by Ian Mann
April 03, 2014
Unapologetically reflective and melancholy "Ana" is a beautiful record full of subtle nuances, a perfect mood piece.
(Babel Records BDV 14126)
“Ana” is one of a series of excellent recordings by a variety of artists released in 2014 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Babel label by the redoubtable Oliver Weindling. I hope to be taking a look at some of the other releases in due course but in the meantime I offer my congratulations to Ollie and his team on their achievement. Consistently innovative, Babel has released some of the most significant British jazz albums of the last two decades and continues to play a vital role on the UK jazz and improvised music scene.
The Swedish born, London based vocalist Emilia Martensson first came to the attention of many jazz listeners through her guest contributions to albums by Kairos 4tet and the Sam Crowe Group. However she’s lived in the UK for more than a decade, studying first at Colchester Institute under the tutelage of Trudy Kerr and later at Trinity School of Music in London where she met pianist Sam Crowe and saxophonist Adam Waldmann, leader of Kairos 4tet.
Martensson’s contributions to Kairos led to me checking her out at the 2011 London Jazz Festival when she gave an impressive performance at the Royal Albert Hall’s Café Consort in the company of pianist Barry Green, bassist Sam Lasserson and Kairos drummer Jon Scott. The set largely avoided jazz standards but instead offered imaginative and intelligent interpretations of songs by “pop” writers, among them Jacques Brel, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, James Taylor and Billy Joel plus a Swedish folk song as a reminder of her roots. Martensson had clearly established a superb rapport with pianist Green and several of these songs were performed as duets. The pair subsequently released the intimate duo album “And So It Goes” on Babel in 2012, a collection that included many of the songs that had been performed at LJF with musicians such as Ben Davis (cello) and Julian Siegel (reeds) making tasteful guest appearances.
Fast forward to 2014 and there has been a real critical buzz about the release of Martensson’s highly acclaimed second album “Ana”. This time round she deploys a full band with Green and Lasserson joined by the Brazilian born percussionist Adriano Adewale, like Martensson a long term London resident. Many of the arrangements also include the Fable String Quartet featuring violinists Kit Massey and Paloma Deike, violist Becky Hopkin and cellist Natalie Rozario. These four are part of a new generation of classically trained string players who are equally at home in the worlds of jazz and improvised music, Massey and Rozario may be familiar to jazz audiences as members of trumpeter Rory Simmons’ large ensemble Fringe Magnetic which has also featured the guest vocals of Martensson.
“Ana” features a familiar mix of “pop” tunes, a Swedish folk song, a clutch of Martensson originals and one piece of vocalese as Martensson adds lyrics to the Joe Henderson tune “Black Narcissus”.
Martensson’s arrangements are imaginative, delicate and precise and the album was painstakingly produced and engineered by a team headed by Alex Bonney and Rory Simmons, the latter also responsible for the majority of the string arrangements.
Martensson’s gently expressive voice is first heard on “Harvest Moon” written by contemporary singer/songwriter/guitarist Jamie Doe. The arrangement features typically mellifluous piano from Green, sympathetic, understated support from Lasserson and Adewale plus judicious colouration from the string quartet. Doe seems to be a fairly obscure figure but this is a lovely song that lends itself well to Martensson’s emotional but intelligent interpretation and is to be released as a single.
The title track is a Martensson original that the singer dedicates to the memory of her Slovenian born grandmother Ana-Emilia Paliska. It’s a paean to the strength of love and family ties with its haunting refrain of “close your eyes before you open up your mind”. Hauntingly sung by Martensson, Green’s piano is again prominent and the strings also fulfil a more central role in an intelligent and effective arrangement (by Sam Crowe) that positively enhances the music.
“Learnt from Love” comes from the pen of another contemporary songwriter, London based Barnaby Keen. The fact that Keen has played with a band called Brilliant Corners suggest that he has an affinity with jazz and his song lends itself well to Martensson’s interpretation with Green producing a fine solo on one of the most conventionally “jazz” moments thus far.
Next up is another song from another emerging London based songwriter, in this case Emine Pirhasan, who also sings and appears to be well known to many of the leading figures on London’s contemporary jazz scene. Her song is arguably the best of the three from emerging songwriters and begins with Martensson singing confessionally in a duo with Green before the arrangement expands to include contributions from Lasserson and Adewale. All superbly interpreted by Martensson the songs of Doe, Keen and Pirhasan suggest that all that all three songwriters are worthy of further investigation.
Despite her youthful absorption in the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day Martensson has always had an affinity for the folk songs of her native Sweden. She also has a penchant for the melancholy and the traditional “Nar Som Jag Var Pa Mitt Adertonde Ar” (translation - “When I Was In My Eighteenth Year”) is as sad as it gets, effectively a suicide note to her parents from a teenage girl rejected by her lover. Although it’s sung entirely in Swedish one immediately understands the depths of the emotions involved, something encouraged by a suitably stark arrangement featuring only bass and percussion. In a recent interview for Jazzwise magazine Peter Quinn asked Martensson if there were any happy Swedish folk songs. “Sure there are” she dead-panned, “I just don’t sing them”.
Something of the air of delicious melancholy extends into the vocalese version of saxophonist Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus”. Martensson points to the similarity of Henderson’s melody to those of the Swedish folk songs she grew up with. With its original lyrics and string enhanced arrangement the piece offers an effective example of all of Martensson’s various influences coming together.
Paul Simon’s “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” is a song that has been in Martensson’s repertoire for some time, indeed it was one of the pieces that I remember being performed at the Café Consort in 2011. I seem to remember that version being rather more playful than this band arrangement which fits neatly into the prevailing reflective and melancholy ethos of the album as a whole. Nevertheless there’s an intriguing, subtly bluesy, broken time solo from the excellent Barry Green that takes the instrumental honours.
A brief, dreamy reprise of “Ana” featuring strings and Martensson’s wordless vocals acts as an atmospheric interlude prior to Martensson’s own “Moffi’s Song”, a delicately wistful tune featuring the sampled voices of children playing, these tantalisingly buried almost subliminally in the mix. The song is fragile and beautiful, as good as anything else on the album and completely in tune with the aesthetic of the record as a whole. The piece is dedicated to Albert Paliska who I assume to be Martensson’s grandfather, thereby making it the perfect companion piece to Ana” itself.
The album concludes with a brief accapella reading of “Vackra Manniska”, another Martensson original that could easily be taken as a traditional Swedish folk song.
Unapologetically reflective and melancholy “Ana” is a beautiful record full of subtle nuances, a perfect mood piece. Martensson’s voice is gently expressive and she sings with a quiet gravitas and great maturity. She is superbly supported by a great team, the playing is sympathetic and empathic throughout with Green making a particularly important contribution. The strings are deployed subtly and tastefully whenever they appear and the arrangements and production serve both Martensson’s voice and the songs themselves well. In short a great team effort all round. However like some other reviewers I would have preferred it if the lyrics could have been included in the album packaging, although I do appreciate that copyright issues may have prevented this.
Some listeners may find the album rather too downbeat but Martensson is not an unhappy person, it’s just that “I fall in love with sad songs” as she puts it. However reaction to the album suggests that most listeners find Martensson’s sadness beautiful and beguiling. With its mix of jazz and folk influences one can imagine the album becoming something of a favourite with Late Junction audiences. Given the simple beauty of some of this material even a degree of mainstream success is not entirely out of the question.
Emilia Martensson launches “Ana” tonight, April 3rd 2014 at Late Night Jazz at the Elgar Room at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Visit http://www.royalalberthall.com for ticket details. The album itself will be released on April 7th 2014.