A diverse artist who has demonstrated equal aplomb covering the Great American Songbook and traditional Swedish folk songs, Jan Lundgren's musical interests seem limitless in scope. Magnum Mysterium
is the Swedish pianist's most ambitious record to date, where he tackles European renaissance sacred music in collaboration with the Gustaf Sjökvist Chamber Choir and bassist/cellist Lars Danielsson. As 2007 nears its close, Magnum Mysterium
may well prove to be its most purely beautiful release, an album where lush choral music is married with contemporary improvisation that remains ever true to its source.
The concept is not exactly newNorwegian saxophonist and the Hilliard Ensemble were the artists who, with the best-selling Officium (ECM, 1994) and follow-up Mnemosyne (ECM, 1999), broke new ground by joining two seemingly disparate traditions. But while Garbarek improvised freely over the unaltered renaissance choral music, here Lundgren and reedman Magnus Lindgren (who doesn't appear on the record) arrange this solemnly spiritual music for the inclusion of piano, keyboards, bass and cello. In many ways it's a more seamless integration where there's room for improvisation, to be sure, but where the premise itself is equally innovative.
Lundgren couldn't have picked a better partner in Danielsson, a bassist whose own body of work has included everything from the Nu Jazz of Mélange Bleu (ACT, 2006) and the intimate duets of Pasodoble (ACT, 2007) to his own marriage of orchestral music with improvisation on Libera Me (ACT, 2004). Here he's both subtle accompanist and sensitive soloist, haunting in his simplicity on the almost painfully beautiful "Kyrie, where Lundgren proves that even the sound of a gentle, chime-like electric piano can mesh naturally with soaring voices.
While there are the slightest hints of harmonies more closely associated with jazz here and there, what makes Magnum Myserium so successful is how well Lundgren and Danielsson migrate their clear improvisational prowess into an entirely different languageand with the attention to space and understatement that, like Garbarek and the Hilliards, make this an undeniable marriage of equals.
The drama is in the subtlety. A single voice introduces "Maria Magdalene Et Altera Maria, only to be fleshed out with additional voices and Lundgren's delicate combination of piano and synthesizer washes. Lundgren bows out, leaving the voices to complete the cycle, as the piece shifts into a simple bass ostinato that leaves Lundgren free to improvise elegantly, drawing the piece to a close.
The best improvisers respect context and honor the essence of the material. Lundgren and Danielsson may be capable of more muscular extemporization, but prove their worth here through a selfless approach to bringing together two traditions. Magnum Mysterium is an album of rare and singular beauty, a marriage where the two truly become the one.