Jakob Davidsen’s “Babel and Ivory”

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DAVIDSEN: Cruel to Be Kind. The World is Babel and Ivory. Nærmere (Closer) / Signe Asmussen, mezzo; FIGURA Ensemble; Jakob Davidsen Kammerat Orkester / Dacapo 8226137

To some extent, this CD exemplifies my thesis about the state of modern classical composition nowadays. Open up with a loud, crashing, almost mechanical-sounding figure, move into quieter but edgy music, and develop from there, not too much as to lose your audience. Six years ago, when this style was new, I was impressed by what I believed was the “individuality” of such composers, but nowadays it’s become such a formula that I roll my eyes when I hear it because I know what’s coming—and I’m right 98% of the time.

Danish composer Jakob Davidsen, however, was born in 1969 which predates most of the young composers who write in this style. This means that either he invented this way of composing or he has recently jumped on the bandwagon in order to gain more widespread exposure. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he has always composed this way. The liner notes tell us that he was influenced by Nørgård, Stravinsky and Messiaen, so I’ll take him at his word.

One of the interesting things about the opening selection, Cruel to Be Kind, is that most of it is quiet music with a bit of an edge. Another interesting thing is that there is a fairly lengthy trombone solo which, though probably written out, sounds improvised and has the contours of a jazz solo. The World is Babel and Ivory, a work in six movements, follows a similar pattern, albeit with more music for mezzo-soprano and more frequent sharp, jagged outbursts by the trumpet. In the first movement, in fact, the trombone (now muted) returns for a solo, and this time there are trumpet-clarinet-voice rhythmic interjections. This much is very interesting, although I do balk a little at the sameness of approach.

Our singer, Signe Asmussen, has a very pleasant, light voice, sounding almost like a jazz vocalist rather than a classical one, but unfortunately a fairly bad wobble on loud, sustained notes. In the second movement of Babel and Ivory, titled “Worlds of Glass,” a gentle, rocking motion is set up with a beat either in 3 or 6 (it sounds like the latter to me). It has minimalist overtones but, again, develops in a manner not unlike jazz. By this point, I began to believe that Davidsen really does like jazz, and that his aesthetic leans more towards Stravinsky than Messiaen. This was confirmed for me by a piece I discovered at the All About Jazz website, where we learn that Davidsen “has also toured and recorded with many names from the Danish jazz and world music scene, including Takuan and Bright Sight. He has made a close study of the composers Olivier Messiaen and Per Nørgård, who, along with the arranger Gil Evans and the pianist Bill Evans, have left deep traces on Davidsen’s music.” I also began to like the music more and more as it went on.

So this is what you might call modern classical-jazz fusion in the inseparably hyphenated sense of the term. Like the music of American composer Laurie Altman, Davidsen has found his own way of blending the two types of music not in a way that “sounds” like jazz on the surface, as it does in the crossover works of Nikolai Kapustin, Chick Corea or Daniel Schnyder, but, rather, is very subtly constructed. This also explains the general simplicity of his melodic lines, particularly those given to the singer. Take away the edgy, often bitonal harmonic support, and much of this music could be assimilated by the average listener without much trouble—but then there IS the bitonal harmony, which puts it in a different world.

Davidsen occasionally also toys with the rhythm, as in the fourth section of this suite which bears the same title as the suite itself. After interrupted, jagged figures in the opening, rife with dramatic pauses, he then suddenly launches as brief melody with a genuine jazz rhythm. After the repeat of the jagged figures, we get a bass-clarinet duet that sounds like pure jazz, later joined by drums and piano, then trumpet interjections. When the vocalist re-enters, she sings an opposing musical line that has a faint resemblance to something Kurt Weill would have written. It’s difficult to put this music into words; really, you just need to hear it for yourself. “You Are Mine” is a ballad, and here Davidsen uses quite tonal harmony, the voice simply supported by piano with subtone clarinet and bowed cello coming in to join in supporting the singer. Then, suddenly, we turn classical in expression, with lusher harmonies featuring the trumpet and winds behind the vocalist and the piano playing lush arpeggios for a spell. Eventually, the music quiets down to a minimal piano solo with high, soft whines from the cello and sustained notes from the bass behind him. At certain points, Asmussen also joins in, singing high, wordless lines like someone from the old Sauter-Finegan orchestra. Strange music, indeed!

The fifth section of this suite, titled “All Rise,” opens with Asmussen narrating words in Danish over free-form jazz played by the ensemble. It’s at this point that we know, musically speaking, that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Eventually, the instrumental growls grow in volume and intensity until a loud piano arpeggio dismisses them like monsters in a bad dream.

The last piece on this CD, Closer, begins in an extremely minimal fashion; then, after a very long pause (I first thought the piece was over), Asmussen enters to sing a plaintive melody along with the low instruments. Then another pause, not as long, followed by minimal piano sprinkles before returning to the vocal. Yet another strange piece.

Although I’m not quite prepared to call this album a masterpiece, it is surely one of the most unique and unusual albums I’ve heard, and is definitely worth hearing!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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