There’s something magical about the contrast of the warmth and maturity of Sinikka Langeland’s voice on these songs from the cold north and the crystalline twang of her metal-strung, zither-like Kantele.
After a ten year gap and 2015’s primarily instrumental The Half Finished Heaven, this new, song-based album reunites Langeland with her Nordic ‘Starflowers’ quintet of trumpet player Arve Henriksen, saxophonist Trygve Seim, bassist Anders Jormin, and percussionist Markku Ounaskari – their third time on ECM.
Where previous Starflowers albums featured intricate settings of poetry by early 20th century Nordic writers, on The Magical Forest (ECM), as the fairy-tale title suggests, Langeland’s creative influences are older and more obscure, rooted in readings of folklorist Matti Mörtberg’s early 20th work on forest Finnish culture, and “traces and fragments of ideas about the world tree, axis mundi” of Finnskogen, the heavily forested region of Norway where Langeland now lives.
Initially conceived for a 2012 festival commission, the music here has been refined into nine songs of multi-faceted concision, its folkloric overtones perfect for the guest vocals of Trio Mediӕval, whose affinity for archaic melodies makes them even more ideally suited to inhabit Langeland’s folk- and church-rooted sound-world than that of Henriksen’s Places of Worship chamber ensemble, with which they recently toured.
“Puun Loitsu” is an even paced and skeletal arrangement highlighting the four vocalists in full sympathy, their voices carried by a bare throb of bass percussion.
The album’s first cut is Langeland’s take on a traditional rune song, “Puun Loitsu” (Prayer to the Tree Goddess), and “Karsikko” is a traditional hunting song, but otherwise the material is Langeland’s own. The booklet sets out both her poetic and sometimes enigmatic lyrics and brief, illuminating authorial notes in both first language and English translations.
Despite open attributions, acknowledged debts to tradition, and the unabashedly folk-fable cosmology of Langeland’s world view, her music is essentially contemporary.
Some pieces begin as sung stories before taking on an earthier, jazzier feel: the title piece, for instance, begins as an airy, brittly bracing instrumental that gets absorbed in jazz pulse and rhythm. and while the first four minutes of “Jacob’s Dream” has Langeland accompanied only by Trio Mediӕval, its second half is all-instrumental, with Henriksen the primary melodic focus and Seim leading in a brief, bold surge of jazzy tension.
Most, however, lean subtly one way or the other.
“Kamui” and “Karsikko”, which both memorialise folk rituals, are ageless songs, carried by Langeland’s rich but unfussy vocal harmonies and her own starlight-precise kantele. Among the jazzier pieces, “Sammas” is contrastingly crisp, with brisk cymbals and rich, pliant contrabass as a buoyant springboard for unison vocals and lyrical horn accents.
While Langeland’s vocals range from sober narrative to numinous ascension, the individually enigmatic, mutually incisive phrasing of Henriksen and saxophonist Trygve Seim mesh beautifully throughout, in lyrical counterpoint and spin-off micro solos.
Seim is only sparingly arranged, however. He briefly pushes toward the exquisite exultancy of latter-day Jan Garbarek on “Pillar to Heaven”, but it’s Henriksen who’s often preferred to contrast the sung material, playing with his trademark melodic sensitivity on “Køyri” and “Karsikko”.
As rhythmists, Ounaskari and Jormin arguably do more than anyone to balance the album’s harmonic intricacies and melodic progressions, but it’s very much Langeland’s album, and it’s her superb arrangements that breathe such vivid life into her original texts and music.
Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals; Arve Henriksen trumpet; Trygve Seim saxophones; Anders Jormin bass; Markku Ounaskari percussion; Trio Mediaeval vocals.
Buy The Magical Forest direct from ECM.