Slagr’s Short Stories

cover artSlagr is a highly regarded trio based in Oslo, Norway, whose music falls under the title of chamber folk. This deeply evocative music mines the intersection where Nordic folk, classical, and new music intersect. Slagr was founded in 2003 by hardanger fiddler Anne Hytta, who writes most of the ensemble’s music. On Short Stories the group’s fifth release, she is joined by Sigrun Eng on cello and Amund Sjølie Sveen on vibraphone and glass harp. (Since this album was recorded, Sigrun Eng has been replaced on cello by Norwegian Katrine Schiøtt.)

The music on this collection was inspired by a story On an old farmstead in Europe from Norwegian author Hans Herbjørnsrud. The eight pieces, lasting a total of 48 minutes, range from barely over a minute to three of them that clock in at around eight minutes each. It’s highly contemplative music, calming for the most part in spite of some passages of tension and dissonance. I have played this album on repeat for hours at a time as it alternately lulls me to peaceful contemplation and occasionally pulls me back and forces me to listen closely to identify strange sounds or enjoy wisps of lovely melody.

Here’s what the one-sheet that came with this album has to say, in part: “Carefully yet relentlessly the Oslo-based trio explore what remains when time is passing, and, through doing so, illustrate some of the transient nature of our being.” It goes on to discuss how the music relates to the story by Herbjørnsrud: “… The protagonist of the story finds a skull on a field near his farmhouse one day. Through the skull and the story of blind Margit that is linked to it, he becomes aware of his own life and the continuity of earthly existence.” That is indeed reflected in the eerie nature of some of these pieces, and the general feel of a steady contemplation of nature and mortality.

To give you a feel for the music, here is a video depicting an edit of the eight-minute long piece “Årolilja”:

When the album opens on “Folkevise,” Hytta’s hardanger produces a fluttering melody, with the cello soon joining in, followed by the distant drone of (I think) an arco vibraphone; it reaches a dramatic crescendo at around the 4:00 mark, then drops away as Sveen’s tuned glass harp repeats the ghostly melody. “Gamletun,” which follows, is a tone poem depicting the farmer’s field by a river, symbolizing tranquility and the flow of time side by side. (I’m sure it’s coincidence that the title put me in mind of the Indonesian gamelan, although sometimes this music resembles that instrument and genre.) The third tune “Sylvellin” seems to contain an echo of the melody in Folkevise, played with great solemnity like a hymn overheard from a chapel deep in the forest. Sveen produces glassy rattles from the harp, like an antique telephone bell or a fork left on a dish, shaken by a passing train. The cello melody on this piece reminds me somewhat of the Baroque viol da gamba music of Marin Marais. But then there’s a dissonant section like a buzzing of disturbed bees.

It goes on like that, these three, or rather four, instruments sometimes making lovely, familiar sounds and melodies and at others drawing forth noises that evoke creatures and other aspects of nature, sometimes comforting, sometimes disturbing. Slagr’s name comes from an Old Norse word for tune or melody, derived from the word for “to hit,” in reference to the hitting, plucking or strumming of the strings. Slagr is using these simple actions to make music of a high order. Those who like adventuresome music, especially the kind that springs from the Nordic folk traditions, ought to give some time to this group’s music. It has a lot to say, and a lot of feelings to evoke in you and me.

Ozella, 2015

Jens Fossum’s Bassdetector

cover artEvery time I think the thought “I’m not really a fan of …” whatever, something comes along to change my mind. In the case of the genre called funk, it’s this amazing release from the German jazz and world music label Ozella by Norwegian bassman Jens Fossum. He has spent the past decade-plus playing bass with others, including the late SigurdKøhn‘s quartet, and behind pop singer Randi Tytingvåg and jazz singer Hilde Louise Asbjørnsen. On this debut he moves the bass out front, making it the lead instrument of a powerful ensemble that includes his brother Håvard on saxophones, flute and clarinet, plus a slew of keyboard players, drummers, percussionists and a brass section. What they’ve made is a rocking, driving, multi-genre explosion of funky, improvised instrumental music that ought to be part of everybody’s summer soundtrack.

