A stunningly original musical concept featuring string quartet, reeds and accordion trio playing original charts live in Norwegian cafe.
Jovan PAVLOVIC trio – Refleks – Øra Fonogram, 54:48 (3/3/17) *****:
(Jovan Pavlovic; accordion/ Gjermund Silset; double bass/ Helge Andreas Norbakken; drums/ Oyvind Nussle, Tor Johan Boen; violins/ Lazar Miletic; viola/ Hans Urban Andersson; cello/ Ole Kristoffersen; clarinet/ Jasmina Zivic; flute; Andre Roligheten; clarinet and bass clarinet/ James Lassen; bassoon)
It is an agreeable experience to walk into a cafe or restaurant and hear the cheerful tones of the accordion on the small stage at the back. All the better if the musician is accompanied by that ideal companion, the acoustic bass and a suitably-equipped percussionist. One’s appreciation is duly enhanced when the inevitable clarinet player or violinist joins the trio. However, would you not be surprised if, following the guest clarinetist, there strayed in a string quartet that squeezed in behind the percussionist. And would it not be like something out of Dr. Seuss if there followed a bassoonist, a woman with a flute, and a man with a bass clarinet and saxophone? Is this just another gregarious jam session? No, it is not. All carry music stands and busily set out serious looking scores. Expectations are immediately altered. Food and drinks are pushed aside and even the servers step quietly back into the shadows as the ensemble, MiNensemble as they call themselves, tunes up.
The record at hand is a good example of a recording that might have a hard time finding a category. I have decided to put it into jazz at the risk of misleading my readers, for it belongs to an age-old folk tradition in some ways and owes just as much to classical music in terms of its sophistication and compositional depth. It displays experimental moments and unselfconscious folk dance riffs. However, the rhythmic interactions and a handful of jazzy solos decided the matter in the end. The leader and composer of all but one piece, Jovan Pavlovic, has a name that suggests Balkan roots. I expected something emerging from that region’s idiom, perhaps drenched in Bosnian Sevdalinka-style emotionalism. However, there is little of that, perhaps a gypsy/klezmer reference or two and a Serbian dance feel on a single track. Mostly, the compositions and playing are polyglot pan-European folk attached to formal compositional designs that borrow freely from jazz and classical music.
The first track, Homebound, begins with audience applause that tells us that this improbable ensemble is performing live in a not-too-large venue. We begin with a string quartet that introduces a tentative subject which gathers assurance from the entrance of a beautifully-captured percussion kit. The time signature is odd but the ensemble swings easily into the melody, picked up and elaborated by Mr. Pavlovic. Affable exchanges between bass and accordion establish a feeling of charm and shared delight. While the percussionist plays light but tremendously intricate figures, the accordionist shows his superb feeling for melodic line and lyrical invention. It is an altogether compelling introduction to a unique group.
The second track, Another Place, rolls out at the about the same medium tempo. It asks more from the strings. There are lots of tricky entrances and ensemble passages. One imagines the leader conducting with his eyebrows. The first distinctly jazzy voice is the entrance of a saxophone (oddly, none receives credit in the liner notes) smoky and languid. The accordion follows, with the backing of string quartet, bass and highly melodic commentary of the drums.
Mashke showcases percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken’s agility and resourcefulness. We last met him on these pages as significant contributor to a five-star recording by Daniel Herskedal The Roc. Here, he must balance out the heavy textures of strings and reeds with his percussive accents and diverse sound palette. The title track, Refleks, unfolds with patience. A most intriguing and softly played theme by Jovan slides into a melodic groove supported by the strings. There is a break with suspenseful interactions, a hypnotic accordion solo. Then, out of the blue, a bassoon enters like something out of Peter and the Wolf, with well aimed chortles that elevate the affair to hilarity. A rousing chorus must have brought the audience out their seats.
Revival follows and is no less effective. The accordion works the lower register of his instrument with denser harmonic argument. We now expect the group to find their way into happy, dancing melodies, and they do. This might become cloying were it not for the many sudden shifts involving a contemplative duet between bass clarinet, the uncredited tenor saxophone, and what sounds like a ney. Ensemble and rhythmic ideas propel things forward.
There is no way the performance can sustain the heights of the middle two tracks, which taken together are the best I have heard of any accordion ensemble. But Variations and Ah Ya Bibi continue with zest. The first is a brisk whirlwind. The tightness of the ensemble suggests massive rehearsal time. The technical reach and dazzle of the leader reminds me of an unjustly neglected Scandinavian giant, Bengt Hallberg, the Swedish pianist who also played accordion with authority. One can only imagine that these Norwegian players grew up with Swedish greats like Hallberg playing in the background
Ah Ya Bibi is a comical take on a middle-eastern groove. Again it is saved from schtick by the surprising entry of the bassoonist, James Lassen, who converses with the bassist, Gjermund Silset, a huge presence in the ensemble. The boisterous chorus swirls upward to arm-waving euphoria, and the crowd at Gilles cafe shows due appreciation.
This is a rare recording and musical achievement. I listened to it three times with growing astonishment and delight and will return to it often. Downloads are available through Amazon, while the CD must be ordered from Norwegian label, Ora Fonogram.
TrackList: Homebound; Another Place; Mashke; Refleks; Revival; Variations; Ah Ya Bibi