Linus + Økland & Van Heertum & Zach: Mono No Aware
Aspen Edities

Ruben Machtelinckx / Frederik Leroux: When the Shade is Stretched
Aspen Edities

Nils Økland Band: Lysning

Nils Økland's played on many recordings, including two of the three reviewed here, but Lysning (in English, a clearing or forest glade) strikes me as a particularly fine example of his special artistry. Not only does the release place his beautiful Hardanger fiddle playing at the forefront, it's also compositionally strong, its folk-driven settings providing ideal forums for the instrument to work its customary magic.

To be precise, the fifty-six-year-old not only plays three different Hardanger fiddles on five of the album's nine tracks, he plays an old violin on two plus viola d'amore, popular during the baroque period, on the remainder. It's important to stress, however, that Lysning is credited to the Nils Økland Band, and as such the contributions of Økland's partners are integral. On the forty-four-minute release, he's joined by the same personnel that appeared on 2014's Kjølvatn: Rolf-Erik Nystrom (alto and baritone saxophones), Sigbjørn Apeland (harmonium), Hakon Mørch Stene (percussion, vibes), and Mats Eilertsen (double bass). All but two pieces were recorded at Hoff Church, Østre Toten, a stone church setting whose reverberant space does much to amplify the music's resonance.

Accompanied by the purr of Apeland's harmonium and the breathy whisper of Nystrom's reeds, the plaintive folk-tinged cry of Økland's playing in the supplicating meditation “Drøm” sets the bar high at the outset. Equally powerful, the meditative drone “Blåmyr” unfolds like a requiem, especially when the group grants its hymnal themes the breathing time required to make their strongest impact; here we're also reminded of the calibre of musicianship Økland's guests bring to the recording, with bowed bass and baritone sax adding memorable unison lines to the performance. Not everything's so melancholy: spirited by comparison, “Flukt” carves a sinuous path with Nystrom adding mystery and Stene and the ever-reliable Eilertsen lending the material animation.

Yet as critical as all five musicians are to Lysning (consider, for example, the marvelous group interplay in “Skumring”), it's Økland's playing, conveying humanity so redolently in its vocal-like expression, that most accounts for the recording's strong impression, and as compelling as all nine pieces are, it's the title track that towers over the rest, thanks to lyrical folk melodies so drenched in longing they could break your heart in a single pass. “I never heard a sweeter instrument or more surprising,” wrote the English diarist John Evelyn in 1679 of the viola d'amore, words that could just as credibly be applied to Økland's playing in general.

He also appears on Linus's latest outing, Mono No Aware, though it's not the first time he's performed with group members Ruben Machtelinckx (guitar, baritone guitar, banjo) and Thomas Jillings (saxophones, alto clarinet). 2016 saw the Hardanger fiddler and Niels Van Heertum (euphonium, trumpet) join the duo for Felt Like Old Folk, and now the four are augmented by percussionist Ingar Zach on Linus's fourth album. Though Økland's plaintive voice is the first sound heard, he doesn't, naturally, dominate in this context as on his own release; instead, Mono No Aware's performances are democratically shared by all concerned. That said, Jillings' opener, the gorgeous “Islander,” would sound equally at home on Lysning as it does here—even with Machtelinckx's guitar present to brand it a Linus production.

Though songlike structures are present, a rather loose and open-ended feel permeates the recording, with the musicians giving themselves over to wherever their interactions take them (tellingly, four of the nine pieces are improvs). Eschewing conventional soloing, Machtelinckx often adopts a supportive role in grounding the pieces with guitar and banjo patterns, while Zach's colourful contributions provide a stable foundation for the others' explorations.

A battery of sounds comes together during the free-flowing “Truth,” including rustic fiddle, trumpet, and percussive noises, some of the latter (a loudly ringing bell, for example) a tad too intrusive, and an insistent march-like rhythm (the hammering pulse vaguely reminiscent of Michael Nyman's “Memorial”) lends “Snakes and Ladders” a somewhat stately quality, even if its formality is alleviated by the percussionist's interventions. As interesting as such pieces are, Mono No Aware is at its best when a strong melodic theme is available for the musicians to latch onto. In addition to “Islander,” for instance, the gentle melodies voiced in unison by Jillings and Økland throughout Machtelinckx's “Dewy” make it an album standout, especially when it includes a delicately rendered solo turn by the saxophonist.

If as a player Machtelinckx embraces a restrained ensemble role on Mono No Aware, he positions himself front and center on another new Aspen Edities release, this one a thirteen-track split affair featuring banjo playing by him and Frederik Leroux. While it's Machtelinckx's first recording as a solo performer, it's Leroux's second, his first arriving four years earlier under the title Banjo. With each separately contributing twenty minutes to the release, When the Shade is Stretched makes for an interesting case study in contrast. It also should be noted that while banjo's the dominant instrument, both players supplement it with other sounds: Machtelinckx is also credited with guitars, vibration speaker, and objects, whereas Leroux's banjo is augmented by tape delay, voice, recorder, bird whistle, harmonium, percussion, piano, and synthesizer.

Both players distance the banjo from its long-established country associations by situating it within experimental settings rich in atmosphere and texture. A lively banjo pattern runs through Machtelinckx's “Turdus,” for example, but the clarity of its picking is offset by the slow-motion guitar and fuzzy ambient details that gather alongside it. Delivered at a relaxed tempo, “One Morning, Ten Years Later” exudes a peaceful quality, with banjo patterns again accompanied by real-world noises that enhance the music's intimate feel, whereas classical-styled fingerpicking imbues “Mirror Men” with a floating, dream-like quality until the tempo slows and the material grows ever more meditative. Best of all perhaps is the subtly blues-tinged “Spuds,” whose impact is elevated by memorable melodic lines. To a large degree, Machtelinckx's half accentuates spacious, open-air settings conducive to reflection and relaxation.

Speaking of blues, Leroux frames his set with two slide-drenched salvos, “Dawn” and “Dusk,” that immediately put distance between the two musicians. With “The Faerie Queen,” Leroux offers up his own dream-like reverie, this one sprinkled with whistling, recorder, and other evocative sounds, and showcases his picking skills during the freewheeling “Woman on a Rocking Horse.” Two pieces in particular are extensively developed, “Arum Lily” a breezy banjo-driven escapade that guides the listener through locales infested with twittering birds, and “I Lock My Door Upon Myself,” an explorative exercise in rambunctious dazzle that sees fluttering banjos grow increasingly agitated as the track's eight intense minutes unfold. More than anything else, When the Shade is Stretched convincingly shows that the banjo's world doesn't begin and end with Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck.

January 2018