Ozella Music: Nordic Beauty and Beyond
It is always tempting to explain one story in the light of another, and in the case of guitarist and composer Dagobert Böhm's Ozella Music label, it is inevitable to be reminded of Windham Hill, the record company started by the guitarist William Ackerman in 1976. Like Windham Hill, Ozella started out as one-man project run by a guitarist and evolved into something more, and both have a focus on acoustic and lyrical music and the kind of atmospheric and meditative sounds that are often termed new age or lounge. But this is also where the comparison stops. While Windham Hill was eclectic and had a jazz division in its prime, it was never really a jazz label. The focus of Ozella is primarily on jazz and with its two subsidiaries, Ozella Lounge and Songways (concentrating on singer/songwriters), the priorities are clear.
While Ozella is first and foremost a jazz label, jazz in Dagobert Böhm's ears also means that there can be influences from all corners of the world, but especially the Nordic sound, and musicians like pianist Helge Lien and saxophonist Karl Seglem have found homes at the label.
Talking about his reasons for starting the label, Böhm is quite humorous: "I started Ozella Music and the publishing company Edition Ozella in 1999. For a few years, I used it only for my own releases. One reason to do my own company was probably to avoid having as bad a CD cover as I had for the album Acoustic Unit on In-Akustik in 1998."
However, there are other reasons than bad cover art as to why Böhm went on to start Ozella. "I think it is good to know the business from both sides. And as a musician I was always interested in the business side too."
There is a story behind the name Ozella. "The band on Acoustic Unit is a nice band that I had for several years with saxophonist Tony Lakatos, the fantastic percussionist Kornel Horvat and bassist Bela Lattmann. We played a song called 'Ozella' and in those days I sometimes told the audience the story behind the name. In short: it is a fantasy word that my daughter created when she was a little child. At that time, she had just begun to learn how to speak."
The name Ozella is special and it makes good sense that a special label should have a special name. In fact, the reputation of the label is so good that Böhm doesn't have to do any work to find his artists: "The artists find me. I never contact artists directly for the label. The exception is the four CD series Morning, Noon, Evening and Night, which was the first release with other artists. I collected many instrumental tunes and compiled them on the quite successful Rhythm of the Day Series."
Ozella is known for its roster of fine Nordic artists, but as it turns out, the focus on the Nordic sound was a coincidence. "The Nordic sound became one of the most important influences for Ozella by accident. At the end of the music fair WOMEX 2004 in Sevilla, packed with many bags full of CDs, I ran into Norwegian saxophonist Karl Seglem, who wanted to give me one more promo CD. This CD was packed in very big paper artwork and I had to fold it, kind of destroy it, to squeeze it into one of my bags. Out of the many albums I brought home, this was the music that interested me the most and I agreed with Karl to compile an album with my personal Karl Seglem favorites from his many albums and a few unreleased tracks. The result was New North. It was quite successful, and still sells, and was a very nice start for a cooperation with Karl that now has lasted for many years. And this was also the beginning of the Nordic sound on Ozella. I suddenly got many calls, emails, demos and productions from Norway."
While the Nordic sound is prominent on Ozella, the label has a wide range of genres and artists, as Böhm explains: "There are many styles and different releases. Some artists you may not know, but nearly every album was or still is important and was a success or is still doing well. Not every album is really selling much, but some of the instrumental albums are doing very well in terms of syndication, as the music gets used in TV documentaries and in films."
In the end, the criterion for Böhm is quality, and he has a firm belief in the music he releases and knows what he likes: "I like music that creates pictures in your head and this type of music very often has the chance to do well as film music. So not only the top sellers are important, and I am very happy when I can do something for music that I love, even though it appears to have no commercial chances, at least from the first glance. But we also have some albums that sell in a five-digit quantity."
Ozella has become both an artistic and commercial success. Here is a selection of highlights from the eclectic catalog.
Label founder and guitarist Dagobert Böhm also records on Ozella Music and Circle Around has the honor of being the first item in the catalog. It is a delicately structured album of acoustic compositions where the spotlight is on the warm sounds of wood and steel. Böhm's guitar is front and center, but Manfred Zepf adds to the texture with his fretless bass and Harish Powar plays classical guitar.
