Haftor Medbøe | Jacob Karlzon 10″ (Copperfly) 4/5

Norwegian/Scottish guitarist Haftor Medbøe and Swedish pianist Jacob Karlzon pool their creative forces for this duo recording of four (plus digital bonus track) delightful and original compositions. The album is released in the unusual format of limited edition, hand-numbered 10” vinyl, which leads to the question; when is an album not an album? Two of the four tunes are under 5 minutes long, with the other two just over 6 minutes apiece. So it’s longer than an EP, but not as long as your average album. On the plus side, it leaves the listener wanting more and you do get to fully immerse yourself in the tunes available. On the negative side, you could feel a little shortchanged. As to why it’s been released in this format I do not know, but what really matters is the quality of the music, and that’s most definitely not in doubt here.

Since first meeting at the Islay Jazz Festival in the Scottish Hebrides 15 years ago, (guitarist Medbøe has resided in Scotland for many years now) Medbøe and Karlzon have been slowly hatching a plan to collaborate and they finally come together on this recording. First premiered live as part of Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival 2018, their music sounds very personal and draws on their shared roots and influences, evoking a richly melodic and lyrical Nordic sensibility.

There is a real sense of the here and now on this session. A timeless beauty intertwines the guitar and piano and one gets the impression that both musicians were very much ‘in the moment’ when recording. The connection between the two musicians is musically tight and spiritually engaging. The music is beautiful, free-flowing like a river that gently journeys its way through time, meditative and contemplative yet still bubbling up with emotion and adventure. There are strong echoes of the Scandinavian jazz tradition as embodied by pianists Jan Johansson and Esbjörn Svensson, together with elements of European folk and jazz music.

It is, however, an American pairing that springs to mind when listening to this record; Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. Anyone familiar with their early ECM outings will undoubtedly appreciate the subtle phrasing and nuances of the guitar and piano duo. Medbøe and Karlzon share that special space, with the strength of the compositions matched by their performances here.

The first tune, “Hope”, is melancholic and yet ultimately uplifting. Like a summer breeze washing away the cobwebs, the mood is thoughtful and the expressionistic music very engaging. Immediately one can hear the balance and understanding between the two musicians, with the guitar and piano at times performing in unison, and at other times heading off in different directions. But it’s always in a thoughtful and complimentary way. “Waiting” is a simply gorgeous piece of music, with piano and guitar sharing an achingly beautiful vibe, very akin to Metheny and Mays on classic collaborative tracks like “September Fifteenth”. The interplay is stunningly exquisite. It’s not just the mood and gentle adventure that impresses, it’s the sense of place and understanding that allows each musician to carve their own paths within the tune itself, making for a mesmerising listen. The contemplative mood continues with the beguiling “Tranquil”, a piece that takes its time, slowly telling its own story. The duo take the listener on an enchanted journey, with a quiet introspection releasing itself in the form of wonderful melody and improvisation. “Return” enjoys a quicker tempo, with the melodic nature of the tune captured in a spinning web by the two musicians. If Jim Hall And Brad Mehldau had ever got together to record, this could possibly be how they might have sounded, the expressive, tuneful nature of this piece burning brightly. The bonus track, “Happiness”, features vocalist Jessie Bates and is a lovely tune in itself, well worth downloading to accompany the four tracks on the vinyl release.

Medbøe and Karlzon will be touring in the UK and in Scandinavia through 2019/20. I for one am very much looking forward to hearing them perform their music in a live setting. Let’s hope there’s more to come from this duo on record soon.

Mike Gates