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Daniel HERSKEDAL – The Roc – Edition

Daniel HERSKEDAL, tuba & bass trumpet – The Roc – Edition 1084, 48:12 (2/27/17) *****:

(Daniel Herskedal – tuba and bass trumpet / Bergmund Waal Skaslien; viola/ Svante Henryson – cello and octobass/ Eyolf Dale – piano/ Helge Andreas Norbakken – percussion)

Unprecedented musical journey with odd ensemble of Norwegian musicians led by tuba virtuoso Daniel Herskedal.

If you wish to construct a fresh ensemble sound, start with subtraction. Permit neither saxophone nor drum-kit, and then do away with the guitars. Once done, you might end up with something like this band, composed of cello and bass trumpet/tuba, percussion and viola, its only concession to jazz conventions, the piano. It is an unusual ensemble. In a further confounding of one’s expectations, this group of Norwegian musicians embarks on a musical journey to the Middle East under the direction of tuba player/composer Daniel Herskedal. The title “The Roc” refers to a mythological bird which shows up in the folklore of Iran and Arabia. Marco Polo, a naturalist of a fanciful cast of mind added it to his bird life-list with a helpful description.

“It was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size; so big in fact that its quills were twelve paces long and thick in proportion. And it is so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having so killed him, the bird swoops down on him and eats him at leisure.”

The bird is less extravagant in The 1001 Nights and the 12th-century Persian classic, Conference of the Birds (a tale of numerous musical evocations). In the CD under review, the Roc of the title shows up on the second track, a piece which conveys a dream-like image, the opposite of a threat.  Instead, we are invited into a place of luminous kindness. The tuba-piano unisons are strikingly original. Herskedal growls, bends notes, deftly flutters and navigates this most cumbersome instrument with assurance. Meanwhile, the rhythm weaves and dances busily but without clutter or striving for effect.

The pianist serves to orient us within the recording. Eyolf Dale is an Oslo-based composer and pianist who collaborated on Herskedal’s critically acclaimed East-Bound Train. He subsequently recorded the acclaimed Wolf Valley with an octet (reviewed previously on this site) that has many affinities to the recording here under review; ensemble cohesiveness and interplay with not much soloing, melodies that breathe, and an air of patience and introspection that never sinks into gloom. Here too, each instrument achieves an individuality without assertion or virtuosic display. The conventional long solo over the form is mostly absent.

Each tune is model of concision, and each solo shapes a mood or evokes a scene. This is the secret to the music’s personableness and emotional potency. The melodies are well-crafted and the arrangements make the most of the sonic palate of the double strings and low brass. Special commendation should be paid to the percussionist, who has comprehended the entire repertoire of middle eastern drumming. However, the real magic takes place not at the low end with the powerful tuba sound, nor at the top with the keening plangency of the viola, but in the middle range with the seamless unisons and rhythmic accents shared between the piano, strings and percussion.

One song stands out as one of the most ravishing things I have heard in months: The penultimate “The Kroderen Line.” It begins with a lyrical melody, which broadens into a dialog with strings. It evokes a special mood of patience and curiosity and then touches on the deepest feeling of sadness only to rise up again into musical affirmation of belonging. Much of this depends on the micro-shifts and communication between members of the band. It also features a dazzling solo by Eyolf Dale.

Given the leader’s reputed tuba virtuosity, I expected this CD to feature some genre-bending tuba extravagance, but it does not. If the tuba (and bass trumpet) sound is distinct, (at times it approximates the eery sound of the valveless serpent), it is no more so than that of the excitable viola.  The much alluded to sense of travel is reflected in the titles such as “Hijaz Train Station,” “Thurraya Railways,” “Love Smoke,” and “A Man Riding on a Camel, Kurd, Bayat, Nahawand.”  It is also felt throughout in a gentle but propulsive forward motion through exotic landscapes.

At just 48 minutes, the end produces exhilaration but also a sense of wanting, much, much more. In fact, I immediately listened to the whole thing again, with an even deeper appreciation of its expressive and formal perfection, even as labels such as “jazz” and “improvised music” and “Middle Eastern Music” faded away.  It became melody, pure and simple. Much gratitude to the composer and leader, as well as to Eyolf Dale for artistic wisdom, and to the others for making this my first nomination (so far) for Best of 2017.

TrackList: The Seeds of Language; The Roc; Eternal Sunshine Creates a Desert; Kurd, Bayat, Nahawand to Kurd; Hijaz Train Station; Thurayya Railways; The Afrit; There Are Three Things You Cannot Hide; THe Kroderen Line; All That Has Happened, Happened As Fate Willed It.

—Fritz Balwit

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