The feeling of the record bears close affinity to the Windham Hill recordings of guitarist Alex de Grassi, especially his trilogy of early classics: Turning: Turning Back (Windham Hill, 1978), Slow Circle (Windham Hill, 1979) and Clockwork (Windham Hill, 1981). Like de Grassi, Böhm is not only technically adept, but also a natural storyteller with his instrument. A title like "Dreaming Strings" is a fine description of the music, which is often tranquil and dreamy. Böhm paints lush landscapes of melody with his instrument, but a composition like "Fast Spacer" shows another side of him that is just as much interested in rhythm.
Albums like Acoustic Unit (in-akustik, 1998) and String Unit (Ozella, 2000) sees Böhm broadening his palette, taking in larger ensembles and a wider palette of sounds that go beyond the lyrical new age of early Alex de Grassi, and instead he enters a territory of acoustic world music. With its emphasis on beauty, melody and rhythmic curiosity, Circle Around nevertheless bears the hallmark of an Ozella release.
Dagobert Böhm's background as a guitarist has given him a unique ability to recognize talent in fellow instrumentalists like Stephan Bormann and Michel Sajrawy. Axel Schultheiss is an example of a guitarist who, like Böhm himself, is not only technically capable and eager to expand the boundaries of his instrument, but also has an intuitive sense of melody and knows how to connect head and heart.
The cover of On Wings shows a flock of birds flying into a red sky and the sublime scenery of nature is connected to the sound of the guitar that soars and sings without words in the hands of Schultheiss, who clearly knows the important school of fingerstyle guitarists ranging from John Fahey and Robbie Basho to Pierre Bensusan and Michael Hedges. For instance, the title track, with its multi-layered acoustic ambience, owes much to the latter, but Schultheiss also has an admirable sense of space and limitation, which is shown on the haiku-like miniatures "Koan 1," "Koan 2" and "Koan 3" that all come across like little Eastern melodic meditations, capable of capturing the moment in a structure as fragile as a quick brush of paint on paper.
Many of the songs refer to nature, like "Sun after Rain," "Landscape" and "The Plain Sea." Titles like these are not empty labels, but true pointers of an organic music that captures the melancholy and wonder of the changing seasons and birds drifting toward the sea.
Por El Mar
Nature and the melodies of an acoustic guitar also play a major role on Josete Ordonez' album, providing a relaxed landscape of soothing sounds. Ozella has a superb series of lounge music titled Morning, Noon, Evening and Night and Ordonez is the perfect contender for the kind of organic and ethereal lounge presented in the series. The title track is a tribute to the ocean and is a gentle acoustic melody wrapped in women's voices and hushed drum beats that fall like waves against the beach. On "Date a Volar" a flute blows like a breeze in the air and "Cinco" uses choir, piano and acoustic strums to create a music that is warm and friendly.
Ordonez is an accomplished guitarist with jazzy flourishes, but first of all, he is a creator of moods. Every sound on the record adds to a mosaic that is meant to make the listener relax and enjoy life, but it isn't shallow hedonism, but rather a kind of ambience that allows the rhythm of life to slow down. In a way it is background music, but it is the kind of background that doesn't disappear into the air, but leaves a pleasant feeling in the room where it is played.
It's a long way from the sun-kissed landscapes of Josete Ordonez to the Nordic Winter of the Norwegian group Streif, but Ozella Music embraces all seasons of nature and there's no doubt that the label has a preference for the beauty and melancholy of Nordicespecially Norwegianmusic.
Streif is a quartet of multi-instrumentalists whose keen sense of folksong shines through on their album that is more joyful than the title might indicate. Many of the songs are dances and folksongs and some of them vibrate with rhythm. For instance, "Klarinettlått Etter" swirls around in a tightly knit dance between drums, clarinet and acoustic guitar.
Things are slowed down on the lullaby "Estlandsk Vuggevise" and the epic "Ballade." The former has a mild accordion taking the lead while the latter lets the horns sing through the frost.
Many folksongs were used for specific purposes and on Nordic Winter there are two songs related to weddings. "Brudesang Fra Solør" is a poignant hymn with accordion and acoustic guitar while "Saktmodig Brudemarsj" is imbued with a tinge of sadness. Throughout, the mixture of instruments, including clarinet, marimba and euphonium, creates a delicate balance and Nordic Winter comes across as both an authentic piece of folklore and a through-composed work of art.
