by Ian Mann
July 15, 2014
A very special listening experience, exquisitely beautiful music performed in an equally delightful acoustic and architectural environment.
Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen, Cheltenham College Chapel, Cheltenham, 13/07/2014 (part of Cheltenham Music Festival).
This early morning performance (us jazz types aren’t used to attending gigs at 11.00 am!) was the final event of a hugely successful 2014 Cheltenham Music Festival. Seventy years young this predominately classical festival has always contained nuggets likely to be of interest to jazz audiences and this year’s schedule included performances by two of Norway’s leading contemporary jazz musicians, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and trumpeter Arve Henriksen. Garbarek had played with the Hilliard Ensemble at nearby Gloucester Cathedral, an event that I was unfortunately unable to attend, but this performance by Henriksen with Trio Mediaeval seemed to promise something similar, a beguiling blend of choral voices with the sounds of a supremely distinctive instrumentalist.
This morning’s event took place in the beautiful surroundings of Cheltenham College Chapel, a superb piece of late Victorian Gothic architecture modelled on the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. Not only was this a superb acoustic space but it was also visually pleasing with soaring arches of Cotswold stone and with huge windows bathing the chapel in a warm natural light. The perfect venue then for this collaboration between the all female vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval and arguably the most original trumpeter of his generation.
The all Scandinavian Trio Mediaeval was formed in Oslo in 1997 by the singer Linn Andrea Fuglseth who was joined by her fellow Norwegian Torunn Ostrem Ossum and the Swedish born Anna Maria Friman. These three stayed together until 2010 when Ostrem Ossum was replaced by Berit Opheim. Signed to ECM records the trio have released a series of albums for the label’s New Series imprint namely “Words of the Angel” (2002), “Soir Dit-Elle” (2004), “Stella Maris” (2005),
“Folk Songs” (2007) and “A Worcester Ladymass” (2011). Their repertoire has embraced mediaeval devotional songs and chants, Norwegian folk songs and works by contemporary composers such as Gavin Bryars. They have perfected a distinctive “Scandinavian” singing style with Opheim bringing a particularly string folk element to the group. In recent years they have collaborated with some of Norway’s leading contemporary jazz musicians, many of the ECM label mates, including Henriksen, saxophonist Trygve Seim, pianist Tord Gustavsen and accordionist Frode Haltli. Their collaborations with Henriksen have sometimes incorporated members of the trumpeter’s inner circle including keyboard player Stale Storlokken, percussionist Terje Isungset and electronic sound artist Jan Bang.
Henriksen first emerged as a member of the Anglo Scandinavian improvising quartet Food, alongside saxophonist Iain Ballamy, drummer Thomas Stronen and bassist Mats Eilertsen. He is still a member of the innovative Supersilent group alongside Storlokken and guitarist/electronic artist Helge Sten. Meanwhile Henriksen has also pursued a successful solo career releasing the albums “Sakuteiki” (2001) “Chiarascuro” (2004) and “Places of Worship” (2013) for the Rune Grammofon label with a new release “The Nature of Connections” set to appear in August 2014. His 2008 release for ECM, the beautiful and other worldly “Cartography” included a guest vocal performance from Anna Maria Friman plus a sample of the voices of Trio Mediaeval, the seeds perhaps for this current collaboration. The combination of Trio Mediaeval plus Henriksen is yet to record, something that ECM will doubtless be seeking to correct - one wonder if the trumpeter’s contract with Rune Grammofon has been an obstacle in this regard as the collaboration is now long running and well established.
The remarkable Henriksen has established a unique voice on the trumpet, a post Miles sound that has reached out to embrace both the ancient and the modern. Henriksen embraces the extremes, from almost primeval folk forms to the wonders of cutting edge technology, transforming the sound of his horn so that sometimes it doesn’t even sound like a trumpet any more. But this isn’t just down to electronic wizardry, Henriksen’s extraordinary technique sometimes sees him singing through his horn and creating an almost flute like sound inspired by the Japanese shakuhachi. As a live performer he’s extraordinarily charismatic, a master of shaping sound and space. Today was the third occasion on which I’d seen him perform, each of them very different but all equally compelling. The first of these was at Hay Festival in 2009 in conjunction with sound artist Jan Bang, the second at the 2011 Harmonic festival in Birmingham, a collaboration with the Midlands based electro-improvising duo Dreams Of Tall Buildings plus guest percussionist Laurence Hunt.
This morning’s performance was significantly different in that it was primarily acoustic, Henriksen using his electronic effects sparingly and essentially as a textural device. Consisting of a single set lasting eighty minutes this was a well structured event that showcased the talents of Trio Mediaeval and Arve Hendriksen both separately and collectively, and rightly so as this was a collaboration in the truest sense with both acts continuing to enjoy independent artistic existences.
