Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

May 11, 2020


Orion’s focus on strong melodies on their previous albums makes the transition to song writing and the addition of vocals seem like an obvious and natural step.

Orjan Hulten Orion featuring Ernie Bruce

“Liberia Ballad”

(Artogrush Records)

Orjan Hulten – saxophones, Torbjorn Gulz – piano, Filip Augustson – bass, Peter Danemo – drums,
Ernie Bruce- vocals

The Swedish saxophonist and composer Orjan Hulten first came to my attention as part of a quartet led by the Greek born guitarist and composer Tassos Spiliotopoulos.

Spiliotopoulos spent several years living in London, becoming a popular and significant presence on the UK jazz circuit, before moving to Stockholm in 2013. The guitarist wasted little time in immersing himself in the Swedish jazz scene and in 2016 released the superb album “In the North” with his “Swedish Band”, a quartet featuring Hulten, bassist Palle Sollinger and drummer Fredrik Rundqvist. This was Spiliotopoulos’ third album as a leader and his most accomplished recording to date.

Hulten played a big part in that record’s success and was part of the band that Spiliotopoulos brought to the UK for a short tour later in 2016. Having already been impressed by the album I was further delighted by the quartet’s performance at the Queens Head in Monmouth, one of the best gigs that I have ever seen at that venue. The band featured Spiliotopoulos, Hulten, new bassist Filip Augustson and the guitarist’s old friend and sometime boss Asaf Sirkis at the drums. Review here;

The success of that tour, and the good impression that Hulten made on it, led to the Swede returning to the UK in 2017 leading his own quartet Orion, featuring Augustson, drummer Peter Danemo and keyboard player Adam Forkelid. This unit have released a series of excellent albums including “Radio In My Head” (2010), “Mr Nobody” (2013) and “Faltrapport” (2016), all on the Swedish Artogrush imprint.

Orion places the emphasis on Hulten’s abilities as a composer.  The group’s pieces are highly melodic and tend to have a strong narrative arc, and although much of the material is through composed ample space is still left for individual and collective improvisation with Hulten commenting;
“The mission with Orion is to be able to write music without limits and perform together with musicians that have the same goal. The challenge is to compose, but not compose too much, to leave a lot of space for the band to explore and contribute to with our personalities.”

Orion’s fourth album release “Minusgrader”  (also Artogrush) was the group’s most accomplished and successful to date, winning the group further international recognition. “Minusgrader”  introduced a new version of the group with Hulten, Augustson and Danemo joined by pianist Torbjorn Gulz, who also proved to be a significant composing presence. Indeed this latest edition of Orion proved to be a more democratic group all round. The band’s first three recordings had concentrated on Hulten’s writing almost exclusively, but “Minusgrader” found all four members of the group bringing compositions to the table, making for a more balanced and varied recording. Review (from which most of the above paragraphs have been sourced) here;

This latest release sees Hulten and Orion making a radical change. After four albums of evocative and highly accomplished instrumental music the group have introduced vocals and lyrics for the first time.

Significantly the singing isn’t the kind of ethereal, often wordless, female vocalising that one might associate with Scandinavian jazz. Instead Orion have teamed up with the Liberian born male vocalist Ernie Bruce, whose rich baritone voice and socially conscious lyrics adorn four of the album’s nine tracks.

The album’s liner notes, an essay titled “Sweden in Liberia”, explain the somewhat fortuitous circumstances behind the project. In December 2018 Orion visited Liberia to play at a reception at the Swedish Embassy.  By chance they met Ernie Bruce, a Liberian singer with a love and knowledge of jazz.

Hulten describes this meeting as a ‘fluke’, but the Swedish quartet began to work with the Liberian singer and performed several concerts with Bruce at various venues in Monrovia during the course of a week’s stay in the Liberian capital.

As Hulten puts it;
“Musical ideas were formed as a collage of meetings, expectations, impressions and memories. These turned into material for a record that embodied a relationship, of music and culture, between individuals and nations, across cultural boundaries and time”.

