Bjarte EIKE & Barokksolistene – The Alehouse Sessions – Rubicon 1017, 54:03 (6/23/17) *****:
A playful tribute to the engaging world of 17th-century English tavern music infused with jazz and folk music elements.
(Bjarte Eike; violin / Frederik Bock; guitar, charango / Hans Knut Sveen; harpsichord, harmonium / Helge Andreas Norbakken; percussion / Johannes Lundberg; bass / Milos Valent; violin, viola / Per T. Buhre; viola / Steven Player; guitar / Thomas Guthrie; voice & violin)
If you were to repurpose your ploughshare into a sword, there would be some point in the hammering and smithing process when it would be hard to say whether the piece of metal was a tool or a weapon.
So it is with the Alehouse Sessions. This recording hits you from so many angles that it is hard to say exactly what it is. On the cover, we first encounter a smiling Bjarte Eike leading his Barokksolistene, an ensemble behind him bristling with fiddles. We might expect a Nordic romp through Vivaldi or Iberian Renaissance music; something in the vein of Rolf Lislevand’s ECM recordings of years back. But what we get is something unexpected; in the end, we can flip a coin to decide whether it belongs in folk or classical, since sea shanties is not an option.
The alehouse reference is the first puzzle, and its explanation is given in the liner notes by the leader of the ensemble, Bjarte Eike:
The last couple of years, I have been interested in a certain period of time in London…when professional musicians roamed the streets without a venue to play their music–because all theatres were closed and making money by performing music was prohibited. I picture these grey-cloaked figures how they hide their instruments to protect them from the rain and wind–but also to avoid confrontations with the authorities–and then move to the town’s taverns or alehouses to meet friends, drink, and most of all to play and sing music. These gatherings of professional musicians became so popular that some of these places turned into the so-called ‘musick houses’…the first public concert halls in the history of western music…places overflowing with music, alcohol, gossip, fights, fumes, shouting, singing laughing, dancing…not unlike our live versions of ‘The Alehouse Sessions.’
With the concert hall in ill health as a venue, the point is to get the music out into a public space and enlarge its audience. This ensemble regularly gives performances marked by lively audience interactions, theatrical nonsense, and foot-stomping rollicking good fun. There are excellent video clips readily available in the cyberworld that demonstrate just how entertaining and colorful the group can be. But how well does their Spiel work as a recorded document?
The first track, Wallom Green, balances lively Baroque-inspired string ensemble passages with a snappy rhythmic drive abetted by Renaissance guitar and charango. There is a finely done pianissimo and a big gusty chorus, which should have everybody in the ale-house dancing merrily by the end. Without pause, Curtain Tune kicks off with a deeper groove and simpler, but sharp-edged syncopations from the strings. The percussion work of Helge Andreas Norbakken, a versatile musician who has appeared on a wide range of excellent recordings mentioned in these pages, stands out here as elsewhere.
The third track, Lead Me, features a singer, Thomas Guthrie, wailing away with comical but perfectly achieved theatrical effect on an “Italian Rant” from the 17th century English Dancing Master (Playford). The tune sounds very much like Purcell, but filtered through an inebriated late-night jazz vibe. A viola solo follows the lugubrious quatrain, sounding like the medieval rebec. Improvised laments arise in a Klezmer-tinged coda. The group shows that they could easily master this Purcellian world in every detail if they didn’t prefer their own brand of satirical pastiche. Nothing quite like it appears again on the recording.
The real genius of this group emerges on the fourth track. We are about ready for a break from the fiddling, but nothing has prepared us for the coming quirky sea shanty. The lyrics include the typical calls aimed at synchronizing the hard labor on board — “Haul Away Joe, haul away Jimmy” — but references to King Charlie losing his head which “spoilt his constitution” invoke the merriment and irreverence of a crew of Jack Tars. The whole group chimes in with boisterous commentary, grunts and hollers of all sorts. In the middle, the bassist, perhaps having refilled his glass in the first half of the song, asserts a mighty line that pushes the business in the direction of a Tom Waits-does-Sea-Shanty Schtick. In fact, bassist Johannes Lundberg is a forceful presence throughout this recording. The liner notes state only that he is a “member of several jazz groups” and that he is a “semi-feminist, part-time vegetarian and runs half-marathons.” In disbelief at the originality of the tune and the off-handed way the group makes a silken purse out of a sow’s ear of the ditty, I had to listen to this song four times in a single day.
I really wanted less fiddling and more colorful vocal performances after this, but things unfolded otherwise. The ensuing number, Hole in the Wall, features an uninspired sequence of repeated chords with the violins flogging a generic fiddle melody. Perhaps in concert this sort of folk tune can be enlivened by improvisatory antics, but on disc it is too much by half and fails–though only by the super-high standards of the previous pieces.
The Virgin Queen set is a blazing traditional fiddle dance set over a superb rhythmic groove. The drumming of Norbakken is everything here, keeping the heavy beats afloat. The bassist has a huge sound and nimble chops on a Dave Holland sound-alike ostinato. Although derived from The English Dancing Master, this arrangement is a novel achievement that eludes category. It is worth noting that this sort of genre-bending approach to traditional music idioms, infused with but not overdetermined by jazz idiom, is now advanced most boldly by Scandinavians. Most of these time travellers to the 17th-century English tavern are Norwegians. Those wanting to sample more of this sort of music should check out another English label, Edition, which has outstanding Nordic/English collaborations, some reviewed in these pages. (Daniel Herskedal, Jason Hoiby, Eyolf Dale, e.g.) An especially innovative Norwegian label, Ora Fonogram, also hosts hybrid improvisatory music.
Pass around the Grog is another sea shanty traditionally arranged by Thomas Gunthrie, who, it is mentioned in the liner notes, “enjoys running barefoot for charity.” It is predictably frothy and bonhomous. Everybody joins in, with the fiddles set aside once again. More Norbakken/ Lundberg groove sets up Bjarte Eike, a remarkable violinist, on a medley of Scottish and Norwegian tunes. This is a serious and perfectly rendered evocation of folk melody and ensemble integrity.
After a moody English ballad from the 19th century, I Drew my Ship, we get Turlough O’Carolan’s (1670-1738) Carolan’s Cup. Eike is meltingly affecting on the fiddle. The ensemble narrowly avoids adding too much sweetener, a harpsichord replacing the traditional harp to disadvantage.
After so much beauty, we are almost grateful for a throwaway folk dance with the redundant fiddles pounding out the measures without surprises. For those who like showy fiddle breaks of the bluegrass sort, there is much to admire. Indeed, this could as easily be Kentucky as Canada.
In short, this is a brilliant outing by a super-talented group. By the time they say their farewell on the final sea shanty (this one surprisingly straight and a bit too long), in the voices of sailors sadly leaving their ship for the mixed blessing of shore life, we feel deeply appreciative of a life that includes chance encounters like this. I can easily imagine this group enlarging and refining their repertoire, but this recording is already something not to be missed.
Haul Away Joe
Hole in the Wall
Pass Around the Grog
I Drew my Ship
Leave Her Johnny