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)

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

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IT’S NOW TEN YEARS since Swedish trombonist and vocalist Nils Landgren released the first in a series of albums which have imparted joy and peace in the run-up to and throughout Christmas. The successful recordings (and concerts) have consistently drawn together new interpretations of familiar carols and songs with classical arrangements and lesser-known gems, all presented by vocalists and instrumentalists from the ACT Music roster. And following on from 2015’s offering comes Christmas With My Friends V

Landgren and his musicians researched and made their selections together; and, befittingly, they recorded during the week leading up to last Christmas Day – so this festive feel-good is delivered with an extra air of authenticity. Here, exuberant ‘lollipops’ rub shoulders with soft ballads, original compositions and peaceful, crisp, starlit tradition; and somehow, the whole is so lovingly crafted that it creates a sweet, homely and lasting impression.

Multi-tracked trombone ‘solo ensemble’ Morgenstern and Morgenlicht (recognisable as Epiphany carol How brightly beams the morning star, with harmony by J S Bach) heralds the proceedings to wide-skied, echoing valleys; and Landgren’s tender vocal in Eva Kruse’s Let the Stars Come Out Tonight is sparingly supported by folksy guitar and tenor sax. Familiar hymns and carols such as Joy to the World and Go Tell It on the Mountain are refashioned, the latter in growling, muted trombone gospel (Ida Sand the vocalist), and Hogmanay staple Auld Lang Syne‘s fireside coziness is sensitively weighted.

Baby It’s Cold Outside and Everyday is Christmas pick up the affable, swingin’ holiday vibe; the usual whipcracking orchestration of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride is replaced with a delectable guitar-and-horn-accompanied soft-jazz jaunt featuring the voice of Jessica Pilnäs. Ida Sand presents her emotive Now the Time is Here with delicacy, enhanced by Eva Kruse’s empathetic bass soloing; and inflected, soulful Love is Born is delivered emphatically by Sharon Dyall’s colourful vocal to a slick and eager instrumental arrangement complete with bluesy sax break.

The tingle factor in these recordings so often comes from a sense of stillness. There Is No Rose‘s medieval strains are carried on the late-evening air by Jeanette Köhn’s crystalline annunciation; the clear, midnight-sky trombone melodies of Johan Norberg’s Seven Stains from Christmas Eve are reminiscent of Landgren’s duo album collaborations with pianist Esbjörn Svensson (Swedish Folk Modern and Layers of Light); and Norberg’s intricate kantele timbres are threaded through such fine delicacies as O Heiland, Reiß Die Himmel Auf and his own gossamer solo Kokles Christmas.

Amongst our regular, seasonal fare of choral, orchestral and pop favourites, Landgren’s concept remains a welcome breath of alternative, chilled enjoyment. A number of these eighteen tracks could be tagged #schmalzy, and there’s certainly variety in arrangements. As with all four previous albums, V possesses a special something – including more, rather attractive European folk-tinged discoveries – all presented with warmth and sincerity by accomplished musicians. A charming gift with which to scent the air during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Christmas With My Friends V can be found at ACT Music, iTunes and other outlets (promo video here). The complete 5CD box set, The Jubilee Collectionis also available.

 

Nils Landgren trombone, vocals
Jonas Knutsson saxophones
Johan Norberg guitars, kantele
Ida Sand vocals, piano, school organ
Jeanette Köhn vocals
Jessica Pilnäs vocals
Sharon Dyall vocals
Eva Kruse bass

nilslandgren.com

ACT Music – ACT 9830-2 (2016)

‘Young At Heart’ – Ida Sand

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POTENTIALLY sending seasoned Neil Young fans running for cover, Swedish songstress Ida Sand delves into the prolific songbook of the seminal Canadian singer/songwriter in this collection of thirteen jazz-inflected soft-rock interpretations.

But for those of us with only a vague recollection of Young’s influential early 1970s albums Harvest Moon and After the Gold Rush, or none at all, Sand’s soulful voice and piano celebrate selections from his classic output with attractive, sympathetic poise. Aided by a particularly polished core band – Jesper Nordenström (keyboards), Ola Gustafsson (guitars), Dan Berglund (acoustic bass), Christer Jansson (drums, percussion) – her guests include compatriot mentor (and producer here), trombonist/vocalist Nils Landgren.

Ida Sand explains that she places at least as much importance on lyrics as melodies, and has sought to retain the integrity of each of the chosen songs. That said, the richness and pitch of her voice (influenced by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Etta James), when compared to Young’s high range, colour the sound in a markedly different way; and gone is the prominent acoustic guitar timbre so characteristic of that transitional ’60s/’70s era. But what does remain is the timeless, innate strength of Neil Young’s writing, communicated in fresh, contemporary arrangements.