I have to admit that prior to receiving this album I had absolutely no idea about the close historical ties between Sweden and Liberia. As the introductory essay explains as long ago as 1864 a treaty of friendship, trade and shipping was signed between the Republic of Liberia and the then Kingdom of Sweden of Norway. Despite Norway’s subsequent independence I suspect that it has never been repealed and the economic ties between Sweden and Liberia remain close. In the 1960s Swedish mining companies invested heavily in Liberia, mainly extracting iron ore, and many Swedes lived and worked in Liberia during the following decades.

Swedish involvement in Liberia was curtailed during the years of civil war in the 1980s and 90s, this following a military coup. Swedish troops were part of the UN peace force that helped to restore a semblance of order in Liberia in 2004, but the economic effects of the war years remain, and Liberia is still considered to be one of the world’s poorest countries.

The performance by the Orion group at the Swedish Embassy was part of the celebrations to commemorate the tenth anniversary of its re-opening, and it remains the goal of the Embassy to strengthen democracy, equality and human rights in Liberia. The collaboration between Orion and Bruce represents the musical manifestation of that spirit, and the recording was partly financed by the Swedish Embassy, Monrovia.

Turning now to the music and the opening title track, an instrumental piece composed by Gulz and inspired by the initial cultural shock of visiting Liberia. Sampled street sounds set the scene before the instrumentalists take over, with the composer’s introductory piano motif cum vamp framing Hulten’s beguiling tenor sax melodies. Augustson and Danemo offer economic support on an attractive and melodic composition that slowly expands to give Hulten the opportunity to stretch out more extensively on tenor, gradually probing more deeply. More street sounds, including a chorus of African voices, bookend a piece that could nevertheless have fitted in quite neatly on any of Orion’s previous four albums.

However, the next item offers something completely different. “Dreams” is a song
co-written by Gulz and Bruce, with the pianist writing the melody for a lyric that Bruce had been “incubating” for some time. Bruce’s voice is a rich, dark baritone, sometimes reminiscent of an old style ‘crooner’, but possessed of a Gregory Porter like depth and gravitas. Bruce sings in English and his diction is always impeccably precise. “Dreams” is a paean to inner strength in difficult times and his words and singing are complemented here by the sympathetic support of the Orion quartet, with concise but evocative instrumental solos coming from Hulten on tenor and Gulz at the piano.

The title of “The Bird” might suggest a Charlie Parker tribute, but instead Hulten’s brief instrumental piece was inspired by a melodic phrase sung by a bird outside the saxophonist’s hotel room window every morning in Monrovia. Danemo sketches the phrase first on his cymbals, displaying exquisite touch and poise, before Hulten picks it up on tenor. And yes, it probably is fair to say that there’s a boppish, Parker-like quality to it as Hulten’s sax dances lithely around the instrument’s upper registers, brilliantly supported by the flexible rhythm team of Augustson and Danemo. This trio item evokes memories of Hulten’s 2017 recording “Live At Bas”, a trio session made with Augustson and drummer Fredrik Rundqvist, a more free-wheeling and loosely structured release than anything issued under the Orion banner. Review here;

Bruce returns for “Sixto”, providing and singing the lyrics to a tune by Hulten. It represents a convincing example of ‘vocalese’ with the singer adding words to an existing instrumental piece that first appeared on the “Faltrapport” album.
“Why don’t you do some lyrics to that Ernie?”, enquired the saxophonist. Bruce’s words tell the tale of Sixto Rodriguez, the Detroit born singer and songwriter who discovered unexpected fame in South Africa, as depicted in Malek Bandjelloul’s documentary film “Searching for Sugarman”. Taking inspiration from the late Eddie Jefferson Bruce comes across like a Jon Hendricks / Mark Murphy type figure, a hipster, whose lyrics and vocal performance fit Hulten’s tune seamlessly. Bruce’s words are evocative and represent a perfect summation of Rodriguez’s life and the narrative of the film. In a genuine jazz performance instrumental highlights come in the form of solos from Hulten on tenor and Augustson at the bass.

