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063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’

Posted by jeff on Apr 3, 2016 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

I like to think I’m neither completely stupid nor wholly detached from reality. So if our Song of The Week is by a Norwegian a cappella sextet that prides itself on a synthesis of folk, jazz and ethnic music, I do understand that we’re not pushing mainstream fare here. Or that if the song itself is billed as ‘a melodic battle’ between Irish and Norwegian folkdance music styles, even I get that this isn’t the most commercially appealing middle-of-the-road music you may encounter this week.

But it is among the finest and most exciting music I’ve heard in a long time.

Just so you realize I’m not alone in enthusing over this music, let me quote some other critics: “Something that has never been heard before.” “Musicality is superb, blend amazing.” “Everything an a cappella fan could want: beauty, emotion, and wonderfully sung music. Even to the English listener, it is a treat. Now if only the a cappella scene would gain as much traction in the US as it has in Northern Europe.” “Spellbinding. Groups wishing to push the boundaries of a modern cappella would do well to listen.” “Their creative folk music is sure to drop more jaws than just mine.” “Be prepared for a very unique experience. Kudos to Pust for boldy pushing the envelope for a cappella music.”

Read more…

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209: The Real Group: ‘Monica Vals’ (‘Waltz for Debby’)

Posted by jeff on Dec 12, 2014 in A Cappella, Jazz, Nordic, Song Of the week, Vocalists

The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’

Margareta Bengtson

Margareta Bengtson

I was hanging with some musical friends this week, watching an old video of theirs, relaxed and routine, when – boom! – four minutes in heaven.

The Real Group. Margareta Bengtson. Monica Zetterlund. Bill Evans. Let me explain. But I’ll probably get all historical and detailed way beyond what any normal person would care about. So unless you have the patience of a stone, feel free to listen, watch, and be transported. The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’.

In 1953, Bill Evans (1929-80) was released from the army. He’d finished a degree in classical piano at Southeastern Louisiana College and was trying to decide which direction to pursue, classical or jazz. So he took a year off, living in his parents’ home and practicing. He would visit his brother Harry (who eventually became a music professor and a suicide; here’s an mind-opening interview by Harry of Bill from 1964, very much worth studying) and his three-year old niece Debby.

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

‘Waltz for Debby’ has become a jazz classic, written mostly in ¾, not a common jazz signature. It’s charming, disarming, lovely and tender. It’s the genius that is Bill Evans at his best.

Evans included it on his first album, “New Jazz Conceptions” (1956), a solo performance. Perhaps his finest treatments of it were on his masterpiece recording “Live at the Village Vanguard” (1961), with Paul Motion on drums and the immortal (but fated to die 10 days later) Scott LaFaro on bass. Here’s Take One and Take Two. Here’s a posting dedicated to that session, one of the most sublime pieces of music I’ve encountered.

The Real Group then

The Real Group then

Evans played ‘Waltz for Debby’ throughout his career, right up to the end – here it is from 1980 (with Joe LaBarbera on drums and Marc Johnson on bass), exactly one month before his tragic but inevitable death. Well, aren’t all tragic deaths inevitable? The song is usually performed gently (1956, 1961). Here in 1980, on the edge of the abyss, he invests in it a frightening passion that I discussed at length in a blog post about another signature song of his, ‘Nardis’.

In 1963, Evans asked his friend Gene Lees to write lyrics for the song. Some people think they’re precious and wonderful, some think they’re painfully kitsch and demean a perfectly restrained song. Me? I’m so caught up in the music I don’t even hear them.

The Real Group now

The Real Group now

I’ve found no evidence of why Evans asked for lyrics. The first version I can find a recording is a respectable treatment by Dutch singer named Rita Reyes, recorded for Dutch TV in 1964. In contrast, Johnny Hartman croons it to death in the same year (the follow-up album to his legendary collaboration John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the divine Sarah Vaughn’s version from 1966. Also unfortunately, it’s easy to find the 1975 Tony Bennet/Bill Evans duet collaboration. As my friend ML put it so well: “Tony Bennet doesn’t sing on that album, he shouts.”

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Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

In the summer of 1964, Evans made his first trip to Europe, with his second trio – Chuck Israels on bass, Larry Bunker on drums. In Sweden he met a young singer named Monica Zetterlund (1937-2005), who had made a recording of ‘Waltz for Debby’ with lyrics by Beppe Wolgers, ‘Monica Vals’. They cut a wonderful album together, a paragon of passionate restraint (Evans) meeting icy perfection (Zetterlund). Here’s the recording, and here’s a TV video of that visit. While we’re here, here’s a beautiful ‘Some Other Time’ video from the same program. And here they are doing a beautiful, relaxed rehearsal of ‘Monica Vals’ two years later, with Eddie Gomez on bass and a Swedish drummer.

