REVIEW: ‘Christmas With My Friends VII’ – Nils Landgren

NO ONE could have imagined, when this project first began in a Swedish medieval church in December 2005, what a poignancy its title would bring some fifteen years later. For alongside the observance and festivity of the Christmas season, this year we may also be remembering those lost to a global pandemic, as well as family and friends with whom we cannot yet get together. But amidst all of this, Nils Landgren and colleagues have chosen to continue their reassuringly familiar and easy-going brand of schmaltz, tenderness, joy and reflection in Christmas With My Friends VII.

Following the previous six volumes (including IV and V), Landgren is again joined by singers Sharon Dyall, Jeanette Köhn and Jessica Pilnäs, while Ida Sand (vocals, piano), Jonas Knutsson (saxophones), Eva Kruse (bass) and Johan Norberg (guitar, mandolin) provide the distinctive ambient glow. At the suggestion of ACT Music label owner Siggi Loch, the trombonist and vocalist has cast the net wider in terms of garnering fourteen songs from around the world, their listed countries of origin connecting us through the best and, indeed, the worst of times.

Credited with shaping the album’s eclectic sequence, Swedish guitarist Johan Norberg provides acapella introduction This Christmas, whose theme of joy and hope is continued in Comin’ Home For Christmas, Jonas Knutsson’s soprano sax embellishing its easy pop/folk groove. Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria is given a balladic, almost 1950s rock‘n’roll lilt through its vocal harmonies and Landgren’s signature trombone smoothness; and traditional Irish carol This Endris Night is bathed in gentle, shimmering light.

The predictable melody and chord sequence of Russian song The Forest Raised A Christmas Tree, in this arrangement, has a whiff of soft American folk/rock; but forgettable US soul/pop tune Just Another Christmas Song feels a touch too shallow for this collection, a ‘cheeseboard’ crammed with as many festive song lines or titles as possible! Back on track, delicate Polish lullaby of the nativity, Gdy süliczna Panna, has far greater charm, particularly for its memorable chorus; and in a swift change of mood, joyful, harmonized South African chant Sizalelwe Indodana (Unto Us A Son Is Born) features a delightful baritone sax and trombone break.

Sweet Was the Song begins a sequence of candlelit intimacy that harks back to the project’s humble but special beginnings – there’s something so wonderfully spatial about the blend of instrumentation and vocalisation in these pieces. For example, Ingibjörg Þorbergs’ simple Icelandic tune Hin fyrstu jól (The First Christmas) is attractively stated then improvised upon by a gallery quartet of mandolin, double bass, soprano sax and trombone; and Benjamin Britten’s processional Hodie Christus (from ‘A Ceremony of Carols’) becomes exalted through an expectant, sky-filled plainchant-and-horn annunciation – a beautiful, crisp atmosphere.

This sense of tradition continues in tender Finnish carol Sylvian Joululaulu – Knutsson’s soft, subtly gruff sax tone is always a pleasure to hear, complementing the clear vocal. En förtvivlad vän offers a similar aura of calm before the concluding ensemble greeting of José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad is extended with gentle, fireside warmth.

Christmas 2020’s celebrations will need some alternative imagination on our part. But the unswerving feel-good of Nils Landgren and friends this yuletide, and in years to come, offers us some semblance of peace and cheer. ‘Gud välsigna oss alla’.

Released on 10 October 2020 and available in CD and vinyl formats at ACT Music.

 

Nils Landgren trombone, vocals
Sharon Dyall vocals
Jonas Knutsson saxophones
Jeanette Köhn vocals
Eva Kruse bass
Jessica Pilnäs vocals
Ida Sand vocals, piano
Johan Norberg guitar, mandolin

nilslandgren.com

ACT Music – ACT 9916-2 (2020)

‘Pulcinella’ – Bestiole

Pulcinella

FIZZZZING with les ébats et le feu (er, frolics and fire), French quartet Bestiole create an extravagant, fantastical whirl of excitement with their third album, Pulcinella.

Hailing from the South West (Toulouse) and translated as ‘tiny creatures’, Bestiole consists of the tireless and highly inventive talents of Ferdinand Doumerc (saxes, flute, metallaphone), Florian Demonsant (accordion, kaval), Jean-Marc Serpin (double bass) and Frédéric Cavallin (drums, metallophone, glockenspiel). And together, with theatrical, circus-like wonder as well as an innate jazz sensibility, they present this eleven-track cross-genre amalgam of kaleidoscopic colour.

That typically Gallic pairing of saxophone and accordion features strongly throughout, delivered with fluent, showy abandon by Doumerc and Demonsant. At times, as in the long-titled opening number Garez vous chez vous dans l’allée vous emmerdez tout le monde, there’s a resemblance to the Iain Ballamy and Stian Carstensen duo project, ‘The Little Radio’. But, as a quartet, with added bass and drums thrust, they push their ideas to the limits via squawks, flutters, glissandi, handclaps and yells (check out Ni vu ni connu) over rapid ostinato phrases. First hearings suggest chaos and randomness, but it’s all carefully conceived and beautifully executed.

Christiana identifies the band’s more reflective alter ego – a mysteriously lilting waltz propelled by bassist Jean-Marc Serpin, its sustained, cascading accordion gently underpinning Doumerc’s mellow tenor. The addition of Patrick Vaillant’s mandolin and Daniel Casimir’s trombone in Sur le pavé la lune conjures clandestine monochrome movie mischief, although this slippery, moonlit soundworld later breaks down into a mandolin-induced riot of brass and percussion (it’s this unpredictability which is so fascinating). The gently-rocking metallophone in Morphée, along with its slumberous tenor melody, vividly illustrates the idea of twilight sleep – and although there’s a twist (again) as sinister, nightmarish overtones develop, quietude is eventually restored.

