It was soprano Anne-Lise Bernstein who first talked Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim into setting the poems of Jelaluddin Rumi to song, and it was soprano Tora Augestad who talked him into finishing the endeavor. It’s a daunting project, to say the least. On Rumi Songs, Seim admits that it took him the better part of two years just to finish one of the ten compositions. The poetry itself dates back to the 13th century, and the translations from Farsi to English, courtesy of the scholars Coleman Barks and Kabir Helminski, leave a little too much room for interpretive guesswork. Lastly, what kind of musical style do these poems warrant for their adaptation? What’s a Nordic jazz musician to do with such an undertaking?
Seim makes an inspired move by recruiting accordionist Frode Haltli and cellist Svante Henryson to provide the foundation for the sound and to fill the empty spaces that Seim’s saxophones and Augestad’s soprano cannot. This rather unusual quartet works together to stir up a slow, rubato-strapped approach to chamber music equipped with Middle Eastern flourishes and a handful of laid-back, solitary jazz licks. Haltli and Henryson are the best parts of the ensemble, providing Seim and Augestad with all the swirling sky they could possibly need through which they can glide comfortably.
How they choose to glide is another matter entirely—one that can be a determining factor in whether or not you will enjoy Rumi Songs. Seim, for his part, has to solo over eggshells. This ensemble almost seems too delicate for a saxophone, but he pulls the whole thing off thanks to his smooth tone and utilization of non-Western musical modes. When it comes to Augestad, there are few good ways for her to assimilate herself into the picture. For one thing, the fact that these poems have been translated into English accidentally comes across as a gimmicky reminder that you’re listening to something “different,” in an exhibitional sense. That’s too bad, since Seim describes the verses as “very human” and “beyond religion, countries, race.” But as Augestad sings “I gave up my soul, my heart, and my eyes,” and “Don’t go back to sleep,” something feels out of place, as if the poetry wrote majestic checks that her rote voice couldn’t cash. The timeless quality that the text may have held at one point withers away under the bright rays of “new music” trends.
Unfortunately, Rumi Songs shines when the poetry isn’t being sung. Haltli’s extended conclusion to “Seeing Double” and the instrumental “Whirling Rhythms” offer the listener far more substance in which to lose themselves. As an entire package, returning to the album too many times can increase one’s sense of confusion. The little band that Seim assembled for Rumi Songs feels like more of a work in progress than a definitive stamp, and hopefully he’ll treat it as such.
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