In 1984, five Swedish friends were at studying together at the Royal Academy of Music. They felt that other friends played all the instruments and styles better than they did, so they decided to try something different – singing jazz classics a cappella. Thus was born the genre I love so well, ‘modern a cappella’. They began by listening to classic jazz such as Count Basie/Quincy Jones and replicating it vocally, each voice singing a different instrument/part, resulting in a pure, breathtaking polyphony.  A couple of their earliest efforts were arrangements by Peder Karlsson of early Evans’ tunes: ‘Very Early’ and ‘Monica Vals’. Here’s an extensive interview I had with Peder describing the riveting metamorphosis of the group.

Margareta Bengston

Margareta Bengston

And finally – our Song of The Week, our Performance of The Week, our four minutes of heaven of the week: The Real Group performing ‘Monica Vals’, live in Stockholm, 2005. The soloist is the original soprano, Margareta Bengtson, who left the group in 2006.

Scott LaFaro’s bass part written by Peder for Anders Jalkéus; the intricate, marvelous tapestry of Katarina Henryson, Anders Edenroth and Peder – this is as good as it gets. And Margareta’s solo is a simply a wonder of the world. Such precision, such love, such delicate charisma.

Here’s their reunion performance of ‘Monica Vals’ from The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, 2012, which I was blessed to be present at. If you hear someone in the audience crying from utter bliss, that just might be me.

Monica Zetterlund

Monica Zetterlund

I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know all the members of The Real Group to varying degrees. Some are warm acquaintances, some dear friends. It’s a unique experience for me to know people to whom I both feel close personally and also admire so profoundly as artists.

Hey, Margareta, how are you? When I heard and saw you singing ‘Monica Vals’ this week, in my mind I gave a slight bow and kissed your hand. I don’t know how else to thank you for touching my ears and my mind and my heart so wondrously.

When they say ‘The voice is the only instrument made by God’, this is what they’re referring to. I just can’t imagine anything more perfect.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
The New A Cappella
059: The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’
124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’
096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”

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189: Choir of Young Believers, ‘Hollow Talk’ (Nordic Noir TV)

Posted by jeff on Feb 21, 2014 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

Choir of Young Believers – Hollow Talk

Everything Scandinavian is better than anything non-Scandinavian.

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Line Groth coaching in Israel.

Okay, maybe there’s a drop of hyperbole there, but I’m infatuated. I have been for a number of years now, starting with my involvement in Modern A Cappella, whose epicenter is in Den Norr/Nord. (Even the fine Australian quartet call themselves The Idea of North.)

The situation was profoundly exacerbated last week with the visit of the wonderful Line Groth Riis from Aarhus, Denmark, to workshop with the a cappella community here in Israel, especially with Vocalocity, the biggest little group in the land. Line told me there were 17 hours of sunlight in Denmark in January. There was an average high of 20°C in Tel Aviv during her visit. So how is it that we all felt that it was she who was bringing the sunlight here?

This irrational, exaggerated infatuation (aren’t those defining traits of infatuation?) began with The Real Group, spread through Rajaton and Vocal Line and a myriad of other a cappella groups; traveled through Nordic roots music; and recently taken me on out to some cutting edge pop that has me mystified and baffled and intrigued and enthralled.

Faroese-singer-Eivor-Pals-001

Eivør

Eivør is as far out musically as she is geographically. She hails from the Faroe Islands, a village named Gota actually. She’s a bona fide star in Iceland and Denmark, and is traveling the world as Marilyn Monroe in an avant-garde opera. The core of her original music is haunting, mystical, wind-swept barren Atlantic island folk/roots. She’s also beautiful, charming, and spiritual. I met her a year ago in Denmark, and felt like I was talking to a persona who’d just stepped out of a myth, or a fairy tale. Give a listen. I promise to write more about her sometime soon.

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Sigur Rós

Moving from a country of 50,000 to one of 320,000, we all thought Bjork was as bizarre as Iceland could get. Well, we were wrong. For a year now I’ve been under the spell of Sigur Rós, a “post-rock” group led by Jónsi Birgisson. (That’s a new sub-genre of often instrumental music using guitars, drums and unusual instruments in non-rock timbres and textures. Huh?) Their music is haunting, ephemeral, hazy. My favorite of their dozen CDs is “()” I thought I was the only person east of the Faroe Islands to have heard of these guys. But it turns out their spellbinding sound pallet has been drafted for projects as disparate as BBC’s natural history series “Planet Earth” and their ads for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, as well as in the films “Vanilla Sky” and even “We Bought a Zoo”! What is this world coming to?