“Liberia Rain” is a second instrumental composition by Gulz, the title referencing the tropical climate of Liberia. Sampled rain noises form part of the soundtrack here, on a piece which takes a few simple melodic phrases as the basis for the quartet’s improvisations. The piece is a paean to the healing qualities of nature and is correspondingly relaxed and laid back, with Danemo deploying brushes throughout. Hulten and Gulz keep things simple, placing the focus on melody, but the highlight of the performance is the beautiful bowed bass solo by Augustson.

Arguably the centre-piece of the album is the near thirteen minute “Treaty Suite”, a collaboration between Orion, Bruce and sound artist Johan Berke.
Berke describes the piece as a “collage composition, depicted as a surrealistic dream sequence”. It commences as an improvisation between Gulz and Hulten,  above which Bruce reads (in English) from the text of the 1864 treaty between Sweden and Liberia previously mentioned. Bruce’s well enunciated speaking voice provides the text with the appropriate weight and gravitas, but with the sound of his voice subtly manipulated by Berke as the piece progresses. Meanwhile the group, now expanded to the full quartet, continue to improvise, with Berke’s shadowy electronics also weaving their way in and out of the music. Augustson comes to the fore with a pizzicato bass solo, embellished by what Berke describes as “several electronically processed sounds and fragments designed to create a kaleidoscopic background”.
Directly out of Augustson’s solo emerges a powerful Coltrane-esque section, written by Gulz and featuring the wailing of Hulten’s tenor above a rolling, modal style backdrop, with Gulz cast as McCoy Tyner and Augustson and Denamo as Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Berke’s electronics have faded into space at this juncture, but return towards the close following a more lyrical piano passage from Gulz.

The ballad “When Delilah Smiles” is a second collaboration between Gulz and Bruce, with the pianist again composing a tune for lyrics that Bruce had already been working on. Inspired by the US jazz tradition and the ‘Great American Songbook’, a tradition that Bruce was fully familiar with, this presents the singer as the arch balladeer, whilst also featuring Gulz’s piano lyricism and the seductive sounds of Hulten on gently piping soprano. Further sampled street sounds at the close ensure that the song remains firmly rooted in Liberia, despite its obvious American influences.

“Liberia Waltz” is the third instrumental piece to be written by Gulz that was directly inspired by Orion’s travels to the country. A melodic jazz waltz it features Augustson with a dexterous pizzicato double bass solo, plus the composer at the piano.

The album concludes with Bruce’s song “Sangay”, a piece that he wrote back in the late 1980s and which he describes as being about “an imaginary African figure, who can be whomever the listener wishes it to be”.
A celebration of the beauty of an “African Princess” it depicts a beguiling image of a beautiful, but enigmatic and elusive figure. Bruce’s soulful vocals receive excellent support from the quartet, with Hulten’s lithe, dancing soprano sax at the heart of the instrumental performance.

I have to admit that when I first received this album I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Having got used to Orion’s sound over the course of their four previous albums the addition of vocals initially took a little getting used to.

However I decided to persevere and there’s no doubt that Bruce is actually a class act, a talented and versatile singer and an intelligent and perceptive lyricist. He brings something very different to Orion’s music, and after reaching something of a creative peak with “Minusgrader” it was arguably time for the Swedish quartet to try something different.

“Liberia Ballad” continues to see Gulz emerging as a key compositional presence, even though the instrumental arrangements continue to place Hulten’s sax at the heart of the music. The saxophonist continues to receive excellent support from his bandmates in what has become a very well balanced quartet.

Bruce’s contribution is excellent, bringing something fresh and distinctive to every piece that he is involved with. Orion’s focus on strong melodies on their previous albums makes the transition to song writing and the addition of vocals seem like an obvious and natural step.

My only reservations with regard to the vocals would be with the narration on “Treaty Suite”.  The blend of music and spoken word rarely works well on record and can discourage repeated listening. One suspects that this piece would work brilliantly in live performance, but like others of its type it can seem to be a bit of an indulgence when committed to disc.

That caveat aside I admire Orion’s spirit of adventure and their determination to attempt something outside their usual comfort zone. On the whole “Liberia Ballad” works very well with Bruce bringing a distinctive new presence to the quartet’s music. Their rapport with him seems very natural and instinctive, and hopefully this collaboration will prove beneficial to both parties, while encouraging the cultural and economic ties between Sweden and Liberia.

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