It starts with “Walter Freeman’s Pick Of Choice,” a gruesome pun involving the “father of the frontal lobotomy.” This is indeed an impressive show of tour-de-force picking, beginning on a long intro of just Fossum on his Fender jazz bass and some percussion. After Håvard enters with some deep tenor licks the ensemble enters to make it a Herbie Hancock-style funk jazz rave-up. Take a listen.

There’s more along those lines, including the jumpy electro-funk of “Copycat,” with some definite Hancock sounds or perhaps even samples, what I take to be a bit of a Stevie Wonder homage, lots of hot horns and some sweet retro-big band swing sounds too; plus the pure frantic funk of “Ocean Drive,” drive being the operative word of this ultra-fast piece with Fossum’s 16th-note runs pushing the tune, and a delightful solo on the midi bass.

But Fossum is intent on proving he’s no one-trick pony. “Zanzibar” is a  stripped-down Afro-pop tune with just percussion (conga and bongos) and bari sax in addition to his bass. “Ratskeller” (the term for a type of underground European – especiall German – bar or club) is what you might expect to hear in such a club, a soulful Euro-jazz sound with lots of wah-wah on the midi bass. Fossum plays a pizzicato cello solo on “Torquemada,” a trippy hip-hop piece popping with that J bass and a swell tenor solo. “Route 69″ is a sax-heavy flat-out rocker, and “Days Of Wine, Guns And Roses” is another one with hip-hop influence and a martial tattoo pounded out on the high snare. The album finishes with a short but sweet lullaby titled “Frida’s,” with Fossum again on the pizzicato cello and his brother on melodic baritone sax.

So, Bass Detector is funky and bass-y but hardly one-dimensional. As I said at the outset, this one surprised me by growing on me pretty quickly. It’s a grand record for a party or a summer drive.

Ozella, 2015

Ivy

It’s summertime here which means all of us are busy, errrr, catching up on our reviews. Sure. We believe that, don’t we?

Not bloody likely! Summer’s for reading (yes), but most of our reviewers seem more interested in listening to music, hanging out in the Pub downing their favorite beverage, and generally just finding the coolest place in the building. Now keeping cool is which is easy given that the ivy outside is everywhere. This old building, built centuries ago, has at Lammastide, ivy covering it everywhere as it grows the summer long — covering the casement windows, creeping into the courtyard, and hiding (almost completely) the slates on the roof. As I was reading Silverlock, The Annotated Edition in the Library over the past few weeks, the ivy was almost visibly creeping outside the window. (Some places in the building, it has crept inside forming a living carpet in the hallways, and up the walls.) It was as if the ivy was keeping me company as I read.

The ivy is almost as old as the old oak trees that are in the enclosed courtyard that opens onto the street. It is thought that they are as old as the building itself, perhaps older. Now I’m not saying that Robin Goodfellow was alive when they were first big enough to hide him and his merry band, nor am I saying Oberon courted Titania under the boughs of these trees, but I am saying that they are very, very old. I’ve sat in one of the crooks of the one a French fiddler once named Merlin’s endroit de repos because it looks like the oak in Brocéliande, forest of legends and of dreams, where the fiddler believes Merlin lies dreaming, trapped in the heart of the ancient oak by the sorceress Vivian.

Now what was I reading? A new favourite of mine, de Lint’s The Cats of Tanglewood Forest. Let’s return to the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room and see if the ivy is feeling as companionable as it was last week…

What’s New for the Past Fortnight

piperIt’s summertime, so let’s start off with a bit of music appropriate to this season. You’ve obviously never heard of The Windbags as that name only existed as a joke by one of them in an email to me, but you certainly know who the players are as they are an amazing group consisting of Jerry O’Sullivan, John Skelton, Pat O’Gorman, and the late Tony Cuffe! Now go listen to their version of An Dro / Hunter Dro (The Breton Set), the music of the Fest noz night festivals in that nation.

