Before Starbucks and venti candy bars-in-a-cup, there were college-town hangouts like Tony's Coffee selling lattes blasted with enough exotic spices to rest assertively on bar tops in the Old West. Ask them to replace the grunge and acid folk with Diana Krall and you'd be mockingly shot, so to speak. But with this disc, you might have a fighting chance.
Swedish vocalist Anna Einarsson splices folk and free jazz on Anagram, packing it with clashing harmonies and unsteady rhythms. But it's surprisingly refined and instantly gratifying, instead of sounding like experimentation for experimentation's sake.
"Music that grows," is a comment Einarsson says she hears often, and while this is her debut as a jazz vocalist, she's a longtime presence on the Scandinavian music scene. In 1991, at the age of thirteen, she became the youngest person in Sweden to receive a scholarship from STIM, a Swedish association for composers. She has three other albums to her credit during the past eleven years, and she composed and arranged all of the pieceswhich range from three to eight minutes in lengthfor a ten-member ensemble on Anagram.
There's been little written about Einarsson in English, although a description of the album at her web site, fed through an internet universal translator, calls it "moderate experiment... devoid that become discord... melodies am laying always and stabilize... a right upper-level (Swedish) musik." Put these jumbled accolades next to a similar collage of instruments and you get a pretty good idea of the album.
Einarsson's gift isn't her love-story lyrics or any wide-ranging soulful improvisationshe's got a mid to higher-range tone common to many folk jazz modernists. Rather, it's a superbly honed sense of free interaction that makes her repeating of a single chorus line over and over on "Still (I Admit It)" sound different each time as the instruments rising in choreographed chaos around her. It's an unusual compliment that on "Eternally" it almost goes without notice that her vocals are exclusively wordless hums, ahs and ohs.
The instrumentation is much the sameno vocabulary breakthroughs, just fresh combinations. A sax may do little more than two and three-note snippets against pianist's Pär-Ola Landin aggressive right hand stabs, but both will jump around widely while still maintaining a central sense of purpose. Drummer Jon Fält deserves mention for being a remarkably flexible foundation for a house essentially existing on a musical San Andreas Fault Line.
There are also some relatively unremarkable breathers like "Be Still," a duet between Einarrson and acoustic guitarist Mattias Windemo's aggressive yet understated plucking and strumming. But when it's followed by the rowdy, backbeat-heavy swing of "You're Not Playing Straight," the range prevents much of a letdown.
Anagram offers the sense of daring and contemporary intellectualism that's common to quality Scandinavian jazz. It's a good spin for most any crowd, but the best qualities are for those able to properly appreciate them, much like savoring fresh-ground coffee beans without the eleven spoonfuls of sugar that turn it into a white chocolate mocha confectionary.