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Christian Wallumrod Ensemble: The Zoo is Far

John Kelman By

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Like many Scandinavian musicians, pianist Christian Wallumrod leads a double life. As a collaborator with artists including singer Sidsel Endresen, saxophonist Karl Seglem and guitarist Jon Eberson, he's an electric player capable of fitting into more jazz-centric (albeit often Nu Jazz) contexts. On his all-acoustic ECM discography, however, he's led a series of groups exploring a space that joins increasing interest in classical composers with improvisation that's largely part of more defined constructs. Unlike fellow Norwegian Trygve Seim, who similarly meshes improvisation within strong and often extended compositional form, Wallumrod tends to work in miniature. Over half of The Zoo is Far's twenty-four tracks are under three minutes, with only four in excess of five.

The same in name only, the six-piece Christian Wallumrod Ensemble of The Zoo is Far doesn't supplant the still active quartet of A Year from Easter (ECM, 2005), but clear links exist with trumpeter Arve Henriksen and percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen members of both groups. Violinist/Hardanger fiddler Nils Okland isn't in the sextet, but the instruments are represented here by Gjermund Larsen.

What distinguishes the sextet from the quartet is the addition of Baroque harpist Giovanna Pessi and cellist Tanja Orning. While the sextet rarely performs as a whole, with Wallumrod often preferring to work with smaller subsets, the added textures, especially at the low end of the register, create a deeper, fuller sound. Still, despite the potential for greater density, there's a fundamental of premise of space and subtle dynamism.

Introspection and spare economy may define much of The Zoo is Far, but there are also moments as outgoing as you're likely to hear from Wallumrod. "Nash Lontano" has a firm pulse, driven by Johnsen's percussion, and a harmonized theme first delivered by Henriksen, Larsen and Orning, with Wallumrod mirroring Johansen until half-way through, when everyone changes places. What improvisation exists is more about nuance and phrasing than melodic expansion.

At times brooding and melancholic, there are moments of sheer beauty. The counterpoint of "Backwards Henry I," "Backwards Henry II" and ""Backwards Henry with Drums" are all explorations of themes derived from classical composer Henry Purcell's "Fantazias," with only the latter, where the melodies are almost buried under Johansen's overriding improvisation, exploring these ideas at length. At nearly eight minutes, "Arch Dance" bears reference to minimalist composers like Steve Reich, although when the cello and viola enter late in the piece, the swooping microtonalities are all Wallumrod. The reprise, "Arch Dance with Trumpet," gives Henriksen's shakuhachi-toned trumpet its greatest liberty of the set.

Amongst Wallumrod's greatest strengths is an ability to orchestrate in ways that make instruments mesh seamlessly, sounding less like a collection of distinct instruments and more like a singular voice. The expanded ensemble of The Zoo is Far provides Wallumrod with his largest palette yet, but the result is an album that, to paraphrase a movement from Reich's You Are (Variations) (Nonesuch, 2005), says little but does much.


Track Listing: Nash Lontano; Backwards Henry II; Parkins Cembalo; Fragment no. 6; Psalm Kv

Personnel: Christian Wallumrod: piano, harmonium, toy piano; Arve Henrkisen: trumpet; Gjermund Larsen: violin, Hardanger fiddle, viola; Tanja Orning: violoncello; Giovanna Pessi: Baroque harp; Per Oddvar Johansen: drums, percussion, glockenspiel.

Title: The Zoo is Far | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: ECM Records


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