Comfortable beans

FIKA

Elysian Fields

Move Records MCD 603



The least I can say about this CD is that it’s uncommon; you won’t find much to compare it with on the folk or jazz or serious music scenes. Or is that untrue? Perhaps there are a whole lot of similar ensembles out there, all straddling stools and producing albums like this one, being published for a group of admirers willing to offer support of a definite nature. Elysian Fields is an ensemble with a catholic taste, headed by Jenny Eriksson on electric viol da gamba. She is accompanied on this heavily Swedish CD by Susie Bishop (voice and violin), Matt Keegan (saxophones), Matt McMahon (piano), Siebe Pogson (bass guitar) and Dave Goodman (drums).

Of the nine tracks, six are vocal and cover a wide range. Three have Swedish texts, two are English, one is Greek/Latin using parts of the Common of the Mass. Two of the Swedish texts use folk tunes, while one, Frid na Jord, was written by folk-singer Sofia Karlsson.

As for the instrumental titles, they begin with Living, a work by Jan Gunnar Hoff which is here arranged by Eriksson. The tune itself is amiably folksy and almost pentatonic. It is treated at the opening and at the end with a side-line into something more jazz-inflected in the middle after Keegan’s saxophone takes solo spot. It is probably as well to point out that composer Hoff is Norwegian and his work as outlined here is a smaller version of an original, larger piece for jazz trio. Nothing here will disturb anyone’s equanimity; just a simple ternary construct in which the main tune is played several times without elaboration.

Next comes Karlsson’s Peace on Earth, a Christmas song with some sombre suggestions that make a counterpoint to the text’s celebratory theme. Alongside this ambiguous set of lines, the melody is slow-moving and, in an arrangement by pianist McMahon, attractively modal and, after not too long, almost predictable. The second stanza offers a timbre change, the voice accompanied only by piano for the first quatrain before the sax and percussion (very soft) flesh out the supporting ambience. Here also, we have a jazz excursion for piano which is relaxed and not that inventive; to my ears, it seems unconnected to its precedents. For good measure, Bishop sings the second stanza again, her exceptionally lucid colour and security a significant contributor to the performance’s success, especially considering the song’s slow pace.

For me, the pick of the disc comes now with an early 19th century courting (on both sides) round dance, Vi ska stalla till en rolger dans. The melody is catchy and asymmetrical and Bishop’s delivery is crystal-clear and vital without effort, her choruses beginning with a repeated Hei hopp (Heigh ho) particularly infectious and spot on pitch. Here again, there are interludes after the two verses; then the first is repeated. Keegan uses a soprano, I think, and he with Bishop on violin and McMahon provide an 8-bar introduction notable for violin tremolo and two-note intervallic leaps on sax – I can’t tell what it has to do with the following skipping tune but that’s my fault, I’m sure.

(Parenthetically, I must apologise here for not being able to put in accents any more, such as the missing diaeresis on the first a in stalla above, or the small circle above the a in Frid pa Jord.. WordPress changed its operating format some months ago and I can no longer get access to the list of accented letters that used to be available. As well, I can’t manage these days to set up links to organizations and individuals. Progress: you gotta love it.)

Lat till Far constitutes a bit of recycling. Composed by Pers Erik Olsson. it appeared on a 2013 Marais Project disc in an arrangement by Sydney theorboist Tommie Andersson, and that version formed the basis of this version for Bishop’s violin, Eriksson’s gamba and new arranger McMahon’s piano. Olsson’s melody is fine folksy fodder, its second phrase interesting for an unexpected momentary modulation. But again, the old problem arises: what do you do with a folk-song-like melody except repeat it over and over in different guises? Vide Copland’s Appalachian Spring, God help us. The trio gives the tune slightly different guises, principally in the piano’s supporting chords, but both strings end up playing this melody at the octave. Not exactly tedious, but not engaging after the first few runs-through.

What came irresistibly to mind in the next track was the Irish folk-song She moved through the fair, which has the same disappointed-in-love matter at its core. Nar som jag var pa mitt adertonde ar has no ghost appearing at its end but it might as well have gone the full sprite hog. An 18-year-old girl falls in love, but the lad is embraced by another girl. Our narrator is left looking for a unification with her distant beloved after death. The Swedish folk song is, like the Irish one, bar-less and the support offered to Bishop’s typically clear delivery comprises drones from piano and gamba, Keegan offering a quasi-improvisatory interlude at the half-way point. Particularly effective is the conclusion where the voice is left alone with the softest subterranean support, so that the final aspiration/threat takes on a vivid clarity.

