Thursday, June 24, 2021

Live in Telemark

I'm not sure why this genial live recording stayed on ice for twenty-seven years — maybe the timing just wasn't right until now — but here it is. Live in Telemark preserves a joint performance by two respected folk veterans in Norway in 1994. Andy Irvine is presumably the better-known of the pair internationally, having been a founding member of Sweeney's Men, Planxty, and several other notable Irish and world music ensembles in addition to his long solo career. Lillebjørn Nilsen is a comparable figure but one who performs mostly in the smaller market of his native Norway. Both are superb singers and accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and both have strong roots in folk traditions, Irvine as (among other things) a professed disciple of Woody Guthrie and Nilsen as a friend and admirer of Pete Seeger.

According to the liner notes, Irvine and Nilsen had known each other for about seventeen years before they finally had a chance to share a stage at the Telemark Festival. The set list here is roughly evenly divided between their respective repertoires, with Andy taking the spotlight for original songs like "My Heart's Tonight in Ireland" and "A Prince Among Men" and Lillebjørn contributing his own "Jenta i Chicago" and "Alexander Kiellands Plass." There are also several traditional songs as well as curiosities like a Norwegian version of Grit Larsen's "The Photographers," which Nilsen learned, in its original language from Seeger. A few of the cuts seem to be performed solo, but on most the pair play together, demonstrating a ready ability to learn each other's arrangements after what was presumably a relatively short period of rehearsal. Irvine mostly plays mandola and bouzouki while Nilsen plays guitar, willow flute, and hardanger fiddle. The sound is terrific.

Live in Telemark can be ordered, in digital and CD versions, from Bandcamp.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Uneasy (Vijay Iyer)

Jazz criticism is well outside my area of competence, nor have I made any effort to keep abreast of contemporary developments in the genre, but it would be ungrateful not to make at least a brief note of this record, since I've hardly listened to anything else for the last month or so. Uneasy is a collaboration between the pianist Vijay Iyer, the drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and the bassist Linda May Han Oh; it was released on April 9th by ECM. According to a press release,
In the course of this endeavour, the political and social turbulences dominating today’s American landscape are reflected in musical contemplation and tense space. In his liner notes, Vijay elaborates on how today “the word ‘uneasy’ feels like a brutal understatement, too mild for cataclysmic times. But maybe, since the word contains its own opposite, it reminds us that the most soothing, healing music is often born of and situated within profound unrest; and conversely, the most turbulent music may contain stillness, coolness, even wisdom.”
It's a reasonable question how one decides that any instrumental music project, unless it's bluntly programmatic (which Uneasy is not) "reflects" a political and social landscape and conveys those reflections to the listener, and conceivably someone coming to this record without glancing at the liner notes might not detect the presence of any of that at all, but no doubt the reverberations mostly operate on an emotional level, which is appropriate given that music has never been particularly suited to promoting and defending a "thesis." On the other hand, the inventiveness and musical intelligence of the three players here is immediately evident, and the presence of those qualities is itself a welcome response to the state of contemporary culture and public life.

Uneasy hooked me from the first cut ("Children of Flint"), but repeated listens bring out layers and nuances that may be overlooked initially. (And reveal a few likely musical quotes, including to "Salt Peanuts," "I Got Rhythm," and possibly Miles Davis's investigations of Spanish music in the 1950s.) The Geri Allen composition "Drummers Song" put me off at first (at one point the same insistent figure is repeated twenty times or so), but now it may be the one piece that I turn to first. Throughout the album the textures shift and merge, and the music never sounds facile or hackneyed. It doesn't do to be too easy.

Samples from Uneasy can be heard at Iyer's website.