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Various Artists

Magic Moments @ Schloss Elmau


by Ian Mann

December 19, 2009


A testament to the ACT ethos and a fitting musical tribute to the much missed Esbjorn Svensson

Subtitled “Best Of Swedish-German Friendship Concerts” this album is a celebration of the co-operation between the jazz scenes in Sweden and Germany nurtured by the Munich based label ACT. In September 2008 Swedish and German artists on the ACT roster gathered at the magnificent Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps for a series of concerts spanning a six day period. Besides being a musical celebration the concerts were also something of a wake as the artists involved made their musical farewells to pianist Esbjorn Svensson who had died suddenly in a diving accident only three months previously. Svensson had been slated to appear at the festival and had been involved in the preparations, his absence only added to the poignancy of much of the music to be heard here.

Schloss Elmau is a favourite location for ACT artists and has been the setting for previous live recordings, notably the piano duet between Michael Wollny and Joachim Kuhn. Wollny features prominently on this latest recording alongside Nils Landgren, Lars Danielsson and many others.

However the album begins with Swedish singer Viktoria Tolstoy, her beautiful rendition of the song “After You’ve Gone” representing her tribute to the recently departed Svensson. The arrangement is paced by the purr of Johan Granstrom’s bass but it is the astonishing, dancing accordion solo of Lelo Nika that really catches the imagination, alongside Tolstoy’s singing of course. Pianist Jacob Karlzon, saxophonist Joakim Milder and drummer Rasmus Kihlberg also make significant contributions.
The spirit of Swedish/German collaboration is encapsulated in the beautiful duet “Marion and Sam”  performed by German pianist Wollny and Swedish bassist Danielsson. Wollny is also around for a duo version of the Sting song “Fragile” with vocalist/trombonist Nils Landgren. Landgren’s plaintive voice reflects the song’s title and sentiments and Wollny’s eerie interior scrapings on what sounds like a partially prepared piano are haunting and effective. Landgren’s trombone parts are smooth and rounded, and the piece, which I initially thought misjudged, actually works very well.

The trombonist adopts a different tone on the urgent, bustling “Blues Panic”, an original by pianist Chris Gall who leads his trio with bassist Marcel Kromker and drummer Peter Gall plus Landgren through the album’s most vibrant piece thus far.

“Majas Polka” is a charming piece of Swedish folk jazz by the Norrland trio of saxophonist Jonas Knutsson, guitarist Johan Norberg and German bassist Eva Kruse. They are joined by the Swedish vocal quartet Kraja consisting of Linnea Nilsson, Lisa and Eva Lestander and Frida Johansson. The piece, written by Eva Lestander originally appeared on the then new album “Skaren;Norrland III”.

Wollny returns again to perform his composition “Fatigue” in the company of bassist Lars Danielsson and cellist Jorg Brinkmann. Brinkmann also leads his own trio and released the remarkable album “Ha!” on ACT in 2008. Here the two string players complement each other perfectly with Danielsson’s huge plucked tone offset by Brinkmann’s rich, dark cello lines. The mood of the piece is sombre, a product of Wollny’s “Gothic” tendencies and I would guess that some of it relies heavily upon improvisation. In any event it’s an interesting and profoundly moving exploration.
Similar intimacy is to be heard in the duet between guitarist Ulf Wakenius and vibraphonist Christopher Dell. The pair perform Bert Kaemfert’s “Don’t Talk To Me” with Wakenius’ warm sound recalling that of Pat Metheny. Dell performs the Gary Burton role in sensitive fashion.

The Norrland Trio make their second appearance on Nils Landgren’s arrangement of Handel’s “Gia nel seno”. The piece also features the pure vocal of singer Jeanette Kohn and sounds almost hymnal at times. Norrland bring out the folk elements of Handel’s melody and Landgren’s trombone and Jonas Knutsson’s sax reflect it through a jazz prism.

Landgren appears in a totally different setting for “Alpine Music”, an urgent improvised meeting in the company of bassist Danielsson and vibist Dell who also features on “marimbaphone.” The trio had preciously collaborated on the improvisational “Salzau Music On The Water” album (ACT , 2005). The three have developed a strong chemistry and Landgren produces some remarkably wide ranging sounds from his trombone to complement Danielsson’s powerful bass and Dell’s shimmering vibes.

To round things off we hear iconoclastic Swedish band Oddjob with a remarkable segue of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and Esbjorn Svensson’s “Good Morning Susie Soho”. Introduced by handclaps and Peter Forss’ enormous bass “Sleep” comes across like a Charles Mingus “prayer meeting” arrangement with Goran Kajfes’ squalling trumpet also prominent. Daniel Karlsson’s keyboards impart a contemporary edge and the whole thing is an upbeat and compellingly crazy way to close a consistently interesting album.

The diverse nature of the performances makes it difficult for the album to cohere in a manner that makes any emotional sense but nevertheless there are some genuinely “Magic Moments” here and the quality of the playing is never in question. Those that were lucky enough to be there for the festival, especially Sweden’s ambassador to Germany Mrs Ruth Jacoby, must have enjoyed every moment of it. For the rest of it’s still a valuable document and a testament to the ACT ethos fostered by label founder and producer Siegfried Loch. It also represents a fitting musical tribute to the much missed Esbjorn Svensson.

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