Choir of Young Believers

Choir of Young Believers

And now I’ve been listening to Jannis Noya Makrigiannis’ band Choir of Young Believers, who are legitimate stars in a real country (Denmark – I’ve been there, I can testify). Especially their song ‘Hollow Talk‘ (which just happens to be the theme song of the Danish/Swedish TV  series “Bron/Broen/The Bridge”). Let me tell you what I hear in these artists. I fully realize that I’m talking through my hat (that’s the euphemized version of the expression) about the Scandinavians. All the artists I’ve encountered from there are intelligent, refined, sophisticated, and as a group most certainly don’t need me to tell them what they’re doing. But I’m enthralled, and I want to share that, even if I don’t know what I’m talking about. What can I say in my defense? I call ‘em like I see ‘em.

Faroe Islands

Faroe Islands

I hear the geography in their music. I hear barren islands in Eivør’s music, steaming hot springs in a frigid expanse in Sigur Rós’ music, expanses of cold Atlantic shores in Choir of Young Believers. In young American and British Indie bands, even the best of them, the context I hear is a recording studio. There’s no continuum with the world outside. Here, in these Nordic sounds, I’m hearing the wind-chill factor, ice and shivering and darkness.

Borgen

Borgen

At a music festival in Sweden I once asked someone why everyone was wearing black and grey. She scoffed and said that “That’s nonsense”. I said, “Look around. There are 600 people here. They’re all wearing black and grey.” She looked around. “You’re right,” she admitted. “I had no idea.”

Could it have something to do with national wealth, abnormal security, sunlight deprivation and the evolution of social mores akin to growing a third eye, a sort of ET of the north? A whole new species of modern society growing right before our eyes in the dark crannies of the fjords eerily illuminated by Aurora Borealis?

Bron/Broen/The Bridge

Bron/Broen/The Bridge

There’s a genre of crime fiction called Nordic Noir, characterized by a harsh, unadorned style with a dark, morally complex mood. Authors include Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, and Henning Mankell (the Kurt Wallander detective series). The first I tried and didn’t get caught by, the latter is waiting on my shelf. But in the meantime, I have been pursuing my concomitant obsession, Nordic Noir mini-series.

The template is an emotionally scarred Danish/Swedish female homicide detective chasing a psychopathic serial killer, one story over a season of eight 90-minute episodes. Most of the shows I describe here deviate from that format in one way or more, but they all draw from the same somber, murky, sharply observed world. The worst of them is better than anything else around. At their weakest they’re implausible. At their best, they’re dramatically precise, visually stunning, emotionally wrenching, and so scary it hurts. On occasion they transcend scary into seriously spooky.

The Fall

The Fall

A friend of mine whose taste I admire says he won’t watch any television in which all of the characters are beautiful. These Nords are humanly complex, blemishes and foibles and all, uniformly vulnerable and riveting. Alphabetically:

  • Borgen (Denmark, remade in US)
    A back-bench MK becomes PM by fluke. We watch her in the office and at home, trying to learn and cope. Many of the secondary characters are flat. Not the greatest drama, but a tasteful look at an intriguing world.
  • Bron/Broen (Sweden/Denmark, The Bridge, remade in US)
    Everyone’s favorite, including mine. Two very fine main characters – Saga (Danish, Asperger’s) and Martin (Swedish, human) – meet over a body composed of two half corpses placed on the very borderline of the bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmö. A modern allegory: a virile heroine, a feminine hero. Rounded characters, rich circumstances, finely crafted. An utter delight for after the kids have gone to sleep.
  • Those Who Kill

    Those Who Kill

    The Eagle (Ørnen) (Sweden)
    Just getting started on this one. Stay tuned.

  • The Fall (N. Ireland)
    Best of Breed. Gillian Anderson as the cop who is almost as sick as the villain, who makes Norman Bates look like a choir boy. Reminiscent of Helen Mirren’s “Prime Suspect”, it goes way beyond scary, beyond spooky, into morally upsetting. Hitchock territory.
  • The Killing (Sweden, remade in US)
    This was the first one I encountered, unfortunately in the US version. Single mother, obsessive, neglecting her son and herself to pursue The Case. Suffers from an overly contrived plot, makes excessive demands on suspension of disbelief.
  • Top of the Lake

    Top of the Lake

    The Kingdom  (Sweden)
    Created by Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”, “Dogville”), it’s the story of a sick hospital. The building isn’t haunted, it’s diseased. Little suspense, lots of malaise.

