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by Ian Mann

March 24, 2010


Ian Mann enjoys the group's album "New:Happy" and also takes a look at the later EP "A Box Of Monkeys".

Haftor Medboe Group


“A Box Of Monkeys”.

A while ago I received a pair of releases from a group led by the guitarist Haftor Medboe. Born in Norway Medboe is now based in Edinburgh from where he leads an eclectic group comprised of musicians from various countries and backgrounds, all of them active on a vibrant Scottish music scene.

The Medboe group released their first album"Charm” on Fabrikant Records in 2004 before moving on to Linn for “In Perpetuity” which added the strings of the Edinburgh Quartet to the group’s sound together with the electronica of guest Kenny MacDonald.

The band returned to the Scottish independent Fabrikant for the two releases under review, 2008’s album length “New:Happy” and the later EP “A Box Of Monkeys”  from 2009. The core group on both records consists of Medboe on guitars, Konrad Wiszniewski on saxophones, Chris Grieve on trombone, Eva Malling on acoustic bass and Signy Jakobsdottir on percussion. The EP adds the Bjork like vocals of Anneke Kampman and the programming of Gavin Hislop aka Babyshaker.

As can be seen the line up is both international and cross gender and some of this comes out in the charm of the group’s music. It’s not jazz in any conventional sense although it’s a big part of what the group do. There are elements of rock and electronica and if the music has to be categorised then perhaps the term “Nu Jazz” would cover it. In the case of “New:Happy” I just prefer to think of it as high quality contemporary instrumental music.

One of the Medboe group’s notable features is the the extraordinary performance of percussionist Jakobsdottir. Icelandic born and classically trained she has worked with the Scottish Ballet and is also an expert in world percussion-African, Indian, Gamelan etc. Consequently she provides not just rhythmic propulsion but also an impressive array of colour and texture to the group’s sound palette.

The Medboe group cite many influences, among them E.S.T., The Bad Plus and Bill Frisell. I also discern a touch of Bugge Wesseltoft and and maybe an element of Pat Metheny in the general melodiousness of the music and the way the group mix electronic and acoustic sounds. A scaled down and less aggressive Jaga Jazzist would also be a good reference.

On ” New:Happy” the opening title track contrasts the delicacy of Jakobsdottir’s tinkling percussion and Medboe’s tasteful acoustic guitar with the soaring saxophone of Wiszniewski. The latter is perhaps the most jazz orientated player in the group following stints as a member of Paul Towndrow’s various groups including the saxophone quartet Brass Jaw. Medboe is the second featured instrumentalist here, his picked guitar floating almost Metheny like above the sonic backdrop provided by the rest of the group.

Jakobsdottir’s charmingly whimsical percussion opens “These Little Things” which goes on to feature the interplay of Greive and Wiszniewski’s horns followed by distinctive solos from both.

The opening of “Nothing Gulch” recalls the Americana of Bill Frisell. Medboe’s guitar whines countryishly above Malling’s bass groove before a sudden shift in mood introduces Wiszniewski. But the Medboe group don’t stay still for long. There’s something of a percussion feature before the Americana aspect returns and Medboe’s acoustic is heard in dialogue with the mouth harp of the mysterious Tommy Harmonica. Maybe the supremely talented Tommy Smith also plays the gob iron.

Throughout the album the Medboe Group’s themes are strong and none more so than the soaring “Heartrush” which frames solos from Grieve and Wisznieski above Medboe’s taut, vaguely threatening guitar and Jakobsdottir’s intelligent percussion.

The elegant “Equilibrium” begins almost as chamber jazz before mutating into something darker courtesy of Greive’s low register trombone. Later there’s a brief bass feature for Malling that moves the music somewhere else again. This is colourful, kaleidoscopic music with a strong pictorial quality, constantly shifting in mood and perspective.

At nine minutes plus “Amulet” is the lengthiest track on the album and has an epic quality about it with Wiszniewski in imperious form soloing magnificently against an impressively broad sonic backdrop. There’s epic, soar away electric guitar from Medboe too, clearly showing his rock influences for the first time. Eventually it falls away leaving only the ethereal tinkling of Jakobsdottir’s glockenspiel.

Medboe also sticks to the electric for “Fri Bo” duetting with Malling on the atmospheric, effects laden opening. The rest of the track is a little more orthodox featuring Wiszniewski soloing above what sounds like a cajon generated groove from Jakobsdottir.

“Tys Tys” is a gently effective closer featuring Medboe’s sensitive guitars, sometimes multi tracked and brief solo cameos from Wiszniewski, Malling and Greive.

Mixing jazz, rock and folk sensibilities into ever shifting patterns “New:Happy” is a charming, consistently engaging album. The range of sounds, colours and textures the core quintet produce is hugely impressive and the writing, presumably by Medboe is consistently interesting. The guitarist is happy to be part of the ensemble, indeed Wiszniewski emerges as the dominant soloist, but overall this is a very democratic group working on some colourful material. “New:Happy” is the kind of album that reveals more each listen and behind it’s easy going charm there’s a good deal of musical sophistication. Discovering this album has been a very pleasant surprise.

I’m less keen on the later EP which will probably disappoint Haftor since that’s what he really wanted me to cover. It’s an attempt to move the band away from it’s jazz roots and further into the field of electronica. I find that Hislop’s programming rather than expanding the sonic horizons of the group actually acts as a restriction. The wide raging percussive sounds of Jakobsdottir are in part stifled by the programmed beats.

Having said that the opening “Pneumatic” would have fitted in reasonably well on the album. Medboe and Wiszniewski turn in strong solos and Hislop’s programming gives the music more of an urban feel. 

Vocalist Anneke Kampman adds her Bjork like voice to two songs “Leaving Nothing As We Leave” and “As Time Spins Backwards”. Both are competent examples of the kind of self consciously quirky “Scandi pop” purveyed by a legion of Bjork influenced Nordic female singers. It’s good but rather too much in thrall to it’s principal influence to enough to stand out from the crowd.

“Up Spiral Up” pits a folkish melody against the electronica of Hislop with Wisznieski ,Medboe and Greive the principal instrumentalists, the leader producing a particularly elegant solo.

The closing “Surfrize” incorporates Metheny like song structures, warm velvety trombone from Greive and a wonderfully flowing solo from Medboe that breaks away from the main body of the tune to conclude the EP on a high note.

Whilst the EP is less to my personal tastes than the album it does represent a legitimate attempt to expand the group’s sound and it may well be that Medboe is attempting to spread the appeal of his music to a wider, younger constituency.

This talented line up should be around for a lot longer yet and Medboe’s next move will be watched with interest.

Ian’s Star Ratings;

New: Happy 4 Stars

A Box Of Monkeys 3 Stars

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