Monday, November 24, 2014

Lars Jakob Rudjord Ensemble's Clockwork on CD

I really, really like this album a lot. Period. End of review.

I think a few other reviewers have made this joke at least once or twice, and it usually comes after they've heard an album that they like so much that they simply don't want to write about it. It's just too difficult, too personal, to put all those feelings and emotions into mere words and sometimes it takes some time and distance to make sense of what you've just experienced. It's easy to write about something you dislike, especially if you're being paid to critique it. The good stuff, however, is a real challenge because you're not responding to objective elements of the music, you're just making the right synaptic connections in the pleasure center of your brain and now you gotta meet some deadline. But I'll still attempt to tell you why Lark Jakob Ensemble's Clockwork is so up my alley.

When I think about the music I truly, truly love, it's not made up of ornate flourishes and virtuoso performances. It's made up of precise yet beautiful melodies, carefully measured yet constantly in a state of flux. (Think Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but less repetitive.) While this music can be gorgeous and lush in a mainstream way, there still has to be something there to challenge me, to remind me that I'm not listening to elevator music or another mindless Top 40 hit. It can be dissonant as long as it evokes some sort of fluid imagery for me--if you're going to make noise, it has to take me somewhere. But ultimately it has to create an emotional bond in my brain. I know most people could probably care less about my idea of perfect music, especially since there's really no such thing, but at least I'm on the record.

Little did I know this modest perfection could be contained within a unique trio that consists of a piano, a cello and a double bass. I almost said jazz trio, which wouldn't be necessarily incorrect because pianist Lars Jakob Rudford, cellist Katrine Schiott and bassist Adrian Fiskum Myhr bill themselves as such. Perhaps they're focusing on the improvisational aspect of jazz, but my take is that these ten fascinating song-length pieces are closer to classical impromptus, and to go one step further I'd mention that the aforementioned precision of the songs are not really improvisations or impromptu at all. Perhaps the final word is the album's single-word title, which is far more aligned with the moods presented here.

Rudjord does weigh in on his website, expressing that while his roots are in jazz, his music is also part of "The Nordic Sound," something exemplified by recordings such as The Hoff Ensemble's Quiet Winter Night on 2L Recordings. He states that "I grew up on the windswept Lista peninsula on the southwest coast of Norway, and in many of the songs you can probably feel a whisper of wind, a strip of light or a glimpse of the landscape here." Lars even sent me a postcard from Lista to emphasize the point.

Here's another synaptic connection I've made while listening to Clockwork; I've often that that if I'd been a musician, I would have been the kind who would always insert disparate and surprising elements, such as exotic instrumentation, in order for each song to rise above the ordinary. In many ways this album follows that template--just when things get a little too pretty and familiar, something appears to break it all down and assemble a new whole, a new perspective. That new element can be something as simple as a bow, nervous and heavy against string, making those surreal and cinematic swirling noises that prompted a guest to ask me, "Why are we listening to horror film music?" Or it can be something relatively complex, such as a couple of autoharps being strummed in unison, along with the piano, into an earthy harmonic structure not unlike Meryl Streep's simulated "dial tone" in the film Adaptation. You're not going to necessarily recognize the sounds coming from these three gifted musicians, but they are achieved with honesty.

The story of how I stumbled onto this wonderful, wonderful recording is also interesting. My Norwegian friend Trond Torgnesskar, who sent me the beautiful Ingvild Koksvik LP I reviewed last July, told me he'd be sending me more great-sounding contemporary Norwegian music since I enjoyed Nattapent so much. "It is by Lars Jakob Rudjord, Ingvild's boyfriend, and the guy playing piano on her record," Trond told me. Clockwork, like Nattapent before it, was released by Fyrlyd Records, a label with a reputation for great sound. Indeed, this album was recorded "at IsitArt Studios in the deep Swedish forests." Don't you want to hear Clockwork for that reason alone?

I'll tell you what--I'm probably going to bring this CD with me to every trade show I attend. It's just that great of a demo disc, with amazing sonics and intriguing music. I'll be at CES in Vegas next month, so just ask me to play it for you. It's already late November, so I'm sure I'll be asked for my top ten favorites of 2014 for the Perfect Sound Forever year-end round-up. Unless something even more amazing appears in my mailbox in the next couple of weeks, this is my pick for the best thing I've heard this year.

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