Track 1’s composer, Gunnar Hoff, returns with Meditatus, a version of Kyrie I from the composer’s Mass for jazz ensemble and choir. Eriksson has used the original version as well as an arrangement for voice and piano, inserting some improvisatory sections into this construct which uses the Kyrie eleison and last three words of the Agnus Dei. Here is pretty simple – no, very simple – material where the voice is supported by piano chords in a few melodic strains that might have escaped from Vatican II at its most elementary. Bishop sings the Greek and Latin without problems and also has a bit of vocalising, if nothing too adventurous. Keegan presents a solo that almost suggests improvisation but seems pretty strait-laced.

By about this stage, even to this mean intelligence, the penny drops: any jazz involved here lies in inflexions and interludes, not sustained passages of free-wheeling fabrication. This factor becomes pretty obvious in this neo-liturgical piece where the demarcation between the text setting (and associated whee-ooh-hees) and instrumental solos is so sharp. Still, if that’s a distinction that the Elysians are happy with, we have little recourse except to listen . . . and possibly learn.

The last of the instrumental tracks – Cold Soul by saxophonist Keegan – puts the piano at it centre, the viola/violin/sax following a formal, fully-scored path with washes and snare-drum backing from Goodman, whose contributions throughout are polished and unobtrusive, but at their most noticeable here. You can’t be sure but there’s a sense that the piano goes off on a tangent in the centre of the work, the before and after sections having a smooth, cool quality with a nice waltz-like sway that eventually dissipates at the end in a wash of hemiolas. Keegan was commissioned to produce the piece as part of an Eriksson project that resulted in this CD; he took his inspiration from a year-long sojourn in Sweden. You may find Scandinavian suggestions here; they were not apparent to me, as I thought the projected emotional ambience could have fitted in at Rosebud or Byron on a Hemsworth-less sunny morning.

Siebe Pogson – like Goodman, a quiet presence for the most part – enjoyed another Eriksson commission: a three-movement work from which we are offered the first, which is called The Tragedy. This is the second-longest track on Fika (7’20”), after Frid pa Jord (8’48”), and it has a solid jazz flavour, if a laid-back sentimental tang. The first of two verses has a wide-ranging diatonic melodic line which is doubled by the gamba, I think, while the piano does some soulful doodling. The setting is strophic, with no melismata to interrupt the step-like motion. A short sax solo leads to a second verse in which the sax works in concert with the voice, note for note, but not the same notes, thank God.

In fact, the line covers a wide vocal range, well beyond the capacities of most singers of popular music. An exposed piano solo follows the end of the singing, rather like the opening in effect and a nice sample of gentle meandering, before the player recapitulates his opening and sax-plus-gamba work in unison through a reprise, after which the work ends in the minor. Pogson also wrote the lyrics, which are loaded with existential angst; sadly, this is not reflected in the music itself, which, in the end, presents as attractively smooth in its instrumental content, and pleasantly angular in its vocal shape.

Last of all comes Believe Beleft Below by Esbjorn Svensson; well, the music is from the Swedish jazz pianist/composer but a text has been provided by Josh Haden whose own version can be found on YouTube and which seems to bear no relation to Svensson’s product. This is a calm, gently paced ballad in Eriksson’s arrangement, with Bishop caressing the vocal line and, as you’d expect, an instrumental interlude divided between gamba and sax; a reprise begun by piano has Bishop joining back in on proceedings at the third line. It has to be noted that the singer is not stretched at all by this soft-stepping if trite melody and – as we’ve come to anticipate by this stage – the texture might owe a lot to jazz but the overall atmosphere occupies a ground half-way between the Kingston Trio and the mildest of torch songs.

There you have it: a miscellany of charm and warmth on its best tracks. The CD’s title apparently means a coffee break, but even more the inter-personal warmth that comes from such an interlude. Take that into consideration, and you have an excellent musical accompaniment to this sort of cosy pastime: calm and casual, any crises dissipated by comfort, a continuous emphasis (for a short while) on the laid-back. And Fika certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome, the total playing time coming in between 50 and 51 minutes.