  • Sebastian Bergman (Sweden)
    A 50-year old police consultant, damaged and scarred in every way imaginable. You don’t watch him, you accompany him, through his pain and confusion and struggles. Unfortunately, only two episodes.
  • Those Who Kill  (Denmark, remade in US)
    She’s too beautiful, her partner is misconceived and miscast. It’s not fingernail-biting – you may chew off the fingers themselves. Not for the weak of heart.
  • Wallender

    Wallander

    Top of the Lake (N. Zealand)
    Made by Jane Campion, reminiscent of her “The Piano”. Unfortunately starring Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”, “West Wing”). But the visuals of the scenery, the villain, and the commune of wacko women misfits let by guru Holly Hunter make it all worthwhile.

  • Wallander (Sweden, remade by BBC with Kenneth Branagh)
    A 50 year old everyman detective in backwater Ystad, more whodunit than most.  His daughter joins the small detective squad. She’s the scarred one here.

These series (serieses, as I like to call them) are the reason I haven’t been getting anything else done for the past half year. I’ve checked out the US versions of “The Killing” and “The Bridge”. Do yourself a favor, go for the originals – the gloomy, dark, angst-ridden, terrifying, human world of Nordic Noir.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Jeff’s posts on The Real Group

Jeff’s posts on A Cappella

Jeff’s posts on Nordic Music

 

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174: Vocal Line, ‘Don’t Give Up’

Posted by jeff on May 24, 2013 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

Vocal Line – ‘Don’t Give Up’

Jens Johansen

Here I am back on earth, still floating, not yet fighting the decompression blues, after 5 days in Denmark at the Aarhus Vocal Festival, a celebration of contemporary a cappella pop, jazz, folk and beyond. Members of this community (some call it a cult) gather mostly from Northern Europe, but as far afield as Taiwan, Brazil and San Francisco, for a fete of concerts and workshops led by world luminaries. And an incredible amount of communal love.

There’s a strong connection between singing and communality. Ask anyone who’s sung in a choir. You may not love all the members of the choir, but there’s an electric charge in joining together in an aesthetic group effort, with 10 or 20 or 200 people joining to create one voice that can reach the skies.

These Scandinavian a cappella festivals exude love. It’s a young people’s genre, mostly in their 20s, but embracing even us antiquarians. The music is fun, surprising, joyful, all over the musical map. There’s little money or media fame involved, and the stars take pride in their non-celebrity. I was at Woodstock. Believe me, there’s a lot more communal warmth (and less mud) here.

I met a guy on the train who was coming from Belgium to hear Bruce Springsteen in Denmark. They say Bruce is a really nice guy, but you’re watching him with 20,000 strangers from 3 kilometers away, with 500 armed guards in between you and him. Here, an hour after the show, you share a beer with the artist and hug him and thank him for the fine show, and he tells you how excited he was… Who de boss now?

Kate Bush urging Peter Gabriel, ‘Don’t Give Up’

Aarhus boasts the only university in the world, I believe, where one can study for an advanced degree in ‘rhythm choral direction’, i.e., this new and growing genre. You may know its American cousin from Glee and Sing-Off. I’m talking about something wholly other. The contemporary a cappella centered in Scandinavia is the paragon of purity, the quintessence of refinement. It’s an aesthetic I was first exposed to about seven years ago via The Real Group and haven’t ceased obsessing over since.

I’m often accused of being blindly biased towards Scandinavia, but there’s little fear of me converting to Nordicism. My hair is unfair, my skin isn’t pure as fallen snow, my nose doesn’t have that cute little pert upturn, my mind isn’t generous and accepting, my demeanor isn’t relaxed, my temperament isn’t tolerant. Among the Nords, I feel that much more analytical, neurotic, uptight, and judgmental. It’s my genes, my upbringing, my inborn nature, my cultural conditioning. But I do love them and their music.

Jens Johansen conducting Vocal Line

We in the west are accustomed to resonance as a fundamental vocal coloring. These Nords developed a different sound, expressed at its extreme in kulning, a sort of yodel they use to call in the cows from several valleys away. Here’s a clip from a workshop at my first festival in 2008, The Real Festival, in which Morten Kjaer pulls a group of singers in this direction. If you listen carefully, he first reflects the resonant sound the singers are making, then changes it to the more muscular version he’s seeking.

The Real Group

At first this sound may seem to us Westerners flat, metallic, loud, shouting, angry. But that’s all tempered by the Scandinavian cool, reserve, discretion, modesty. In my last SoTW, I presented an example of this anti-vibrato style as it sounds in a gentle context: The Real Group’s ‘Nature Boy’.

