by Ian Mann
December 03, 2020
An impressive musical statement. Campiche is a composer of vision and ambition and these pieces impress with the broadness of their scope and their effective use of colour, texture and dynamics.
Julie Campiche Quartet
(Meta Records meta083)
Julie Campiche- harp, FX, Leo Fumagalli – saxophone, FX, Manu Hagmann – bass, FX, Clemens Kuratle – drums, FX
Released earlier in 2020 (February, to be precise) on the German record label Meta, “Onkalo” is the début album by this Swiss quartet led by harpist and composer Julie Campiche.
Campiche recently came to my attention when she performed as part of “New Switzerland”, a livestream event showcasing emerging Swiss jazz talent that formed part of the 2020 EFG London Jazz Festival.
Campiche appeared alongside the bands Ikarus and Trio Heinz Herbert and my account of this fascinating and highly enjoyable event can be read here;
Campiche’s performance for the New Switzerland showcase found her appearing alongside her regular bandmates Hagmann and Kuratle, plus guest vocalist Mirjam Hassig. With saxophonist Fumagalli unable to appear due to Covid restrictions this EFG LJF set was very much a one off and left me feeling curious as to just what the regular quartet would sound like.
I covered the New Switzerland event following a request from Matt Fripp of the Jazzfuel organisation, who deals with Julie’s publicity in the UK. I approached Matt again to ask if I could possibly cover the album as well and a copy of “Onkalo” arrived shortly afterwards directly from Switzerland, together with a personal note from Julie thanking me for my coverage of the EFG LJF event. My thanks to them both.
In truth I’d been looking forward to hearing Campiche’s music for a long time, after missing out on seeing the quartet’s performance at the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival due to a series of unfortunate scheduling clashes. Those who attended the event at the Parabola Arts Centre were fulsome in their praise for a highly distinctive and innovative quartet, but one that was not yet represented on disc at that particular time.
Prior to becoming a bandleader Campiche had previously spent eight years as part of the quartet Orioxy, a group that also included Hagmann and which was fronted by vocalist Yael Miller.
Based in Geneva Campiche’s sound embraces the sounds of jazz, classical, Middle Eastern music and electronica. Her concerns include the invasiveness of social media, environmental issues, particularly the disposal of radio-active waste, plus more everyday matters such as parenthood and relationships.
“Onkalo” takes its title from “the world’s first final-disposal high level nuclear waste repository”, which is currently under construction in Finland.
The harp remains a relatively unusual instrument within the world of jazz and improvised music. Its use in a jazz context was pioneered by American musicians such as Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, and their work has helped to inspire artists such as the brilliant UK based harpist Alina Bzhezhinska.
However the classically trained Campiche takes the instrument somewhere else entirely. Tellingly she and her three bandmates are all credited with ‘FX’, revealing the importance of electronics in the quartet’s sound.
The group draws inspiration from such musicians as Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and UK’s own Portico Quartet. Campiche also cites the influence of the ECM sound in general, and Keith Jarrett in particular, but also artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Portishead, Ahmad Jamal and Arvo Part. She also emphasises the importance of space within her music, plus a strong sense of narrative. The six lengthy pieces that make up the quartet’s début album each have their own distinctive stories to tell.
The opening “Flash Info” commences with a serene passage of unaccompanied classical harp, its cleanly plucked purity suddenly gatecrashed by an unexpected cymbal crash that nearly makes the listener jump out of their seat. Hagmann then strikes up a propulsive bass groove and we’re on our way. Or so we think, quiet harp passages, now augmented by a soupçon of electronica, continue to alternate with more urgent bass and drum led episodes. Fumagalli’s sax subtly weaves its way into the mix as the music finally develops an unstoppable momentum, carrying the listener along in its wake. Astutely making striking use of contrasts and dynamics Campiche ensures that she and her colleagues grab the listener’s attention right from the start. The title is a reference to television news programmes, which deploy similar methods to snare the viewer’s attention. “The music just came to my mind after I heard some information on the radio. I felt such a mix of very strong emotions: sadness, anger, melancholy, desperation and stress. So, I tried to translate this in music”, Campiche explains.
