bialas.

Choose your moment with this album – but late evening (“In the silence of the night, in the depth of nothingness”) is when its magic is especially revealed, with the space reflecting every nuance that has been placed and captured so crystal-clearly. Launched at the EFG London Jazz Festival on 21 November 2014, claim that wonder for yourself at Bandcamp or JazzCDs.

 

Asaf Sirkis drums, compositions
Sylwia Bialas
vocals, overtone singing, compositions
Frank Harrison piano, keyboards
Patrick Bettison electric bass, chromatic harmonica

asafsirkis.co.uk
sylwiabialas.com

Stonedbird Productions – SBPQ004 (2014)