It was at their The Real Festival in 2008 that I first encountered Vocal Line, the 32-voice choir led by Jens Johansen. They sang a primarily pop repertoire in English, from ‘my’ songs (‘Blue’, ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, ‘Brought to My Senses’) to songs a bit newer or more Danish than what I was familiar with (‘Crucify’, ‘Audition Day’, ‘Viola’, ‘Viva La Vida’). There were also songs I should have known but didn’t, like Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, Björk‘s ‘Jóga’, and especially Peter Gabriel’s ‘Mercy Street’ and ‘Don’t Give Up’. I would later become infatuated with their treatments of ‘The Garden‘ and ‘Say Ladeo‘ from Bobby McFerrin’s “VOCAbuLarieS”, written and arranged by Roger Treece.

Jens Johansen

Their music was jarring for me – familiar but profoundly ‘other’, demanding a new sort of listening. It’s taken me years of listening, and my love for and admiration of Jens’ music continues to grow and grow. Their music is pure, unadulterated beauty. It’s what all art should aspire to, not just contemporary a cappella choirs. Not necessarily their chosen style, but their commitment and seriousness and utter respect for their materials.

I still believe the world would be a better place if Jens would arrange Brian Wilson’s undiscovered gem ‘Kiss Me, Baby’ or one of the acknowledged masterpieces from “Pet Sounds.” I won’t tell you the lengths to which I’ve gone to try to make that happen—it’s embarrassing and bordering on the lunatic. Maybe Jens will vindicate me some day.

I have never been a fan of Genesis or Peter Gabriel. I don’t dislike them, I just somehow never got familiar enough with them to cuddle up to them. But Vocal Line’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ has entranced me for years. I listened to it over. And over. And over. Reveling in the symphonic tapestry, the haunting harmonies, the subtlest of rhythmic movements.

Roger Treece and Jens Johansen–a meeting of giants

One of the many highlights of the Aarhus festival was that I had the honor to learn the song from the score and sing it under the baton of Mr Johansen himself. It’s challenging choral music, stretching me to the extremes of my limited abilities. My feeling of inadequacy was made no better by the 17-year old kid standing next to me in the choir who was handling it all flawlessly, without blinking.

Singing a choral arrangement is different from listening to it. It’s the difference between seeing pictures of Manhattan from a helicopter and walking the streets. The difference between looking at a picture of your loved one and embracing her. The difference between smelling a fragrant soup and eating it. It’s the real thing. It’s loving it from within.

Even now, I listen to Peter Gabriel’s original version of ‘Don’t Give Up’, and find it–well, okay. Kind of appealing, kind of annoying. But then I listen to and follow the score of Jens’ Vocal Line version, and I know that the utter beauty that entrances me is in his arrangement.

The verses are in the voice of a man suddenly unemployed, grappling with disillusionment and fear and the loneliness of abandonment: No fight left or so it seems/I am a man whose dreams have all deserted/I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name/But no one wants you when you lose. The chorus is the comforting Woman (sung by Kate Bush): Don’t give up/’cos you have friends/Don’t give up/You’re not beaten yet/Don’t give up/I know you can make it good.

I’d like to focus on the first phrase of the chorus, the “Don’t give up”. Here’s the original. And here’s Vocal Line’s treatment of the same phrase. Here’s what it looks like on paper, described to the best of my unprofessional ability, probably with numerous mistakes:

The word “don’t” is sung by the males in a rhythmically uneven three-step/four-note arpeggio, a rising Fm7+9 chord (in the key of E flat, i.e., IIm7+9), F>C>G+Aflat (I>V>IX+IIIm, with a strong half-step dissonance at the top). The rhythm, I believe, if we count it on 16th notes is 1/3/4. This is all followed by all the female voices singing in harmony “Don’t give up”, starting on E flat+F+A flat. Oh, hell.

If I read that paragraph, it would be utter gibberish to me, too. But I can follow the notes, sing them (with some effort). I consider myself blessed to have the ability (and the opportunity, with Jens Johansen standing in front of the choir) to look at those notes, sing them, feel the profound beauty in them, and be moved.

I apologize for any technical blunders I’ve made in my attempts to describe this singing style and the music itself. I realize I’m talking above my own head. But I won’t be denied the profound respect, admiration and affection I feel for the music, however far north it is from my native aural landscape.

Thanks, Jens.

 If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

059: The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’
071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’
063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’
Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
172: Anúna, ‘Jerusalem’
047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)

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