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Anders Jormin / Lena Willemark / Karin Nakagawa: Anders Jormin / Lena Willemark / Karin Nakagawa: Trees of Light

John Kelman By

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It's not often that a new recording appears on ECM from Anders Jormin—a bassist who is, perhaps, best-known for his work in fellow Swede Bobo Stenson's ongoing trio, last heard on 2012's superb Indicum (ECM), and for his tenure, alongside Stenson, in Charles Lloyd's career-defining 1990s quartets, collected recently in the Old & New Masters Edition box Quartets (ECM, 2013). But if the bassist's own projects for the label are far from frequent—his last release, 2012's Ad Lucem, and before that, 2004's In Winds, In Light—the one thing that can be counted on from Jormin is that, no matter what the context, no matter whom the participants, each and every release will be utterly different...and yet, somehow, linked to the others through the connective thread of the robust-toned bassist's singing approach to an instrument rarely thought of in such terms.

For Trees of Light, Jormin brings back Swedish singer/fiddler Lena Willemark—last heard over a decade ago on his own In Winds, In Light, but no stranger to the label for her own work including two mid-'90s recordings with fellow Swede, multi-instrumentalist Ale Möller, and for Frifot, the 1999 album that fleshed the duo into a trio with the addition of fiddler and Swedish bagpipes player Per Gudmundson. While Willemark's speciality is interpreting and expanding the Swedish folk music tradition, her ability as an improviser of surprising breadth has made her a perfect foil for Jormin, whose own improvisational acumen—and ability to work within the context of folk traditions—has been demonstrated in recent years on albums by Sinikka Langeland, most recently on the Norwegian singer/kantele player's The Land That Is Not (ECM, 2011).

But it was Jormin's choice to approach Karin Nakagawa—a renowned Japanese master of the 25-string koto in contexts ranging from deeply traditional to transculturally extreme—that lends Trees of Light its specificity. While all three instruments—koto, fiddle and double bass—are capable of creating plenty of sound and, in the hands of virtuosos such as these, the potential for music that's filled to the brim—overfilled, even—with ideas, it's the clear intuitive ability of all three musicians—egos checked at the door and the music placed first and foremost—that makes the album such a joy. While there are moments of frenetic activity, the overall aesthetic of the album is one of space and the allowance for every instrument to occupy its own layer without ever getting in the way of the others. Only such an approach could allow music this spare yet so subtly dramatic to support Willemark's emotive singing of her own poetry, in her own Älvdals dialect (but with English translations provided in the accompanying booklet).

Bringing together composed music by all three participants—and recorded after two years spent working on the music in rehearsal and in concert—Trees of Light is rife with singable themes, cascading supportive lines and swirling koto sweeps that allow the music to ebb and flow so organically that the improvisation, so fundamental to its raison d'être, oftentimes blurs the line between form and freedom. With the broad-ranged koto able to traverse the entire range covered, in parts, by Jormin's bass and Willemark's fiddle, it often possesses an adherent quality, joining all three instruments into a seamless whole.

But, while there are songs where, indeed, the three players come together as a glorious whole, there is also plenty of space for permutation and combination...and solo excursions too, with koto, first alone, ultimately supporting Willemark's voice before Jormin joins in to complete the imagery. Jormin's remarkable and inimitable extended techniques (both pizzicato and arco)—developed over decades now—are given a cappella moments, too; and Willemark proves herself as compelling and evocative a fiddler as she is a singer—sometimes playing with raw, almost unfettered energy, other times so delicately that it seems as though she is barely breathing on her strings.

As transcultural collaborations go, Trees of Light is an unequivocal success, with Willemark having taught Nakagawa the Swedish polska and Nakagawa, in turn, shedding light on the millennial koto tradition for both Willemark and Jormin. Together, the three make music that's redolent of both traditions and yet reveals something else as well.

Folkloric in its ambiance, at times almost classical in its austerity while also possessing an irrepressible freedom that allows Jormin, Willemark and Nakagawa to follow their individual and collective muses, Trees of Light reflects the kind of transcultural innovation that has been one of ECM's numerous definers—the kind of partnership that has resulted in past successes like the three CODONA albums collected in the 2009 Old & New Masters Edition box The CODONA Trilogy, and the Brazilian/American/Norwegian collaboration of Egberto Gismonti, Charlie Haden and Jan Garbarek, heard most recently on the marvellous archival find Magico-Carta De Amor (2012).

Add to those classic successes Trees of Life: a marriage that, in the hands of Jormin, Willemark and Nakagawa, transcends both Japanese and Swedish traditions to create its own vernacular, filled with profound beauty, the deepest of resonances...and surprises aplenty.

Track Listing: Krippaingglee (If you listen); Dröm (Dream); Jag Står Kvar (I have loved); Urbanus; Hirajoshi; Minni (Memories); Ogadh Dett (Your eye); Lyöstraini (Trees of light); Slingerpolska (Winding polska); Uoruo (Worry); Lyösfridhn (Shining peace); Vild Vindar (Wild winds).

Personnel: Lena Willemark: voice, fiddle, viola; Karin Nakagawa: 25-Ström koto; Anders Jormin: double bass.

Title: Anders Jormin / Lena Willemark / Karin Nakagawa: Trees of Light | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: ECM Records

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