Like his countrymen in Streif, saxophonist Karl Seglem is interested in Norwegian folklore and uses it in his own unique interpretation of his country's cultural heritage. He has even gone so far that he plays goat horn, but on NORSKjazz.no he sticks to the saxophone.
His backing on the record is the Eple trio, with pianist Andreas Ulvo, bassist Sigurd Hole and drummer Jonas Howden Sjøvaag. This trio is the perfect choice for Seglem, who likes to challenge himself and navigate in the space between tradition and experiment.
The link between past times and modernity is spelled out in the title, which references Norwegian jazz, but is set up as a web-address. However, those who will take time to log on to the album will find that it's sprinkled with a pastoral feeling that lies light-years away from the quick flashes of technology. Instead, the melodies are allowed to unfold slowly with grace.
The organic sounds of the instruments really come through, as when Sigurd Hole's bowed bass sets the stage for the rest of the band in the tune "Året Hallar." Likewise, Ulvo is a joy to behold with his empathic backing and finely carved chords that sing in dialogue with Seglem, whose horn manifests itself as both forceful and ethereal, and elegantly draws lines in the air. This is Norwegian jazz of the highest order, and like the best work of saxophonist Jan Garbarek, Seglem's music is timeless and unique.
Heilt Nye Vei
Seglem sings through his horn, but Ozella also has several vocalists in their roster. One of the signings is Norwegian singer Elin Furubotn on whose album Heilt Nye Vei Seglem contributes with his saxophone, but actually he also sings on one of the songs. On "Du Vett Godt Ka Eg E Sure For" his whispering background vocal is a clear contrast to Furubotn's crystalline voice and adds to the song's intimacy that is built around a simple skeleton of saxophone and acoustic guitar.
Norway basically has two forms of their language: bokmål and nynorsk. Furubotn sings nynorsk, which is closer to the traditional dialects of the country as opposed to the big city Oslo where bokmål is dominant. Furubotn's voice is natural and clear like water from a deep well. On Heilt Nye Vei she sings of the many choices in life and the troubles and joys that belong to living. Sometimes she uses simple and striking metaphors, as when she sings of the different colors of thoughts on the song "Tankane Har Fargar."
Stylistically Furubotn lies between folksongs, pop and jazz. Her album could easily have been released on the branch of the label that concentrates on songwriters: Ozella Songways. For instance, the title track is pure pop-rock where the verse builds up to a soaring chorus. The title of the album, Heilt Nye Vei, is translated to "New Path" and Furubotn actually finds her very own way between traditional folksongs, enchanting pop and stylish jazz.
Randi Tytingvåg is another singer signed to Ozella and like Furubotn she isn't afraid to mix folk, pop and jazz into her own thing.
On Let Go the influence from folk is evident in the way that instruments like accordion and violin take a central role. For instance, "Rat Race" is an enchanting waltz with piano and accordion and "Ghost" is a giddy accordion-tune where Tytingvåg's voice follows and breaks away from the instrument in a game of hide and seek.
The influence of world music is clear on "Interlude"with the clarinet dancing away in a style not unlike Klezmer-musicbut while the rhythms are varied and take their cues from folksongs around the world, the tone of the album remains Nordic and firmly planted in the form of the ballads.
As a singer, Tytingvåg understands how to get to the core of a song and while she is able to stretch and sculpt her voice like a true jazz singer, she never strays away from the narrative of the song, and in her band, including pianist Anders Aarum and accordion-player Espen Leite, she has the kind of empathic backing that allows the music to breathe organically and a ballad like "Playful" is simply perfection.
Helge Lien Trio
Another artist who knows how to play ballads to perfection is the Norwegian pianist and composer, Helge Lien, whose trio with bassist Frode Berg and drummer Knut Aalefjær is one the strongest cards in the Ozella roster.
Lien has played with his trio for many years and with his records on Ozella he has been reaping the harvest of an intense process of work. This has also been recognized in the international jazz community and in his homeland where his first Ozella release Hello Troll (Ozella, 2008) even received a Norwegian Grammy Award for Best Jazz Album of 2009. What drives Lien and his trio is the internal process of discovery and together they reach yet another artistic plateau on Natsukashii.
The word natsukashii comes from the Japanese and is linked to the kind of Proustian memory-process where such a thing as a little cake dipped in tee can trigger a whole chain of memories. It is a word imbued with a bittersweet feeling of happiness and melancholy. It is the reliving of the past in the intense moment of now.
