Johanna-Adele Jüssi / Hjetland & Ulvsand
Jullie Hjetland & Jens Ulvsand
The Nordic Master is a program formed by the folk music academies of Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. One of the recent student projects from that program was an ensemble called Blink. About two years ago I had the opportunity to write a review for RootsWorld of their debut recording. Now two members of Blink have new recordings of their own.
For Ulvsand & Hjetland, Jullie Hjetland, the Danish/Norwegian vocalist in Blink, teamed up with Sweden's Jens Ulvsand, a veteran of Trio Mio, Yölariis, and other Scandinavian ensembles. The core of this record has Hjetland singing accompanied by Ulvsand on bouzouki. There is occasional autoharp and ukulele, and some looping too, but these serve to support the bouzouki and vocals which are at the heart of each of these songs.
Many of these individual tracks sound like pieces within pieces. Tunes start with one feel, morph into something different, then return to the original, perhaps passing through other territory on the way back. Some songs feel more experimental than others, wandering further afield. Never is the course taken distracting or disjointed.
There are a number of highlights. "Bodaibo" has the strongest rhythmic drive, some tasteful dissonance, and some ethereal interludes. “Min Dokka,” composed by Ulvsand, uses a simple bass loop along with countermelodies and harmonies to beef up the sound of the duo. Hjetland's song “Tornado” is blown in multiple sonic directions, capped by some wild autoharp effects.
“Gardsjento” is my favorite track. It is credited as being a traditional Norwegian tune, but it gets spun in some very enjoyable nontraditional ways. The arrangement starts with voice and bouzouki in unison, then quickly traverses new territory filled with vocal effects, repetitive patterns, dronish loops, and traditional dance rhythms.
The records starts with a traditional song from Shetland, “Aire from Brae,” that is stark and beautiful, but lacks some of the force of other tracks on the record. Had I been sequencing the album I might have put one of the more energetic, driving pieces first, and let this more melodic, ethereal music come later as a contrast. (That's a quibble that may not even matter in these days when everyone listen to their iPods on shuffle mode, and few listen to albums straight through anymore.)
In contrast, the new record from Blink's Johanna-Adele Jüssi, Kiilid, is a straightforward record with traditional roots, branching in a new acoustic direction rather than into the aether.
Jüssi is a fiddler from Estonia, which sits just 50 miles south of Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland, and she makes the Nordic-Baltic leap seem effortless. Half of the tunes on this record are her own compositions or co-writes. The other half are traditional tunes, three from Estonia and two from Denmark. The way these weave together makes it difficult to tell one root from another without relying on the liner notes.
The only tune I recognized was a traditional Danish “Hopsa.” Jüssi's arrangement uses two fiddles and a double bass. The supporting musicians trade off between driving rhythms and superb counterpoint. The hopsa is a circle dance, and this version would certainly be danceable, but I'd have a difficult time because I'd keep stopping to listen to the nuances of the players rather than paying attention to the dance steps.
Twin fiddles re-appear multiple times on other tracks, sometimes with bass and sometimes without. Either way, the arrangements and the performances make the songs featuring two fiddlers my favorite tracks on the record.
Another highlight is the “Saaremaa Valss,” a traditional Estonian waltz done with fiddle, guitar, and bass. The interplay between the players reminds me somewhat of the Swedish trio Väsen in the ways they interact and play off each other. Again, while this is dance music, I'd rather stop and listen.
The original tune “Elajad” is performed as a fiddle solo, with a bit of well-executed classical flair thrown in. The title track, another original which translates as “Dragonflies,” reminds me in some ways of Jay Ungar's tune “Ashoken Farewell.”
These are two very different recordings, each showcasing aspects of what I love about Blink. I look forward to more solo outings from each of these women, eager to hear where they take Nordic traditions next. - Greg Harness
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