Nonetheless they began together with a singing Henriksen shadowing the soaring female voices on the hymn “Jesu Min Morgun” with the members of Trio Medieval enhancing their voices with the ringing overtones generated by their array of hand held melody chimes manufactured by the Pennsylvania based Schulmerich company.
The vocal harmonies of the trio were immaculate and stunningly pure and in a truly democratic ensemble the role of lead singer was divided equally among the members of the group. Opheim, who had already been an influence on the original trio, has blended seamlessly into the group aesthetic and took the lead on the next piece “Gud Unde”, this seguing into the instrumental “Beata” with Hendriksen’s trumpet accompanied by the sound of melody chimes.
The first of Henriksen’s solo improvisations saw him live looping the sound of his trumpet to produce a series of overtones. Putting down his instrument he picked up a distinctive four valved pocket trumpet to solo above the backdrop he had created, pointing the bell skywards in a modest display of theatricality. He then switched back to the standard trumpet for a separate solo passage.
The Norwegian folk song “Du Ar Den Forsta” featured Opheim on vocals and Hardanger fiddle, the folk melody picked up by Henriksen who soloed above the softly percussive bowing of Opheim and the cushioning vocal harmonies of her and her colleagues.
The segue of “Alma Redempt” and “Fammi Cantar” featured the collective harmonies of the Trio in perhaps the most obviously “sacred” music thus far but with Henriksen’s Don Cherry-like pocket trumpet bringing a whole fresh element to the performance.
The Trio left the stage for Henriksen’s second solo slot which saw him improvising on a seven hole wood flute above an electronic drone before adding his eerie high pitched vocals to the mix, evoking images of Sami joiks and of shamens before the answering female voices from the far end of the aisle surprised virtually all of the assembled listeners.
From their position in the middle of the nave the trio’s back to back acapella renderings of “Salve Mater” and “Brvreslatt” were timely reminders of the two main strands of their work, a sacred text followed by a Norwegian folk song, the trio still singing the latter as they processed slowly past the rapt audience and back to the stage.
Henriksen’s trumpet sketched the melody of “Anda Din Gud”, his horn gradually joined by two, then three, female voices before a passage of solo trumpet that demonstrated Henriksen’s remarkable vocalised trumpet technique, a sound sometimes akin to singing, at others mere whispering, there’s no one else who sounds remotely like him. Following Henriksen’s feature the music segued into the rhythmic folk chanting of the song “Lata Gjalla”.
“Ave Maris Stella” was another example of the Trio’s sacred style with its exquisite chorale vocals.
“Krummi” featured Hendriksen improvising above the accordion like drone of a shruti box operated by Friman. Here his vocalised trumpet sound was sometimes reminiscent of a Siberian throat singer, this contrasting with a flute like fragility at other moments.
The three part accapella harmonies of “Benedictis Unis” segued into the tune “Fryd Dig” featuring the unique blend of Henriksen’s trumpets, both pocket and standard, electronica and the angelic voices of the Trio.
A deserved encore of “Nu Solen” saw the musician and singers in the crowd, effectively playing “in the round” as Henriksen scraped his trumpet on the ground, the metallic ring creating yet another timbre in the already rich sonic tapestry.
As a live performer Henriksen never fails to impress, always coming up with something interesting, and his unique sound and musical vision also reached out to the predominately classical audience at this event. As for the Trio I don’t think I’ve ever heard such beautiful harmony singing, their tone was wonderfully pure, angelic even, inescapably Scandinavian, and totally flawless throughout. The three singers and Hendriksen seemed to have a healthy respect for each other and they had the audience eating out of their hands , total crowd silence was the order of the day and you could literally hear a pin drop.
Post performance CD sales were brisk and I’ve found Trio Mediaeval “Folk Songs”, recorded with percussionist Birger Mistereggen to be very enjoyable, and indeed therapeutic listening. The folk melodies, similar to many of those heard today, have an instant appeal and are totally accessible.
In a way they reminded me of Julie Fowlis’ series of albums sung in Scots Gaelic. The tunes are so wonderful you don’t even notice that the lyrics aren’t in English, indeed the mystery of the language only adds to their charm.
Meanwhile all of Henriksen’s catalogue makes for interesting listening, with “Cartography” perhaps the album of choice for today’s audience. Let’s hope that the combined talents of Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen are captured on disc sooner rather than later. Although doubtless initially inspired by Garbarek and the Hilliards this is a collaboration that has taken on a distinctive life of it’s own. Today was a very special listening experience, exquisitely beautiful music performed in an equally delightful acoustic and architectural environment.
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