Speaking of music (and when aren’t we?), Gary has several Jazz reviews for you including a self-titled release from Finnish native Aki Rissanen and the Jussi Lehtonen Quartet with Dave Liebman And Elina Duni Quartet’s Dallëndyshe with the vocalist being Swiss.

A properly brewed mug of tea is indeed one of life’s small comforts and Reynard’s review of the audiobook edition of Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea is a must read or listen by any of you who take your tea seriously.

We’ve got two stories about what’s going here at the Kinrowan Estate, one about our ever so delicious pig roasts and the other being about Gus, our Estate Head Gardener taking a ramble about our sprawling lands.

Gus rounds out our reviews with a look at William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes which is more a history of food than a cookbook.

That’s it for this time!

Jeff Koehler, Darjeeling

DarjeelingTea is my favourite beverage since I was resident in southern Asia some decades ago. It was much easier there to find good tea than it was to find even one cup of coffee that was anything but horrible, except in the high-end tourist hotels — which I generally didn’t frequent. One reason was that such places were expensive. and the other was that they were prime targets during times of civil unrest such as in Sri Lanka thirty years ago when the capital city of Columbo saw several of the transnational hotel chains bombed.

We’ve excellent tea here as Ingrid, my wife who’s the Estate Buyer, has excellent sources for such varieties as Darjeeling, Assam and Lapsang Souchon varieties. Good tea brewed properly in an authentic pot is one of the small comforts of life.

So that is my slightly long digression into looking at Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea, Jeff Koehler’s excellent history of tea that manages to avoid all the romantic shit about the British Empire and the White Man solely created the popularity of tea to this day, something this superb book doesn’t do.

This most sought after tea comes from tea gardens planted in the high elevation in the heart of the Eastern Himalayas, in northern India bordered by Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the east, and the Indian state of Sikkim to the north. Why and how tea came to be harvested here is answered at length in the book, but that’s just one aspect of this fascinating narrative as Koehler deals, as he must, with the larger history of the British Raj and its three hundred and fifty year rule of India. A story that starts with one British agent, a Scottish botanist, smuggling tea plants and their planters out of out of China four hundred and fifty miles to a former Mughal garden in Saharanpur along the Indian foothills of the Himalayas.

So the story of this tea is but a thread within the larger tapestry of the British Empire and its political interests in the region, the tolerated intermarriage of the Brits who went native and married local women, the rise of Hill stations in places like Darjeeling where the British social and political elites decamped to during the abysmal Indian summers, how the Indian soldiers revolt of 1857 changed everything, how tea is grown and processed… Oh, you get the idea. Even if you don’t like audiobooks but are a devoted tea drinker, get the printed book and read it, as it’s something you’ll love!

Fajer Al- Kaisi as narrator is simply phenomenal. He is is an Iraqi Canadian now resident in New York City actor and voice over artist from Montreal. He is fluent in English, French, and Arabic and speaks conversational Spanish and Italian. His talent with bodices is tested here as he boices dozens of characters from both India and Britain giving each of them (presumably) the accent they’d have in their region. He also manages to read what could be a rather dry narrative in a manner that gives it life. Bravo to all involved!

Audible, 2015

William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes

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Some books are so obvious that I wonder why they haven’t been done before. Indeed I suspect William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes has, but this take on it is certainly a very good one. Iain ordered it for the Estate Library and passed it along to me, knowing my great love of culinary books, particularly the ones with a historical perspective. It’s a simple concept stated clearly in the title: tell the history of food through the recipes that reflect that history. OK, I just restated the title in different words.

The book itself is one of the many new ones that come sans dust jacket, with the cover art printed directly on the book itself along with the spine and back cover material. I’m not fond of putting a pull quote on the cover, as it’s a bit unnecessary, as anyone buying this book is likely only attracted to the title and the tasteful artwork.

