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)

‘Svif’ – Agnar Már Magnússon

agnar_svif

IF PIANO TRIOS ever pass us by, like a fleeting breath of wind… I would dare to suggest that it’s because we’re not fully ‘in the zone’. For, although the classic format runs through contemporary jazz as a familiar, ever-flowing stream, it’s the individual, often intimate subtleties and nuances which make each experience distinct as they tumble, swirl and eddy in their own way.

The music of Icelandic pianist Agnar Már Magnússon elegantly typifies that notion in his latest album, Svif, with double bassist Valdimar Kolbeinn Sigurjónsson and drummer Scott McLemore. Here are nine, original tracks which demand focus (so no point in simply relegating them to background ‘dinner jazz’); the reward being a fifty-minute immersion into a landscape which is as unpredictable as it is graceful.

‘Svif’ translates as ‘floating’, specifically in relation to air (alluded to in the cover art’s meteorological peculiarity, found in Iceland’s highlands) – and this very much informs the majority of the pianist’s compositions here, his balanced mastery of melody, harmony and rhythm expressing lightness and space, as well as vigour. The title track’s clear, tuneful hook (not unlike Tord Gustavsen) soon becomes memorable, even inviting, as Magnússon’s baroque-suggested mordents give way to bass-swung breeziness; and the subdued fog of Mistur is pictorialised by sifting brushes and wide, chordal searchings as Magnússon’s pellucid high lines rise out of the pervading vapour.

Sigurjónsson’s leaping bass invites a similar figure from Magnússon (redolent of Ivo Neame) in Sjúbbí Dú, an attractively boisterous number coloured enthusiastically by McLemore’s coruscating percussion; Sæmd (or decency) furtively meanders over its ever-present bass swell, perhaps reflecting the uncertainty of its political inspiration; and the open, wilderness experience of ballad Eyði is otherwise rich in luscious chords and displays an obvious connection between the three players. A rising turbulence in Ildi (another translation of ‘air’) might, especially through its repeated piano riffs, suggest e.s.t.; and the propulsion of Garri (translated by Magnússon as an irritating, high wind) is portrayed through high-energy piano runs and persistent chordal clusters, with McLemore buzzing at the kit.

Chromatically-rising Nitur (Nitrogen) is engagingly mysterious – and one can only begin to imagine the catalysis if Magnússon were to begin to explore the inside of his instrument, too. But to close, the pianist’s Stilla (“the melody just came to me”) exudes a keyboard calmness seemingly inspired by Chopin, Satie and perhaps Bach. Its tenderness and invention, through eloquent piano and bass solos, even subtly invokes the Modern Jazz Quartet – a beautifully measured conclusion to a classy piano trio album.

Svif is released on Icelandic label Dimma and available as a digital download at Bandcamp.

 

Agnar Már Magnússon piano
Valdimar Kolbeinn Sigurjónsson double bass
Scott McLemore drums

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IMX (Iceland Music Export)

Agnar Már Magnusson also appears on guitarist Andrés Thor’s 2016 quartet release, Ypsilon.

Dimma – DIM 72 (2016)