Herskedal’s Arabian Rhapsody

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The Roc – Daniel Herskedal (Edition Records)

I have listened to this album over and over. As I have listened, I have sat with pen poised, ready to note down those comments which, painstakingly distilled, would lead to a peerless review. 10 tracks. 49 minutes. Nothing to it. Every time I have forgotten pen and paper and become enmeshed in a trance-inducing weave of quiet aural magic.

I could tell you that this is by far the most engaging and affecting album I have listened to this year, one which is sure to make the top ten, at year’s end, in both global roots and jazz categories. To do so would be to miss the true impact of this wonderful music.

Daniel Herskedal is a Norwegian composer and musician (tuba, bass trumpet). The album ‘Neck of the Woods’ (2011) with sax maestro Marius Neset served notice that there was a new kid on the Scandinavian-dominated European jazz scene. The subsequent ‘Slow Eastbound Train’ (2015) further raised his profile and, in style, acted as a springboard for ‘The Roc’ (2017).

On this album, which gets its title from ‘a great bird of pan-Asian mythology’, Herskedal is joined by Bergmund Waal Skaslien (viola), Svante Henryson (cello), Eyolf Dale (piano) and Helge Andreas Norbakken (percussion).

The music on The Roc is like the soundtrack to one man’s soul-searching odyssey back to the Cradle of Civilisation, a seeking out of some spiritual nirvana. The quiet piano intro to the opener ‘Seeds of Language’ leaves you in no doubt you are taking the first steps on a big journey, one which you will never forget. Running through all ten tracks is an evocative and timeless sound built around the Arabian tonal system. This was inspired, no doubt, by Herskedal’s travels through Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Indeed, the music manages to marry the bleak, empty and ice-bound mountainous landscape of Norway with the sun-blasted sands of the Arabian Crescent.

Tuba, cello and piano work with percussion in creating a sonorous rhythmic foundation throughout. This can readily be heard in the insistent basslines running through ‘Kurd, Bayat, Nahawand To Kurdon’ and in the stormy mid-section of the moody and brooding ‘Thurayya Railways’. Viola, piano and trumpet add the animation and colour required by the narrative. Bergmund Waal Skaslien’s viola is particularly effective. His effortlessly languid playing, more than anything, adds flesh to the bones of these stories as he dances across the various Arabian scales underpinning successive tracks.

Among the stand-out tracks, in as much as one can choose favourites, is the fabulously titled ’There Are Three Things You Cannot Hide: Love, Smoke And A Man Riding On A Camel’. With its sensational cello opening, simple percussion and piano and viola elaboration it is a thing of stark beauty. ‘Eternal Sunshine Creates A Desert’, slow and sensual, has an air of quiet spiritual reflection to it that will slow the very beating of your heart. The final track ‘All That Has Happened, Happened As Fate Willed’ has a funereal string intro that opens, joyously, into a glorious piano solo.

This is a stunning album. Beautifully controlled, yet unforced, narrative-rich, yet minimalist. It defies categorisation. Each and every track is like a chapter in an epic travelogue. The music threatens, at times, to take off. Yet it never does. It does not need to. It is as close to a spiritual experience as one is likely to get outside of making a penitential visit to Lough Derg. Or joining the Mecca-bound throngs making the Hajj. Like all great spiritual experiences it is at times unsettling. And yet the story must be told.

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