As its title might suggest “Cradle Songs” quietens things down again, a performance that again sees Campiche making subtle use of electronics to transform the sound of her instrument, notably the sound of backwards effects. With Hagmann and Kuratle providing sensitively nuanced support and with Fumagalli’s sax keening gently there’s an almost Oriental sense of calm about the performance.
At a little under twelve minutes in duration “Onkalo” represents the lengthiest track on the album. The Finnish nuclear facility takes its name from a word meaning “cave”. The piece begins in eerie, atmospheric fashion, with electronics combining with extended instrumental techniques. The mood is mysterious and vaguely unsettling, qualities subsequently made more ominous by Kuratle’s implacable, rumbling drum groove. Tension and momentum begin to build, with the eerie wail of Fumagalli’s sax added to the mix. Campiche subsequently solos above the rolling groove, a fluent outpouring of notes, the sweetness of which contrasts effectively with the backdrop, giving some form of hope, before eventually sliding into a closing dissonance. Campiche’s composition was partly inspired by the Swedish author Henning Mankell’s book on the Onkalo project and the fact that the waste buried there will take 100,000 years to fully decay.
“To The Holy Land” was written by Kuratle and arranged by Campiche, and is something of another ‘epic’, this time at a little over ten minutes in length. Again the piece possesses a strong narrative arc, introduced by a dialogue between the leader’s harp and Hagmann’s double bass. Sax and subtle electronica are added, before Hagmann makes the move to bowed bass, again in dialogue with Campiche on the harp. Gradually the music begins to open up, with Fumagalli’s warm toned sax soloing above an ever evolving bass and drum groove and the leader’s harp colourations and counter melodies. Appropriately there’s something of a drum feature for Kuratle in the later stages of the composition, heard powerfully in dialogue with the harp, prior to a gentler closing section.
“Lepidoptera” opens with the sounds of bowed bass, delicate harp cadences and the almost subliminal rustle of percussion. Fumagalli’s sax pipes gently, softly exchanging phrases with bowed bass as the leader’s harp motif, fulfilling both melodic and rhythmic functions, remains at the heart of the music. Kuratle’s percussion shadings take on greater substance as the composition gently unfolds, with Fumagalli gradually emerging, almost butterfly like, as a soloist. “Lepidoptera”, says Campiche, is a piece about “the good surprises in life. When you expect something ugly and something beautiful comes” . It’s certainly a beautiful performance, delicately balanced and finely nuanced, a superb example of ‘chamber jazz’ at its best.
Finally we hear “Dastet Dard Nakonah”, the title derived from a Farsi expression for “thanks”. Campiche introduces the piece on the harp, her meditations punctuated by the rumble and shimmer of Kuratle’s drums, with melancholic but melodic double bass subsequently added. Following Campiche’s solo Fumagalli’s sax is added towards the close, helping to bring something of an anthemic quality to the music, before things conclude in an ambient, electronically enhanced soundwash.
“Onkalo” represents an impressive musical statement from Campiche and her well balanced and highly talented quartet. Following her New Switzerland performance I was expecting there to be a wider use made of electronics, although these are utilised judiciously and effectively throughout the album. That said its still essentially an acoustic record and the unusual combination of instruments works well as the quartet draw on a range of elements ranging through jazz, classical and folk strains to create a musical hybrid that could justifiably be described as unique. Campiche is a composer of vision and ambition and these pieces impress with the broadness of their scope and their effective use of colour, texture and dynamics.
One suspects that even greater use will be made of electronics in the future as Campiche and the group continue to experiment and develop. Their next release will be awaited with great interest.
However it should be borne in mind that the quartet is only one part of the restlessly creative harpist’s output. She is also involved in an international Strings Project, leads a standards trio and is a member of the all female trio Majudi. With vocalist Mirjam Hassig she is a member of the quartet Aye! and she has also been involved in a number of theatre projects. The quartet have also produced a series of videos in conjunction with the trapeze artist Vanessa Pahud and have worked with the Baroque ensemble Capelle Jenensis.
For further details of Julie Campiche’s musical activities please visit http://www.juliecampiche.com
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