Norwegian violinist and composer Inger Hannisdal's debut album, North South East West, presents ten of her original compositions performed alongside four other players. Norway famously has a strong and thriving fiddle tradition and new releases from emerging artists offering their own take on the music occur with some regularity. What soon becomes clear here is that the influence of that Norwegian musical heritage, though not altogether absent, is never central. Perhaps significantly Hannisdal chooses to list her instrument as violin and not fiddle and the album title itself implies a wish to look outward in every direction for inspiration.
The brief opening track “Intro” may nevertheless be a nod to the forspill, the name for a similarly short piece traditionally played by Norwegian fiddlers as a prelude to a performance. Played by Hannisdal accompanied only by Adrian Myhr on double bass, “Intro” is slow and low key and feels like the first cautious, exploratory steps at the beginning of what is to be an eventful journey.
After only slightly upping the tempo for the second track, things then start moving in a quite different direction. From the start of “Virvler – Swirls” (titles are stated in Norwegian and English where appropriate) it becomes clear that the compass is now pointing eastward. Hannisdal sets the brisk rhythm, joined by Myhr and Frode Haltli on accordion and then by drummer Michaela Antalová. Some fine improvisation follows, with solos from Halti and then Hannisdal. Having studied classical and jazz violin, Inger Hannisdal's broader education focused on the Middle East, including time spent in Lebanon where she studied Arabic music and violin. This experience has evidently informed much of the music to be heard here, both rhythmically and in its use of microtonal scales.
Although it's clearly Inger Hannisdal's album, this is very much a group effort. The ensemble playing is exemplary with powerful unison sections and plenty of space allowed for the other musicians to contribute individually. As well as providing some fine melodic improvisation, accordionist Haltli also brings imaginative but nicely understated textural additions to the musical pallette, using a variety of techniques which push the instrument beyond what might normally be expected of it.
“Berceuse” begins as a fragile waltz, a simple melody with an unexpected twist, which then takes a sudden turn into an improvisation featuring all five musicians, with Khalid Laaouam's alto sax playing bringing a refreshingly different voice to a familiar instrument. Drummer Michaela Antalová, who uses brushes throughout the album, plays in a particularly open way here, breaking up the rhythm while giving extra colour to the sound. After a pause the waltz returns to complete the piece and its quirks stay in your head longer still.
“Seil - Sails” starts off at a steady but purposeful pace with Hannisdal stating, then improvising on the Middle-Eastern flavoured melody until things abruptly change direction. The tempo picks up, bass and drums push things along at a fast bebop pace and there's a fine jazzy accordion solo before things drop back once more to where we started, the short and frantic urban excursion leading us back to something more rural and slightly edgy.
There's a unity of vision in North South East West, but at the same time Inger Hannisdal manages to continually surprise, introducing new ideas not just from one track to another but within each piece. To achieve that without it feeling in any way contrived is a real achievement.
Further reading and listening
Inger Hannisdal Ensemble, live at Kafé Hærverk in Oslo