The book starts off with an intro by the author explaining how it came to be and his background as collector of cookbooks, lots of cookbooks and related ephemera. From there he explains which texts were crucial to his writing of A History of Food in 100 Recipes. Then follows a note on the recipes — he tried not to change the recipes unless absolutely necessary. This all results more in a delicious read than a practical cookbook. Having read medieval Swedish recipes from sources from that period, it’s safe to say that duplicating them in the modern kitchen would be difficult, given that the ingredients, the preparation methods, and even the cooking methods would be extremely challenging.

The first recipe is for ancient Egyptian bread, with the recipe (in English translation of course) followed by an in-depth look at the recipe, the author, and the context of Egyptian society at that time, circa 1958 – 1913 BC, noting the centrality of bread in that culture.

The last recipe is for Meat Fruit (foie gras and chicken liver parfait). Trust me: this is not a dish you’ll find Mrs. Ware and her staff serving here ever. Nor do I have the slightest desire to even sample it as it sounds like something that the Royals ate in pre-Revolutionary France while peasants starved! Speaking of that period, there’s Capon de galera, a chicken soup that sounds wonderful!

Now I shouldn’t focus on the tasty recipes as its a fascinating read from end to end, but I will. My review, my choices. So we have cheese tart (1450), hot chocolate (1566), ice cream (1718), cupcakes (1828), kedgeree (1845), strawberry shortcake (1896), toad in the hole (1927), and, surprisingly recent in my mind, beef stew in red wine with bacon, mushrooms, onions from 1961.

Now keep in mind that many of these recipes predate the first time that they enter the historic records by years, if not a lot longer. As with history, until the written record reached down from the gentry down to the common folk, what happened in their society was largely unknown. So a stew made like the beef stew which allegedly dates from 1961 is likely something cooked up for centuries before that, given how common the ingredients are.

All in all, A History of Food in 100 Recipes is a book I’ll wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in culinary history. And you know, you might find something worth cooking up here. If you haven’t tried a favourite dish of mine, kedgeree, a dish from the years of British rule in India, it’s worth a try.

HarperCollins UK, 2013

Elina Duni Quartet: Dallëndyshe

cover of Elina Duni Quartet's DallëndysheThe Elina Duni Quartet returns with its second outing on ECM, a sumptuous and stirring follow-up to 2012’s Matanë Malit. Comprising Albanian-born, Swiss-raised singer Duni, Colin Vallon on piano, Patrice Moret, bass, and Norbert Pfammater, drums, the quartet has raised to a sublime art the blending of Balkan folk music and contemporary jazz.

Dallëndyshe consists mostly of traditional Albanian songs reimagined as haunting modal jazz pieces. The theme of the album is exile, although musically the songs range from somber and elegiac to airy and light, to joyously rhythmic. As Duni explains in the album’s press release, “One of the fascinating things about music of the Balkans, in a lot of the folk music, is the idea that the pain has to be sung. And in singing you go beyond it. That’s what the blues is about, of course, and you find a similar sensibility in these Albanian songs about exile and lost love. In some Balkan music, you dance away the pain — and songs that seem at first to be joyful, from the rhythms and the melody, turn out to be not at all joyful when you listen more closely. This is a characteristic quality in music of the region.”

Duni sings in a soprano that is somehow wonderfully clear and deeply shaded at the same time, with the kind of control that’s necessary in these Balkan songs with their quarter-tones and subtle grace-notes. The album opens and closes on particularly somber notes with two songs that use different birds as metaphors: “Fëllënza” or The Partridge is a deeply dreamlike song of frustrated love appropriating the titular bird’s symbolism of deception and temptation. It comes off like an art song, for the most part consisting of just piano and voice, Vallon’s half-note chords and stray melodic notes emphasizing Duni’s fluid reading. In the instrumental bridge and again in the lightly frenetic outro (nothing this quartet does is heavy-handed), the players up the tempo and the dynamics, and Duni’s vocal scatting becomes the fourth instrument. The album ends on the title song named for the swallow, which in all of Europe is symbolic of spring and resurrection. This, however, is a dirge-like song of mourning for exile and loss of home, based on the plight of southern Albanians known as the Arbëresh who fled to Italy in the 19th century. “Oh, swallow born again,” Duni sings, “when you come back to return, when you make it to Korona you’ll no longer find our homes.”