The album’s rock thread is maintained throughout by Ola Gustafsson’s beautifully sustained/effected electric guitars, as in opener Cinammon Girl – and there are frequent imaginative textures such as Dan Berglund’s crunchy arco bass and the wide tremolo of Jesper Nordenström’s Fender Rhodes (confirming that these are, by no means, insipid covers). Pondering the decades of musical ‘water under the bridge’ since these songs first saw light, there’s distinct post-prog, melancholic grandeur in Sand’s rendition of Hey Hey, My My; and the pop-soul ballad feel of Harvest Moon is a long way down the road from the original’s folksiness, especially with Per Johansson’s silky tenor sax interludes.

Other highlights include Ohio, translating Neil Young’s rawness into a fuller, electronic sound embellished by Nils Landgren’s echoic, Groove Armada-like trombone; and the mellow, organ-sustained simplicity of Helpless evokes the remnants of the golden ’60s. Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock is infectious, with strong backing vocals, flamboyant wah-wah guitar and wailing Hammond; and Crosby Stills Nash & Young number Sea of Madness is carried well by Sand’s impassioned vocal and full band rock-out.

Whether or not you have Young ‘at heart’, this is an unexpectedly fine release, and great fair-weather driving music – so retract the sunroof, turn up the volume… and hit the gas!

Released 23 March 2015, details and audio samples can be found at ACT Music.

 

Ida Sand vocals, piano
Jesper Nordenström keyboards
Ola Gustafsson guitars
Dan Berglund acoustic bass
Christer Jansson drums, percussion
with
Bo Sundström vocals
Nils Landgren trombone, vocals,
Per Texas Johansson tenor saxophone
Sven Lindvall electric bass
André Monde de Lang background vocals
Paris Renita background vocals

ACT Music – 9729-1 (2015)

‘Kind of Cool’ – Wolfgang Haffner

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IT WOULD BE EASY, on a first hearing, to pass off Wolfgang Haffner’s Kind of Cool as bog-standard ‘elevator music’, given his assured, easy-going approach to this stream of jazz favourites. But offering so much more than that, he presents a thread of accessible Summer’s afternoon ‘cool’ in immaculate, straight-ahead renditions including So What, Summertime, and My Funny Valentine.

As a jazz drummer, composer, producer and bandleader, Haffner has for many years been highly regarded throughout his native Germany and beyond – indeed, a weighty back catalogue of recorded and live collaborations (including Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie, Michael Wollny) tell their own story. Recalling his early introduction to jazz, it was the LPs of Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Modern Jazz Quartet that helped Haffner forge his musical identity; and here, he approaches familiar ‘greats’ with a fresh elegance, along with a trio of his own compositions which neatly dovetail into the prevailing chilled groove. A sextet album with guests, the main line-up boasts extraordinary collective experience: Christopher Dell (vibes), Jan Lundgren (piano), Dan Berglund (bass), Dusko Goykovich (trumpet) and Jukka Perko (alto sax), plus Haffner at the kit.

So a few pointers: Haffner’s gently shuffling Hippie, with Jukka Perko’s mellow alto conjuring thoughts of Paul Desmond’s (Brubeck’s) signature sound, leads to a buoyant, vibes-embellished interpretation of Miles Davis’ So What. The only vocal track finds soulful Max Mutzke (in an impressive first take) easing into Billy Eckstein’s Piano Man, with marvellously measured blues piano from guest Frank Chastenier; and the timeless appeal of Autumn Leaves is longingly windswept by Dusko Goykovich’s muted trumpet. Tantricity (from Haffner’s pen) meanders abstractly before a welcome gear change in Summertime – Gershwin’s spiritual reinvented as a catchy, laid-back swing.

Rodgers & Hart’s My Fully Valentine maintains its slow, haunting mystery thanks to Perko’s silky alto; and the cheeky unison horn demeanour of Nat Adderley’s One For Daddy O swaggers to the velvety trombone of guest Nils Landgren. With reminiscences of Chet Baker’s smooth vocal delivery, I Fall In Love Too Easily smoulders to Goykovitch’s soft trumpet and Jan Lundgren’s pianistic grace. John Lewis’s Django takes a new twist away from MJQ familiarity, its inquiring sax melody entering the realm of TV drama theme; and Haffner’s Remembrance is a fitting bookend, every bit as appealing as its classic companions.

A recording occasionally veering close to soporific in places, the similar key-change oscillations of the first two programmed tracks didn’t initially help to grab the attention (though perhaps Wolfgang would be quite happy with the Miles comparison!). But as the album proceeds, there’s the realisation of ordered clarity and sophistication which becomes increasingly satisfying. Maybe not literally “my favourite work of art”… but, having already received many enjoyable plays, it will no doubt be pressed into action as the long (hopefully warm and sunny) days of Summer approach.

Released on 23 February 2015, further information, audio clips and purchasing can be found at ACT Music.

 

Wolfgang Haffner drums
Christopher Dell vibraphone
Jan Lundgren piano
Dan Berglund bass
Dusko Goykovich trumpet
Jukka Perko alto saxophone
with
Max Mutzke vocals
Frank Chastenier piano
Christian von Kaphengst bass
Nils Landgren trombone

wolfganghaffner.com

ACT Music  – ACT 9576-2 (2015)

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

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‘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

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nilslandgren.com

ACT Music – ACT 9568-2 (2014)