Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

November 07, 2017


A fascinating album,filled with thrillingly unusual colours and textures from what must surely be a unique combination of instruments.Viva Black and Gretli & Heidi merge into a seamless musical entity

Viva Black featuring Gretli & Heidi

“Mal Sirine”

(Kopasetik Productions KOPACD052 Bar Code 7320470224397)

This album was kindly given to me for review purposes by the Swedish double bass player Filip Augustson at a recent performance at the Queens Head, Monmouth by the quartet led by his compatriot, the saxophonist and composer Orjan Hulten.

The Hulten gig was a real highlight of the jazz programme at the Queens and was part of a short UK tour undertaken by the quartet. A significant jazz figure in his homeland Hulten had come to the attention of British jazz audiences thanks to his work with guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos, Greek born, once London based, but now living in Stockholm.

Augustson impressed as a member of Hulten’s quartet but he is also an accomplished band-leader and composer in his own right. The bassist leads his own trio, Viva Black, featuring violinist Eva Lindal and drummer Christopher Cantillo.  It’s an unusual instrumental configuration and one that straddles the boundaries of jazz, folk and contemporary classical music. The trio have released two previous albums, the self titled “Viva Black” in 2015 and “Minsta Gemensamma Namnaren” in 2016. Both recordings were well received by the critics for their genre blurring qualities.

This latest project finds Viva Black inviting sisters Carin Blom and Catharina Backman to join them. Performing under the handle Gretli & Heidi Blom and Backman are a self contained duo playing instruments made from glass. Both are credited with glass harp, glass bells & bowls, bottles and voice. Blom and Backman have performed together for twenty five years, releasing one group album in 2010.  They have performed regularly with the Stockholm Radio Orchestra but their duo shows find them exploring a kind of European Vaudeville in which they play accordions in addition to the percussion and vocals.

The collaboration between Viva Black and Gretli & Heidi began back in 2015 when Augustson,  Blom and Backman plus Hulten quartet drummer Peter Danemo all began writing music for the project. Augustson speaks enthusiastically about the way in which the warm, woody timbres of double bass and violin combine with the cool and shiny sounds of the glass instruments.

These qualities can be heard on Danemo’s suite-like fifteen minute title track which opens the album. The atmospheric opening with its arco bass and violin drones punctuated by the eerie sounds of glass percussion sounds like a musical depiction of winter deep in the Swedish forests. It’s vaguely unsettling but strangely, weirdly beautiful. This is music that could be described as ambient and some of it could readily be used on a movie soundtrack but there’s more to it than mere atmospherics or prettiness. One senses a degree of improvisational rigour too, although there are composed elements one can almost hear the musicians thinking and responding to each others’ musical gestures. Eventually Augustson begins to play pizzicato, combining with Cantillo’s drums to give the music forward propulsion while the wordless voices of Gretli & Heidi provide additional colour and texture to an already rich sonic palette.  Three quarters through the piece there’s a duo episode featuring glass percussion only, a fascinating mix of sounds ultimately succeeded by the Viva Black trio temporarily gaining ascendancy as Lindal’s violin soars above a muscular bass groove. Eventually the piece resolves itself with the eerie shimmer of what sounds like a glass harmonica, strangely the one instrument that Gretli & Heidi aren’t actually credited with. One surmises that this is, in fact, a glass harp.

Augustson’s “Vetenskapens Katedral” is shorter, but no less effective, with the composer contributing both arco and pizzicato bass sounds in a delightfully spacious and atmospheric piece. It’s Augustsen’s undeniably impressive pizzicato bass solo at the heart of the music but the real delight is in the detail, the melancholy timbre of Lindal’s violin, the gong like resonances of the glass percussion and the subtlety of Cantillo’s drum shadings.

Also by Augustson “Ogat” exhibits similar qualities with Gretli and Heidi delivering a richly colourful and exotic range of glass generated sounds to complement Augustson’s deeply resonant double bass and Lindal’s luminous, folk inspired violin melody. The violinist also plays pizzicato in a brief dialogue with the percussionists before again picking up the bow. This is a piece that perfectly illustrates Augustson’s point about the complementary contrasts between the two sets of instruments as Viva Black and Gretli & Heidi merge into a seamless musical entity.

Tracks four, five and six are comprised of a mini-suite written by Catharina Backman.
“R1:Varemestralning” combines lonely, soaring violin with wordless vocal textures and a percolating percussive backdrop. The music becomes more edgy and abstract towards the end of the piece, paving the way for the segue into “R1:Trycksvag” with its bursts of rumbling double bass and thunderous drum kit drumming punctuated by spacey, ethereal glass harp.
“R1:Vindar” begins in almost subliminal fashion as if the ensemble are lost in deep space or buried deep underground. Eventually the bright, piping voices of Blom and Backman emerge from the gloom, singing in unison as the rest of the ensemble join in to create a surprisingly vivacious sound and a propulsive groove. The sisters’ wordless vocalising almost veers off into yodelling at one point in a piece that comes closest to replicating their work as the Gretli & Heidi duo.

Blom’s “Ein Bisschen Schmerz” begins with the ethereal sounds of glass harps, these subsequently joined by arco bass, violin and drum kit. The piece unfolds slowly and unhurriedly, at times reminiscent of Polar Bear at their most reflective and lyrical. However a sudden shift of the gears sees the ensemble picking up the pace with Lindal’s violin soaring above a rolling bass, drum and percussion groove, the sound of the fiddle sometimes reminiscent of Eastern European or Middle Eastern music.  Eventually the storm blows itself out and the piece ends as quietly and ethereally as it began.

The album concludes with Augustson’s “Drew’s Brew”, a more sombre and atmospheric composition than the somewhat jokey title might suggest. After a typically atmospheric introduction   the composer’s sonorous plucked bass comes to the fore as Lindal sketches melodic phrases and the kit drums and glass instruments provide commentary, colour and texture. A long, slow, ethereal fade features the exotic but delicate sounds of glass harp and the fragile beauty of Lindal’s violin.

“Mal Sirine” is a fascinating album, filled with thrillingly unusual colours and textures from what must surely be a unique combination of instruments. The Viva Black trio and the duo of Gretli & Heidi meld together seamlessly on a series of performances that skilfully combine elements of composition and improvisation while reaching across the genres to create a group sound that is very much the ensemble’s own.

Arguably it’s a little too one paced at times with the emphasis very much on atmosphere and texture. Nevertheless there are still moments when the music springs to rigorous life and even the occasional flashes of humour, notably on “Vindar”.

It’s not a recording that everybody will appreciate but nevertheless it’s music that may well appeal to BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction audience. One suspects that the prospect of seeing the ensemble performing live would be a fascinating proposition. I’d love to see the various glass instruments being played live in a concert environment.

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