Monday, October 08, 2007


By Sinikka Langeland
ECM 1996

Vocalists often get short shrift in jazz, but they have one advantage over instrumentalists—they can communicate a message directly to their audience through the emotional or sentimental qualities of their lyrics. Of course that presupposes listeners understand the vocalist’s language. When this is not the case, the singer’s vocal artistry stands alone, for good or ill. Most likely few American listeners will understand the Norwegian poetry of Hans Børli as interpreted by Finnish Norwegian Sinikka Langeland on Starflowers, but they will easily comprehend the austere, sometimes mystical vibe.

Both native to Finnskogen, the ethnically Finnish South-Eastern forested region of Norway, Langeland has a longstanding affinity for Børli’s poems. They speak of the mysteries of nature, and at least imply a rejection of commercialism. Of the thirteen tracks, the ten vocals each adapt Børli poems, with the balance being instrumentals, all featuring Langeland as a vocalist and an instrumentalist on the zither-like 39-string Finnish Kantele.

“Høstnatt på Fjellskogen,” translated “Autumn Night in the Mountain Woods” sets the tone with Langeland’s relxed kantele and Børli’s atmospheric poetry:

“A dark humming of
subsiding wind
across each moor,
softly swinging sprigs of pine.”

“Den lille fløyten” (The Little Flute), which “makes lonely music in the darkness by the backdoor,” showcases the finely tuned interplay between trumpeter Arve Henriksen and Trygve Seim on tenor. Starflowers has a freshly textured sound thanks to their effective unison lines and the relatively exotic sound of Langeland’s kantele and the tasteful support of bassist Anders Jormin and percussionist Markku Ounaskari.

Although Langeland approaches the material from a traditional folk background, she has her jazz influences (the strongest being Jan Garbarek), and Seim and Henriksen have appeared on many jazz sessions for ECM in the past. That jazz feeling comes through on “Treet som vekser opp-ned” (The Tree That Grows Upside Down), coming close to a traditional swing feeling through Ounaskari’s cymbal work, and featuring an eloquent solo statement from Seim on tenor.

“Sus i myrull” (Whispers in the Cotton Grass) also has a swing-ish feel, with Langeland demonstrating a more percussive attack on kantele and Ounaskari keeping time with brushes. It is jaunty, but also somewhat wistful, as Børli’s poetry confides:

“Life isn’t just
ten thousand plodding steps
towards petty goals.

No, life is rich enough
to be just whispers in the cotton grass . . .”

The so-called ECM sound is probably most pronounced on “Sølv” and “Sølv,” two short instrumental interludes featuring Langeland’s kantele and Jormin’s bass (largely pizzicato on the first and arco on the later), with occasional percussive accents. The third lyric-less selection starts as another impressive showcase Henriksen and Seim until Langeland literally adds her voice to the mix.

Like the kantele, there is something exotic or other-worldly about Langeland’s voice that is difficult to pin-point. When combined with Henriksen’s trumpet and Seim tenor or soprano it makes for an effective blend. That the lyrics are most likely foreign to listeners (though translated in the liner notes) adds an additional layer of mystery to an intriguing session.