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Viktoria Tolstoy

My Russian Soul


by Ian Mann

November 25, 2008


Every track is an adventure. One of the best vocal albums of the year

Swedish singer Tolstoy’s new album is the logical follow up to her album “My Swedish Heart” (2005), notwithstanding the fact that the two releases have been punctuated by the superlative song collection “Pictures Of Me” (2006).

Tolstoy’s latest offering sees her exploring her Russian heritage (she is the great grand daughter of the novelist Leo Tolstoy) in an exciting and original way. She has taken the melodies of the great Russian composers, notably Tchaikowsky, and with the help of her collaborators has moulded them into wholly convincing jazz/pop songs.

With evocative lyrics by the young Swedish songwriter Anna Alerstedt and quality arrangements by keyboard player Jacob Karlzon and saxophonist Joakim Milder “My Russian Soul” is a resounding success and far more persuasive than the initial premise might suggest.

Tolstoy’s precise but soulful vocals play a huge part in this but the inspired arrangements and sparkling playing of her colleagues are of equal importance.

The album commences with three adaptations of Tchaikowsky, the first two arranged by Karlzon, the third by Milder. “Home” is a pared down arrangement paced by Karlzon’s thoughtful piano and Nils Landgren’s plangent trombone plus Tolstoy’s wistful vocal. The music sets off Alerstedt’s brief but poetic lyrics superbly. It’s a quietly beautiful way to commence an album.

“Word By Word” is more upbeat and brings the flexible rhythm section of Johan Granstrom (bass) and Rasmus Kihlburg (drums) into the fray alongside Milder. Tolstoy delivers another excellent vocal performance and Karlzon, who added so much to the “Pictures Of Me” album takes the instrumental honours with a dazzling solo.

“The Curtain Falls” adds a string arrangement alongside Milder’s keening soprano sax. Tolstoy excels once more on this lush, dramatic ballad.

The material for “My Russian Heart” was originally selected by Tolstoy and Landgren. “Little Pretty” is a Karlzon arrangement of a traditional Russian folk tune to which Alerstedt has added darkly playful lyrics. It maintains the high standards already set and blends ancient with modern, exemplified by Granstroms brief solo on electric bass. 

Tolstoy and Landgren also looked at more contemporary aspects of Russian culture. The Soviet era actor/singer/poet/songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky is represented by the cabaret style “Our Stories”, a duet which pairs Tolstoy’s voice with Lelo Nika’s accordion.

The standard “Strangers In Paradise” from the musical “Kismet” was based on “Powlowetzer Tanze” by Borodin. Tolstoy gives it the big modern ballad treatment complete with strings. It’s the only item thus far that I could do without although it is partially redeemed by a typically excellent solo by Karlzon.

More successful is “You Can Go Home Again”, an adaptation by the American arranger Don Sebesky of a theme by Rachmaninov. This has a gorgeous melody from which Tolstoy distils the full beauty, aided by Karlzon and the rhythm section plus Landgren who again adds his unhurried ,warmly rounded tones.

“Silent Rhapsody” re-introduces Tchaikovsky in a truly remarkable arrangement by Joakim Milder. The soaring melody featuring tasteful strings and Milder’s own soprano is topped by Tolstoy’s   imperious vocal but is underpinned by a chattering, hip hop inspired percussion groove. It sounds implausible but works brilliantly. The sheer daring and originality of the arrangement makes this the stand out track of a very good album.

“Although You’ve Gone”, an arrangement by Landgren sees the return of the traditional element and harbours another superb contribution from Nika’s accordion.

“Our Man”, a vocal duet for Tolstoy and Landgren is an adaptation of the Russian song “Bely Bim”. It is given a blues/soul groove with Karlzon again taking the instrumental honours.

“No News” is an effective Karlzon arrangement of a traditional tune. Alerstedt’s lyrics are an updating of the staple folk tale of the woman waiting on the shore for her lover’s ship to return from sea. Tostoy’s yearning vocal and Karlzon’s understated arrangement (featuring the cry of Milder’s soprano sax) convey this brilliantly.

Finally comes the last Tchaikowsky adaptation, the apocalyptic “Aftermath” which sees the melody from Swan Lake driven by Granstorm’s rumbling bass and Kihlberg’s pounding drums. Landgren’s rasping trombone adds to the atmosphere and swirling strings enhance the mood topped off by Tolstoy’s dramatic vocal. Karlzon’s arrangement is simultaneously over the top and stunningly convincing. What a way to end an album.

“My Russian Soul” is a brave album which succeeds brilliantly. By choosing to adapt acknowledged masterpieces Tolstoy ran the risk of falling flat on her face. Instead she has made one of the best vocal albums of the year, helped in no small part by an inspired team of collaborators. Tolstoy is in superb voice throughout but the lyrics and arrangements bring out the best in the singer. Every track is an adventure and a highly enjoyable and colourful one at that. These disparate strands combine to make a richly satisfying whole, seamlessly blending tradition with modernity. 

“My Russian Soul” is the best vocal album I’ve heard since ACT label mate Solveig Slettahjell’s “Good Rain” was released a couple of years ago (also reviewed on this site).

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