Daniel HERSKEDAL: Voyage – Edition Records 1124 – (3/15/19) – *****:
(Daniel Herskedal: tuba and bass trumpet, Bergmund Waal Skaslien; viola, Eyolf Dale; piano, Helge Andreas Norbakken; percussion, Maher Mahmoud; oud on 3 & 9)
Daniel Herskedal’s new release, Voyage, follows a recording that was this critic’s nomination for best Jazz record of 2017, The Roc [see review here] . Expectations were high, to put it mildly, especially inasmuch as it seemed to be thematically connected. The Roc was, after all, a voyage in every sense of the word. References to place abound as well as a musical depiction of displacements, long horizons, foreign accents, and the grave wisdom that a trip yields when one comes to a belated understanding of how little the world needs you and how far away from home you are.
That record ended with two of the most moving musical experiences in my recent years of listening: the brooding and emotionally potent Kroderen Line and the pulseless knell, All That Has Happened Has Happened as Fate Willed. One would have thought that the voyagers might have seen enough of the world, but no, off we go again on Voyaging, starting with a seascape cover that suggests new horizons, challenges, and rewards.
The unique ensemble featured on The Roc returns with one modification. The cello of Svante Henryson has been left behind. Thus we have Eyolf Dale on piano, the lithe and always surprising Helge Andreas Norbakken on percussion, violist Bergmund Waal Skaslien, and two appearances by Maher Mahmoud, who might have been more stylistically suited to Middle Eastern recordings. Herskedal leads from the tuba; indeed, his instrument asserts much more on this record, displaying technical mastery on breathtaking upper range soloing as well as his famous growling and lugubrious whale-moans. Several tracks feature over-dubbing, including a three part anthem for solo tuba, which concludes the session.
While the ensemble concept is rewarding by itself, what makes these Herskedal records so compelling are the compositions. These are truly great tunes, each a little narrative with A and B sections. Voices combine without losing individuality. The pianist Eyolf Dale is the most rooted in a recognizable idiom of European Jazz. Where linear expostulation is asked for, he delivers. He can be unabashedly lyrical as in Cut and Run, but is often a hovering presence offering texture and accent. He never overburdens the charts with too much harmony, although he is a proven virtuoso on his instrument as well as a composer in his own right. He often acts as the foil to the two other instruments.
Bergmund Skaslien’s viola, however, has little precedent in small ensemble jazz. It is his sound even more than Herskedal’s, that was the essential tone of the earlier masterpiece. The same keening edge finds its place in this session. If the timbre of his playing is rooted in Norwegian folk music, it has branched out to incorporate other styles; the melancholy of the duduk, the sharpness of rabab or middle eastern fiddle, even the asperity of Renaissance lyra viol. But it is when the tuba and viola combine, as they do on so many monophonic unison passages, that we hear an entirely new texture in music.
If in the Roc we were transported on a caravan through a mythological Middle East, on Voyage the traffic is in the reverse direction, a very much modern day experience is in the offing. Titles such as The Mediterranean Passage in the Age of the Refugees, Rescue at Sea Operations, the Lighthouse,and The Gulls are Tossed Paper in the Wind are evocative of human drama played out against forces of upheaval and experiences of desperation. The music perhaps is the ship that is conspicuously absent from the grim and heavy seascape on the cover. Is it a reach to say that the beauty of Herskedal’s music is an affirmation of humanness, of simultaneously expressive of pain and longing, going under and barely staying afloat, reaching a destination and giving/receiving kindness? It is a world that we all live in, but its true features can sometimes only be discerned aesthetically, through a form such as music that goes beyond words.
One of finest tracks on this very fine record is the lead-off Batten Down the Hatches, which features gale winds and heavy rhythmic machinery. The tuba is vehemently virtuosic, holding down a rhythmic groove while its overdubbed doppelganger wails heartily in sync with the viola. It is the track which sounds the most like The Roc. Notable is the crisp percussion work of Norbakken, a real master of tone and dynamics.
Next Mediterranean Passage features an affecting oud melody played against first a strumming of viola and than a dark and deep tuba undercurrent. The chorus rises to a furious sense of pleading, the pairing of viola and oud has the final say, offering some sort of consolation if no resolution or sense of an ending.
Great Race, Padua vs Passat is pure genius as well. Midway there is a tuba solo for the ages. The whales of the world, which have plenty to complain about, have found their representative in Herskedal’s tuba, sounding like a grumbling from the watery depths. It then rises buoyantly— the whale can fly! —to break all existing records for stratospheric playing and embouchure contortionism.
After a stately but eventually overemphatic and oppressive Chatham Dockyards, we have the Horizon. Things don’t look so bad to our gaze: major chords, hopeful burbling from the percussion kit, and bird song from the viola. It scarcely matters that the tune takes along time coming into view as the air is so fresh and redolent of good things. The tuba solo again will be humbling for aspirants to the technical mastery of that instrument.
The Gulls are Tossed Paper is a staccato and punching groove that catches that gets top marks for originality, a tricky time signature, and above all, the inimitable sound of the viola in combination with the rhythm sections clatter and thrum.
Molly Hunt’s Seagulls is a simple folk-tune, with the instruments following the tuba in an dance-like arrangement. Rescue-at-Sea Operations brings back the oud. The fretless lute flutters over the maqam to the patter of the kit. Eyolf Dale’s piano and an effusive tuba push the song upward and outward to an abrupt ending.
The finale Lighthouse is my nomination for a Universal Tuba anthem. It is a hymn in three parts. Its upward steps suggest ascension. The upper range howling and the gracious middle range polyphony enjoin stillness. It is hard to say whether we are approaching the lighthouse, ascending the steps to relieve the keeper or watching this most human of artifacts subside in the waves, a victim of time or some other catastrophe.
To avoid charges of redundancy—or favoritism—I will not nominate this the best jazz record of 2019. At least not yet. Still, a not-be-missed record by a supreme artist and worthy confreres.