Ketil Bjørnstad ‘A Passion for John Donne’ (ECM) 4/5

ketil-bjørnstadNorwegian pianist and composer has something of a long-term love affair with the prose of English poet John Donne (1572-1631) and on his albums has quite regularly featured the odd musical interpretation of Donne’s work. This has been the case on albums such as ‘The Shadow’, ‘Grace’ and for ECM, ‘The Light’. However, the latest project goes one step further for the entire album is devoted to Donne and in tone there are parallels to be made with Jan Garbarek and his collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble. The leader in this instance is surrounded by the Oslo Chamber Choir and regular band members Håkon Kornstad on tenor saxophone, flute and voicings and Birger Mistereggen on percussion. The live recording dates from March 2012 in Oslo and is a deeply relaxing musical experience and one where the classical element is very much in the ascendency. On the opener, ‘Introitu – a passion for John Donne’, the wordless vocals of the choir and piano of the choir greet the listener and the whole choir are in full voice on ‘Thou hast made me’ accompanied by the warm-toned saxophone of Kornstad with the second half more jazz-oriented. An individual male lead vocalist excels on ‘A Fever’ accompanied simply by piano while on ‘The Legacy’ piano and choir play a supportive role when Kornstad undertakes a saxophone solo. Ideally, this writer would like to hear more of Bjørnstad’s piano playing which is relegated to a secondary role here and it is only on pieces such as ‘Interlude No. 1’ that we have the opportunity to hear what a fine player the leader is. The absence of bass and conventional drums leaves plenty of space which the vocals fit into neatly, but this is a very different kind of balance between choir and jazz musicians than say the ‘Sacred Concerts’ of Duke Ellington when a full jazz rhythm section operated throughout with brass and choir playing off one another.

Tim Stenhouse