ECM Records, the great independent label run by Manfred Eicher, has a way of slowly expanding your mind.
If you know the label for its distinctive jazz recordings of Keith Jarrett, the early Pat Metheny records,and an unusually productive period from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, then you might have been surprised by the ECM New Series featuring contemporary classical music written by the likes of Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and John Adams. Between the super-charged fusion of John Abercrombie’s Timeless and the meditative simplicity of Aivo Part’s Estonian classic Te Deum, there seems to be a vast territory. Eicher’s incredible slight-of-hand has been his ability to make all this music seem to exist within a unified aesthetic. The “ECM sound”, clean, ethereal, haunting, and meditatively fascinating, does not explicitly attach to all ECM recordings, yet the ECM flavor remains distinctive.
With this attenuated aesthetic, Eicher seems to bring us a breadth of music we would not likely sample otherwise. A case in point is Frode Haltli’s Passing Images, a full-on investigation of Norwegian folk music using a small group containing accordion, trumpet, viola, voice, and electronics. In a nutshell, this is contemplative, beautiful music. It’s a shadow moving across your ear in barely discernable shades of grey. It will transfix some of you no less than Jarrett’s Köln Concert. For others, it may seem like art-music wallpaper. For everyone, closer listenings are likely to be repaid.
Haltli is a Norwegian accordionist who has been a part of the new music scene in Europe. “New music” is one of those phrases that doesn’t mean all that much, encompassing both wholly-composed and improvised music that fits squarely in neither the standard “classical” or “jazz” categories. Haltli has conservatory training but free-jazz appetites, it seems he has a taste for both precision and atonality. His past recordings have exploited the accordion’s textures and tones as much or more than its down-home associations.
On this recording of psalms, dances, and folk songs, Haltli remains strongly in the art-music realm. There are few compositions where the listener may imagine folk musicians playing in a town square. “The Letter”, for example, develops a swaying pulse in which the accordion and trumpet set up a lilting bounce for the viola’s statement of melody. The trumpet playing of Arve Henricksen is like butter here and throughout, largely devoid of harsh brass textures and seemingly liquid in how it blends with the group. Indeed, part of what makes this recording so striking throughout is how seamlessly the band members make a single, undifferentiated sound. “The Letter” sounds most conventional, in part, because the instruments are more clearly delineated.
“Vandring” is more distinctive, beginning with a three-minute accordion solo that is a series of color washes and chordal figures punctuated by period of near silence. Then the rest of the group enters, taking up a fractured oom-pah feeling in 3/4, almost like a band led by Tom Waits in his primitivist/junkshop mode. Vocalist Maja Solveig Ratkje gets in a variety of wordless yipes and squeals, and Hendriksen plays his brassiest line. The band generates interesting, semi-raucous heat.
More emblematic of the whole effort is the title track, Passing Images, where the strings and brass seem indistinguishable from the voice and electronics, all of which rumble and generate impressive overtones. For much of its length, this record is extremely quiet and requires a good twist of your volume knob. When these tracks are given a chance at your ears, they are dramatic symphonies of sound. They are more like abstract paintings, in a sense, but existing in dramatic time, colors and forms building on each other.
The last track, “Vals”, is conventionally beautiful. The low accordion pushes forward the liquid sound of the trumpet in a surging melody that could almost be on one of those ECM Pat Metheny records. The voice enters in soprano and lifts the whole enterprise toward a chilly Norwegian ridgeline.
Frode Haltli has created something unique and distant, gorgeous and difficult. Cock your ear. It will take you somewhere new.