Kings Place, London; 22/10/2011
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Reviewed by: Tim Owen
This group spins music of exquisitely heightened sensitivity
This was a rare and low-key appearance by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, playing material from their two albums to date: The Zoo is Far (2007) and Fabula Suite Lugano (2009), both on the ECM label.
There have been some notable changes in the group’s lineup since 2007, though fortunately the essentially sympathetic Per Oddvar Johansen remains on drums and vibraphone, and Gjermund Larsen is still a central presence on violin, viola and Hardanger Fiddle. On cello, Tove Törngren replaces Tanja Orning. The most significant change is the absence of the baroque harp of Giovanna Pessi, who Wallumrød credited (in the liner notes for The Zoo) as an early catalyst for this ensemble. The addition of tenor saxophonist Espen Reinertsen brings a new dimension to its sound, not least in tonal sympathy with the trumpet of Eivind Lønning, who came aboard for Fabula Suite Lontano, replacing Wallumrød’s longstanding collaborator, trumpeter Arve Henriksen.
Reinertsen tamps down his playing to suit the refinement of Wallumrød’s conception, just as percussionist Johansen does so effectively. Both players are called upon to exercise uncommon restraint, while retaining vital presences in the group mix. Lønning was a revelation to me, his tonal precision and ease of authority instantly marking him out as one of those names that will promote any recording or event as one worthy of attention. He has risen to the unenviable task of stepping into Arve Henriksen’s shoes, bringing some of Henriksen’s unique blend of stillness, tonal richness and emotive power to bear without ever sounding derivative.
Wallumrød’s arrangements for the live show are looser than those of the tight, incisive studio vignettes, allowing pieces time to unfold more expansively. But the essentials remain the same.
The treatment of “Parkins Cembalo” is one highlight of the evening. A relatively lengthy 3:45 on disc, each of its three parts are here given more lengthy expositions. Wallumrød’s style is characteristically limpid and restrained, so his insistent repetitions at the start of this piece create a sense of tension, which carries into a middle section in which rapid but muted percussion rises out of agitated, fluttering strings. An abrupt transition takes us to a passage of increasingly soft, plosive phonics from the brass and reeds, and then to an extended coda spun from soft breath sounds which, though quiet as whispers, are agitated by muted percussive finger taps and contact sounds from strings and valves. From an initial agitation, then, the group spins of exquisitely heightened sensitivity.
Elsewhere, the group’s music has an overtly formal sense of experimentation, with the musicians subservient to the composer’s vision in a way that is antithetical to the spirit of jazz or free music. Drawing from folk, jazz, and chamber music traditions, it is expressed in a high style of new European chamber jazz that is most directly associated with the sensibility of ECM. One of this ensemble’s defining characteristics, which sets it apart to some extent, is the overt influence of sacred and baroque music and, in particular, the courtly majesty of Henry Purcell. I’m not sure that ‘courtly’ is a quality I admire in music. For me, the passages that strive to imitate Purcell’s formal elegance sound rather stilted, with an almost ceremonial feel that sits at odds with the gossamer-light handling of other sources. On balance, though, the music is never less than attractive and enthralling.
I don’t think the atmospheric vacuum of Kings Place, a venue too new to have any positive ambience, was the best choice for this music, but the group’s performance was so compelling it didn’t matter too much. I hope Wallumrød continues to develop this music, and that his group will mature and weather any further lineup changes, any of which threaten to disrupt such a finely calibrated ensemble.
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