The cheeky, spacial brevity of Raksi chaparrak (la danse du papillon) – its trilled flutes reminiscent of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson – leads to the wonderfully sauntering-cum-swinging Le moustique ambiteux, Serpin and Cavallin providing the spiky bass and percussion propulsion – infectious stuff indeed! ‘Jazz-funk salsa’ inhabits another short episode, Tu parles trop (or ‘you talk too much’), its yakking nature portrayed superbly by pecking mandolin and brassy chatterings. Niger is sublime in contrast – lyrical tenor against undulating accordion. And then… eight minutes in the company of La Tarantelle, which buzzes, clatters and falls over itself with unalloyed exuberance. This whirling dance, which rests only momentarily, seems to sum up the band’s ethos – put simply, a rollicking good time! The quietly bewitching endpiece, Envoûtement, with its breathy kaval melody over repeated metallophone (curiously recalling Gong, Mike Oldfield) is exquisite, and a mark of Bestiole’s impressive musicality.

Successfully coupled on recent UK gigs (in the Match & Fuse series) with similarly brash British bands Troyka and Brass Mask, Pulcinella is now on general release, and hugely entertaining – here’s a quick blast of what to expect.

 

Ferdinand Doumerc saxophones, flûte, métallophone
Florian Demonsant accordéon, kaval
Jean-Marc Serpin contrebasse
Frédéric Cavallin batterie, métallophone, glockenspiel
with
Patric Vaillant mandoline
Daniel Casimir trombone

Yellowbird/Enja – 9276 (2014)

‘If I was to describe you’ – Monika Lidke

MonikaLidke

WARMTH AND BEAUTY, matching the Summer mood, pervade the air around me as I listen to an endearing and heartfelt new release, If I was to describe you, from Polish songstress Monika Lidke. Now resident in London, this collection of self-composed soft jazz/folk songs reflects Lidke’s Polish and French personas, each of its fourteen tracks imbued with appealing honesty, freshness and lyrical accomplishment.

An album made possible by an enthusiastic Kickstarter response, Lidke employs an enviable team of musicians to bring to life her very personal collection of life experiences and observations – and it’s very much the congruous compositional attention to detail in both words and music which grabs the attention, as well as the clear, fluent vocal delivery. Kristian Borring (guitars), Tim Fairhall (double bass) and Chris Nickolls (drums) provide the principal instrumental line-up, but there are contributions throughout from Maciek Pysz, Shez Raja, Mark Rose and many others who ensure a refreshingly eclectic recording.

Monika Lidke’s vocal tone possesses a silky richness, with crystal-clear diction, as demonstrated in the soft, bluesy opener They Say. It has a suppleness, too, which matches well the prominent electric bass grooving of Janek Gwizdala, Kristian Borring’s light guitar accompaniment and the ticking rhythm maintained by drummer Chris Nickolls. The more folksy title number If I was to describe you – a song of love or deep friendship – has a charm which is enhanced by cello and vibes, as well as Lidke’s beautifully layered harmonies; and carefree Tum tum song, with Polish lyric shared by Basia Trzetrzelewska, bounces along with gently effervescing amiability.

Already, then, it’s clear that Lidke displays an aptitude for carefully combining words with appropriate musical styles and rhythms – yet the varied tracklist coalesces well, with a proliferation of melodic hooks. Light under the bruises explores further themes of closeness (“I lift you up just to show you a new horizon”) – then, out of the blue… the jaunty-but-delicate Funny little dance swings to Mark Rose’s double bass and Maciek Pysz’s guitar embellishments; and with all the positivity and pace of a ’70s Gordon Giltrap hit (which could quite easily be an up-tempo interpretation of a traditional French folk song), Ensemble flows briskly to the electric bass of Shez Raja – feel-good factor ten!

The delicacy of Rozpalona kolyska is exquisite, Lidke vocalising in tandem with Borring’s tight guitar melodies, Fairhall and Nickolls providing the feathery double bass and drum motion. In contrast, Monika’s sunshiny love song of gratitude, Waves and curves, displays unabashed ‘pop’ folkiness; and the cheerful, cheeky Questions gênantes (Awkward questions) is irresistible in its trad. quirkiness, Borring pitching a suitably nimble guitar lead against the chirpy rhythm section. Bread on toast, a Jobimesque samba which eddies gorgeously to Kristian Borring’s rhythmic guitar, shows off both the purity and dexterity of Lidke’s vocals, whilst Footprints on the seashore revisits the writer’s easy-going pop/folk lyric and sound world (“We’re dangerous and beautiful; we make impressions that only last as long as ripples on the water”).

Oceany lez is another graceful Polish ballad which Lidke delivers with appealing simplicity; and the following Higher self swirls to the singer’s joyful assurance. Finally, self-accompanied on guitar, plus heavenly electric bass harmonics from Shez Raja (a wife and husband thing!), the miniature Kolysanka dla Janka holds the breath with its crystalline beauty… a fitting conclusion to an album which reflects a passion for songwriting, all delivered by a golden voice.

If I was to describe you launches in the UK at Pizza Express, Soho, London on 2 July 2014, released on 33JAZZ – check out a studio video of They Say, and audio taster compilation of the album.

 

Monika Lidke vocals, acoustic guitar
Basia Trzetrzelewska vocals
Janek Gwizdala bass guitar
Kristian Borring guitars, arrangements of tracks 1, 4, 7, 8 & 11
Tim Fairhall double bass
Mark Rose double bass
Chris Nickolls drums
Shez Raja bass guitar
Genevieve Wilkins vibraphone, percussion
Maciek Pysz acoustic guitar
Adam Spiers cello
Jerzy Bielski acoustic guitar
Paul Reynolds mandolin

monikalidke.com

33JAZZ – 33JAZZ242 (2014)