Monday, June 01, 2009


By Mikkel Ploug, Sissel Vera Pettersen, Joachim Badenhorst

Suddenly wordless vocalizing is cool again. When Louis Armstrong first started scatting in the 1920’s it was a true revolution, but during the 1960’s overly commercial producers often sweetened up perfectly good sessions with the “oohs and ahs” of cheesy background singers. Things have come full circle recently, with groups like the Ploug, Pettersen, and Badenhorst trio performing some very hip, intelligent music that combines harmonically-advanced vocalizing into a unified group concept. The result is frequently ethereal music, like that which can be heard on their new CD Equilibrium.

Formed in Copenhagen, the trio consists of the Danish Mikkel Ploug on guitars; the Norwegian Sissel Vera Pettersen on vocals, soprano saxophone, and electronics; and the Belgian Joachim Badenhorst on reeds, clearly bringing a host of Nordic and Continental influences into their genre-blending group. “Chorale I,” the first of four such motifs, offers a brief introduction to PPB, effectively illustrating the aptness of the title Equilibrium, in which voice, reeds, and strings are so seamlessly integrated together, it is difficult to distinguish one from the unified whole.

The following “November” elevates Pettersen’s voice more prominently in the mix, but its momentum is driven by Badenhorst’s whirling clarinet. It is a hypnotic, otherworldly piece that should allay fears that this will be a set of mere mood music.

At times the trio’s music can be a bit diffuse, as it is in the effect-dominated “Fri,” which only starts to take concrete form from Ploug’s guiding guitar in the final minute and a half or so. Still, Equilibrium is often quite melodically accessible, like the pure instrumental “Soft Spoken,” featuring an impressive soprano solo from Pettersen. In fact, the close harmonies of the horns are so in keeping with the dynamics of her voice intertwined with Badenhorst’s reeds, the change in instrumentation still sounds perfectly in keeping with the preceding vocal tracks.

The vibe of Equilibrium shifts radically, from the peaceful “Chorales I-III” to the darkly unsettling, overtly electronic “Takt” and “Chorale IV.” Yet, the most dramatic evolution probably takes place within Equilibrium’s standout instrumental track “Warmth,” which steadily builds in intensity from its initial mournful strains into a soaring climax.

Employing unusual instrumentation, electronic distortion, and unearthly noises, Equilibrium is about as far from mood music as one can get (unless you have some really strange moods). Yet PPB’s group conception and musical rapport is so cohesive, they draw listeners in with their surprisingly seductive sounds. It is a consistently intriguing session that still maintains its power after repeated listening.