Many of the songs reflect the mourning of women left behind by husbands and lovers who fled into exile, including one contemporary song, “Sytë,” The Eyes. The music is tightly wound like the emotions of the narrator who can’t sleep as she cries for her lover, who doesn’t come around any more. It has the quality of a fevered dream, particularly in light of the final section in which Duni scats along with the rushing piano melody. This clever animated video uses, again, avian imagery to tell the dreamlike story.

In one of the saddest songs, “Nënë Moj,” O Mother, a young bride is crying to her mother for marrying her off to someone in a distant place. It’s a different kind of exile, a traditional one reserved for women. In one of my favorites, “Unë Do Të Vete,” there’s a disconnect between the tune and the rhythm, Duni’s vocals floating over the music like a shimmering mirage. She carries the sing-song melody, which is like a children’s song in an odd meter, every other line repeating “lule moj lule” or “flower, my flower.” But the accompaniment is mostly portentous whole notes by all three musicians — supremely effective. “Bukuroshe,” Beautiful Girl, is a fast dance in 12 beats, a love song to a beautiful girl that ends with a proposal. It’s a short, quick song and it sounds every bit the folk dance until the verses are finished and the jazz improvization begins. One of the most interesting is another upbeat track, the penultimate “Ti ri ti ti Klarinatë” about how the clarinet player entices the girls to come out. With pounding tempo and thrilling dissonance, it’s a song of the Arvanites, an Albanian expat population long living in Greece, sung by Duni as almost a soul jazz piece crossed with a Greek dance.

A lot of musicians in the Balkans and in the diaspora in America blend jazz and folk dance music in various and exciting ways. Elina Duni Quartet with Dallëndyshe ups the ante. I’m pretty sure I won’t hear a more beautiful album this year.

(ECM, 2015)

An Estate Ramble

Come for a walk about Kinrowan Estate with me. We’ll see what we shall see, share a mug of tea, and explore the local woods.

 

Aki Rissanen and the Jussi Lehtonen Quartet with Dave Liebman

Cover of Aki Rissanan's Jussi Lehtonen Quartet with Dave Liebman Aki Rissanen is one of the hottest pianists in his native Finland these days and is gaining recognition around Europe, both solo and with various ensembles, including what’s usually a trio with drummer Jussi Lehtonen and bassist Jori Huhtala. On this outing they’re joined by a very special guest, American Dave Liebman on tenor and soprano sax and wooden flute. Now, this is jazz!

It’s a wonderfully natural and intensely creative matchup, recorded live in two days in the studios of the Finnish Broadcasting Company in Helsinki in 2013. In addition to Rissanen compositions, the 10 tracks include two by Lehtonen, a couple credited to the ensemble, Liebman’s arrangement of “Pensativa” by the late Clare Fischer, and Rissanen’s lyrical “Pont Marie,” inspired by Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.”

I don’t always have a lot of patience for the soprano sax, particularly when it starts sounding all New Agey, but Liebman is having none of that, as demonstrated by his attack on the opener, an eponymous homage to the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. It’s the piece that also opens this short promotional video:

 

After the powerhouse intro track of “Scriabin,” Rissanen’s through-composed “Three A’s” gives the pianist and each of the ensemble members a chance to stretch out and play with melody, tempo shifts and some harmonic diversions. Lehtonen’s “Internal Affairs” after a free-form intro really swings, thanks to the supple interactions of the rhythm section; Liebman’s tenor is muscularly melodic on this one. Rissanen really shines on his Strayhorn homage “Pont Marie,” which also highlights Huhtala with a beautiful solo and lush tenor balladry from Liebman. The rhythm section plays with Cuban jazz motifs behind Liebman and Rissanen’s lead-swapping on the complex fast bop number “Get Over It.” There are also hints of Latin sounds and rhythms in Liebman’s arrangement of Fischer’s “Pensativa,” not surprising given Fischer’s close ties to Bossa Nova. Lehtonen’s “In The Corner” really swings, thanks again to this great rhythm section and the interplay between Liebman and Rissanen out front. There are also a couple of group improvisation efforts called “Free Ballad” and “The Gong Song,” and a lovely pensive piece called “Pastorale.”

