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Jonas Knutsson and Johan Norberg

Skaren:Norrland III


by Ian Mann

November 26, 2008


A charming Nordic folk/jazz crossover that is almost guaranteed to appeal to the "Late Junction" audience.

“Skaren” is the third album in the “Norrland” series by the Swedish pairing of saxophonist Jonas Knutsson and guitarist Johan Norberg. Their previous albums “Norrland” (2004) and “Cow Cow:Norrland II” (2005) have found the duo exploring the folk music and Sami culture of Northern Sweden and combining it with jazz elements. The resulting albums have exhibited a charm and lightness of touch that has won praise from critics and public alike.

“Skaren” is as tuneful and accessible as it’s predecessors but adds additional colours to the instrumental palette. Knutsson and Norberg have linked up with German double bassist Eva Kruse,  a member of the acclaimed piano trio {em}, a group who are also part of the ACT roster. 

Several tracks also feature the Swedish female vocal quartet Kraja (Lisa Lestander, Eva Lestander, Frida Johansson and Linnea Nilsson). As well as singing angelically the girls also help with the writing and arrangements on the vocal items. They were recommended to Knutsson and Norberg by ACT label boss Siegfried Loch.

“Skaren” mixes traditional folk tunes from Sweden and beyond (the opening “Schwarzer Bua” comes from Bavaria) with originals penned in the same vein. The fourteen items are brief (no track exceeds five minutes) and nothing is allowed to outstay it’s welcome. The album is chock full of winning tunes and gorgeous melodies and the overall mood is joyful and uplifting. The vocal tracks are carefully stitched into the fabric of the instrumentals in a well balanced programme.

The interplay between Norberg’s conversational guitar and Knutsson’s saxophone (predominately soprano) is as precise and intimate as one would expect three albums in. Norberg also appears on the zither like kantele, the national instrument of Finland, notably on the (Norberg/Knutsson) original “Resan”. The addition of Kruse’s resonant, well articulated bass playing helps to fill out the sound and enhances the album as a whole. She also adds to the writing/arranging process.

Kraja sing angelic close harmonies and are clearly straight out of the folk tradition. A whole album featuring them would run the risk of becoming cloying but they are used sparingly which heightens their effect. “Majas Polska” written by Eva Lesatander and arranged by Frida Johannson is particularly lovely but they are equally effective on traditional material such as “Nar Jag Om Morgonen Uppstar” and others. I’ve no idea what they’re singing about but that hardly matters. Like the wonderful Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis they sound lovely anyway

Both singers and musicians are well served by Norberg’s engineering and production skills which give a wonderfully pure and crystalline sound to the recording, every note being made to count.

The overall sound is unmistakably Nordic and invites parallels with the work of Jan Garbarek. Certainly there is much here for Garbarek’s fans to enjoy. The overall effect is less intense but is none the worse for that. Knutsson and Norberg are aiming for a more uplifting effect and a more overtly “folk” sound. They succeed beautifully.

With this charming folk/jazz crossover Knutsson and Norberg are almost guaranteed to become favourites with listeners to Radio Three’s “Late Junction” programme.

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