Natsukashii can be seen as the aesthetic of the album where Lien's trio like musical archeologists constantly re-discovers new layers of musical tradition and emotion in its music. It's a process that is joyful, but it is also colored by the awareness that everything that has happened in the past never can be the same and therefore an elegiac tone pervades compositions like "Meles Meles," with its delicate dark chords that shimmer and sing.
Lien is also able to take a deep musical journey on his own, which is certainly proven on his solo-piano album Kattenslager (Ozella, 2012), but when he travels with his trio something special happens. A true moment of Natsukashii.
Helge Lien has been inspired by Japanese poetry and philosophy, but Ozella actually has a prominent Japanese artist, Shunsuke Mizuno, in its roster, who is also strongly influenced by his own culture. As he says, "I believe that we can find our peace and healing of heart in Asian music."
The goal of finding peace and healing through music is reflected on his album Slow Time, whose influence from Asian culture is heard not only in the compositions, but also in the choice of instruments like tan-kin and koto.
The atmosphere of the album is at once light and profound. To remember and experience natsukashii one has to be able to slow down and actually sense the surroundings and there's definitely a quality of tactility about the music which is connected to nature through titles like "Song of the Birds," "The Sound Of Rainy Day" and "Beech Forest." It is an album that encourages contemplation and nurtures the emotions, which are allowed to be felt as the strings from guitar and traditional instruments vibrate and the sounds of rattling percussion slowly unfolds a world of wonder. Thus, "Poem after the Rain," with is gentle strings, slow bass pattern and breezy flute, is the equivalent of walking through a forest after a period of heavy rain.
The Taal Tantra Experience
While there's a preference for Nordic lyricism on Ozella, the label cannot be pigeonholed as the champion of a particular geographic area. As the release from Shunsuke Mizuno shows, there are artists of all nationalities on the label, and the genres are just as diverse, ranging from modern jazz to instrumental guitar-music and lounge. A fine example of cross-cultural collaboration is The Taal Tantra Experience, which brings together a wide range of German and Indian musicians to create a contemporary record that lies somewhere between lounge, jazz and world music. It's called Sixth Sense and is a testimony to the telepathic ability the musicians have with each other.
Tonmoy Bose's tabla and the fluid runs from Kai Brückner's guitar are the perfect match and the mixture of hypnotic rhythms and advanced breaks and horn charts work more than well. On "What We Need," bassist Max Hughes anchors the groove solidly, while the Indian guest star Debashish Bhattacharya contributes some tasty slide guitar and the saxophone honks with a joyful sound.
One of the compositions on Sixth Sense is called "Between the Worlds" and this is not only an apt description of the album, but also embodies the approach of Ozella, whose sound takes it departure in the Nordic aesthetic, but reaches beyond it and into all corners of the world. Ultimately, the sound of Ozella isn't about a particular geographic area, be it Germany, India or Norway, but about the ability of music to cross boundaries and create a whole new language of beauty.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Open Air; Opus 71; Jorien; Circle Around; Bigfoot; Ice on Tired Trees; Solo; Cadenza (excerpt from bird suite); From Up Above; Boardwalk; Opus 59; Fast Spacer; Dreaming Strings.
Personnel: Dagobert Bohm: acoustic guitar; Harish Powar: classical guitar; Manfred Zepf: fretless bass.
Tracks: Melody; Morning Call; Magic Hour; Koan 1; Koan 2; Summer's End; Emotions; Sun After The Rain; Landscape; Caravan of Thoughts; Koan 3; Sunlight Through Leavage; On Wings.
Personnel: Axel Schultheiss: acoustic & electric guitar, prepared guitar, loops, soundscapes.
Por el Mar
Tracks: Arthur; Titirimundi; Piedras y Rosas; Isla Maria; Hanoi; Por el Mar; Estrallas Cautivas; Date a Volar; Cinco; Cielo Protector; Objetos Perdidos.