The sound on this disc is exemplary as I’ve come to expect from Ozella releases. Production is credited to Rissanen and Lehtonen. Rissanen’s Steinway and Liebman’s horns sound utterly pristine. (Oh, and did I mention that this is my favorite CD cover art this year?) I’m really looking forward to the remaining two releases Aki has contracted to do with Ozella. You can learn more about Aki Rissanen at his Website.

(Ozella, 2015)

Christine Metzger (editor), Ruprecht Stempell (photographer) and Christph Buschel (photographer): Culinaria Germany

Cover of Culinaria GermanyOne of the best culinary series ever done, one combining both regional food history and lots of recipes, was the Culinaria series. A troubled publication history resulted in the Culinaria series ending before several volumes came out. Over the years, I’ve managed, by hook and by crook, to assemble a full set for the Estate Library. No, they don’t live in the kitchen cookbook collection as they’re not really suitable for getting torn up the way cookbooks can on occasion as, despite having awesome recipes, that isn’t really what they are.

They are English language versions covering American, Caribbean, Chinese, French,, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Russian, Southeast Asian, and Spanish cuisines. The most massive are the American and Chinese editions, which makes sense given the size and diversity of their culinary scenes. That’s not to say the remaining editions are skimpy as they run three hundred to five hundred detailed pages sumptuously thick with lots of mouth watering photographs. It’s that those two are just huge.

Konemann, a German publisher, was the original publisher and their editions came out mostly in the Nineties. After they stopped publishing them, the now defunct Borders Books and Music chain purchased the rights to publish them and put them out in inexpensive trade paper editions. Checking the ‘net just now, I discovered Ullman, another German publisher, is now putting out new hardcover editions. Not sure what language they’re in . . .

I’ll be looking at Culinaria Germany as it’s a great example of what this series is all about. What applies to this volume is equally true of the other volumes, including the oversized ones. The oversized ones simply have, well, more of everything in them.

Like the other Culunarias, it’s not a recipe book per se but it includes such delights as how to make twelve regulation all German dumplings! And befitting the strong regional reality of Germany, it has in-depth profiles on the regions, cultural stories, plus general knowledge on subjects such as wine, cheese, and sausages, and regional cooking styles.

Fair warning though — the recipes take for granted that you’re an accomplished cook, so the recipes skip a lot of needed prep and even some basic cooking instructions. And there’s some recipes missing, such as making red cabbage or warm potato salad. And German commenters online, biased though they be, note it suffers from the same drawbacks as a Rough guide; it can’t possibly cover everything.

If you’ve got a German deli in your area, or if you’re really lucky, an authentic German restaurant, then you’ll really appreciate this book without ever leaving your hometown as it’ll vastly deepen your appreciation of German food. And no doubt make your cooking more varied as well.

What’s not to like here? Nothing as you get a look at German culinary history in all its aspects including, not surprisingly, the political aspects of it. And learn quite a few delicious recipes as well. Do get the hardcover Konemann as it’ll hold up a lot better than the softcover one from Borders will. So is it worth you’re time seeking out? Very much so. Culinaria Germany is as good a guide to the German culinary scene as you’re likely to find, save marrying an accomplished German cook.

One last note: a great deal of every Culinaria book is a look at regional culinary culture. So if you think German cooking is all the same with sausages, potatoes and cabbage along with heavy breads, you really need to read this book!

Konemann, 2000