She may have debuted on ECM (and, consequently, far beyond the borders of her native Norway) with 2007's Starflowers
, but Sinikka Langeland has, in fact, been around for more than two decades, with her first album, Langt Innpå Skoga
, released on Norway's Grappa label in 1994. Composer, singer and master of the kantelean antiquated Scandinavian dulcimer/zither variant that Langeland has turned into a living, breathing instrumentit was on Starflowers
and her 2011 ECM follow-up with the same ensemble, The Land That is Not
, that Langeland began to more fully explore the nexus of folkloric traditionalism and contemporary improvisation, with a cherry-picked group that included fellow label mates including Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim
and trumpeter Arve Henriksen
, Swedish bassist Anders Jormin
and Finish drummer/percussionist Markku Ounaskari.
With his schedule simply too busy to continue with a group whose chemistry could be felt from the first notes of Starflowers
, Henriksen was not present when Langeland presented her ensemble
at the fortieth annual Vossa Jazz festival in 2013, but it was clear that the strength of Langeland's music was able to transcend even the loss of such an important group member. With The half-finished heaven
, Langeland proves that point even further by minting a new quartet that brings Seim and Ounaskari back, but replaces double bass with Lars Anders Tomter's viola in a program that, for the first time, focuses much more heavily on instrumental music, with only three of its dozen compositionsall but one, a traditional polsdans
from Finnskogen, composed by Langelandfeaturing Langeland's evocative voice, interpreting words by the very recently deceased (March 26, 2015) Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.
While it's fair to say that Langeland's distinctive voice is missed, that in no way makes The half-finished heaven
any less impressive than what has come before. In fact, freed of the constraints of singing, Langeland's playing is even more impressive, blending beautifully with Tomter's viola and Seim's tenor saxophone as ever, more attuned to tone and the perfection of every note than any kind of overt virtuosic intent, even though what he does requires absolute mastery of his instrument. Ounnaskari's combination of kit work and hand percussion acts, at times, as rhythmic driver on "The magical bird" but elsewhere as pure color on the aptly titled "Hymn to the fly," where his bells and delicate hand percussion provide a flighty texture around which Tomter's viola, Langeland's strummed kantele and Seim's low-register saxophonethe song's primary melodic focuscome together as a unified voice.
It's that single voice that emerges from the performances of these four musicians that makes The half-finished heaven
's combination of form and freedommore expansive than anything Langeland has previously attemptedso timeless, so appealing...so arcane. Through both Langeland's writing and
all four musicians' keen intuition and attention to creating improvised passages that, in some cases, feel truly structured, there's plenty of elegant beauty to be found. But there are moments of greater dissonance and jagged angularity ("The blue tit's spring song") that also make The half-finished heaven
broader in scope than anything Langeland has done before.
A good part of The half-finished heaven
's overall success comes from her recruiting Tomter, the "Giant of the Nordic Viola." Beyond previous work with Langeland on Maria's Song
(ECM, 2009)an unusual follow-up to Starflowers
that found Langeland, Tomter and organist Kåre Nordstoga locating a very personal nexus of Norwegian traditionalism and the music of Johann Sebastian BachTomter has been an important contributor to ECM recordings by guitarist Terje Rypdal
and Ketil Bjornstad
. But his own career has been even more prestigious: a multiple award-winning violist for whom numerous commissioned works have been written, who has been a regular participant at events including the BBC Proms and collaborated with famous classical ensembles like the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Here, however, he is given far more freedom than usual, and if there was once a line that divided classical and improvising musicians, artists like Tomter are making clear that this line has either become increasingly fuzzy...or may no longer exist at all.
With her ensemble of now-old friends, The half-finished heaven
is the logical successor to her previous ECM ensemble recordings, with its even freer, more instrumental approach acting as the perfect reflection of its soaring subject matter: a suite of songs largely based around birds, flight and the ascending sky. An album of touching melancholy, haunting beauty and often-times completely unexpected flights of improvisational fancy from a quartet of simpatico players, Sinikka Langeland's definitive kantele remains both The half-finished heaven
's heart and
spirit, along with an evocative yet ever-understated voice that may come, this time, in smaller doses...but even that decision only serves to make it all the more precious when it does.