Personnel: Josete Ordoñez: nylon & acoustic guitars, mandola, dantu, vihuela, vocals; Peter Oteo: bass; Yrvis Mendez: bass; Marco Herreros: bass; Carlos Ibañez: bass; Enzo Filippone: drums; Manuel de Lucena: drums; Hugo Ordanini: drums; Manu Rey: drums; Aleix Tobias: percussion; Hugo Ordanini: percussion; Tino de Geraldo: percussion; Ana Salazar: vocal; Monica Molina: vocal; Yoanna: vocal; Paula Mir: vocal; Nsut Song Tao: vocal; Yrvis Mendez: vocal; Xavi Lozano: musical saw; David Escudero: electric guitar.
Tracks: Estlandsk Vuggevise; Brudesang Fra Solør; Saktmodig Brudemarsj; Jenta I Næset; Bessleiken; Klarinetlåt Etter; Den Første Valsen; Hjemlandsklokker; Ballade.
Personnel: Georg Reiss: clarinet, tárogáto, saxophone; Tom Karlsrud: accordeon, euphonium; Torbjǿrn Ǿkland: guitar, mandoline, trumpet; Birger Mistereggen: percussion, marimba, drums.
Tracks: Track Listing: Portugalsong; Nattsong; Året Hallar; Song for To; Stengde Dører; Lull; Sein Song.
Personnel: Karl Seglem: tenor saxophone; Andreas Ulvo: piano; Sigurd Hole: bass; Jonas Howden Sjøvaag: drums, percussion.
Heilt Ny Vei
Tracks: Akkurat Det Som Er Nå; Heilt Ny Vei; Eg Ser Du Leite; Slepp Tvilen Fri; Tankane Har Fargar; Treet; Ei Stille Nå; Malt Dagen Din; En Drøm; Du Vett Godt Ka Eg Sure For; Stillheten; New Path; I See You looking.
Personnel: Elin Furubotn: vocal, accoustic guitar, cello; Karl Seglem: saxophone, vocal; Helge Andreas Norbakken: percussion; Gjermund Silset: bass; Morten Møster: electric guitar; David Wallumrød: piano; Truls Birkeland: accordion, synthesizer; Mads Urdahl-Aasen: euphonium; Gunheild Seim: trumpet, flugelhorn.
Tracks: Rat Race; Let There Be You And Me; Ghost; War; Playful; Between Us; Interlude; So Long; Let Go; Every Day Monsters; Beautiful.
Personnel: Randi Tytingvåg: vocals; Anders Aarum: piano, glockenspiel; Espen Leite: accordion; Jens Fossum: double bass; Ola Kvernberg: violin; Morten Michelsen: clarinet; Julie Dahle Aagård: backing vocals.
Track Listing: Natsukashii; Afrikapolka; Bon Tempi; E; Sceadu; Meles Meles; Hymne (Til Jart Asvik); Umbigada; Small No Need; Living in Different Lives. Personnel: Helge Lien: piano; Frode Berg: bass; Knut Aalefjær: drums.
Tracks: Rain in the Distance; Midnight Sarasvati; Song of the Birds; A Starry Night in Shanghai; Cosmos; Prologue; From Where? To Where?; Beyond the Blue; The Sound of Rainy Day; Poem after the Rain; Beech Forest.
Personnel: Shunsuke Mizuno: 5-string wood-bass, tan-kin; Miwa Inaba: 22-string koto; Keisuke Doi: shakuhachi; Aya Motohashi: hitirik; Chikara Tsuzuki: harmonica; Hiroki Miyano: guitar; Shigeru Sawamura: piano; Itsuro Kai: percussion; Ryo Watanabe: percussion; Masaki Yoshimi: tabla.
Tracks: Khandam; It's Been A Long Way; Bhairabi; What We Need; Between The Worlds; Rikshaws on Rash Bihari; Trip to Kolkata; The Cobra; Puri; Howrah Bridge.
Personnel: Tanmoy Bose: tablas, vocals; Andreas Weiser: percussion, vocals, and sounds; Kai Brückner: electric and acoustic guitars, Sarod; Tilmann Dehnhard: flutes and tenor Sax; Jan von Klewitz: alto sax; Max Hughes: bass; Detlev Beier: contrabass; Debashish Bhattacharya: slide guitar; Martin Klingeberg: trumpet; Ravichandra Kulur: bansuri flute; Nina Ernst: vocals; Mainak: vocals; Basudev das Baul: vocals, Dotara; Debasmi: vocals; Lukas W.Vargas: sanfona; Debashis: sarangi.
Courtesy of Dave Lubek