Based in Reykjavik, young, up-and-coming guitarist Mikael Máni Ásmundsson is joined by fellow Icelandic musicians bassist Skúli Sverrisson and drummer Magnús Trygvason Elíassen for this debut trio recording. Inspiration for ten original tunes came from an unusual source; chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer. Having read Fischer’s biography, guitarist Máni decided to base his compositions on a fictional interpretation of his life, centred around his winning of the World Chess Championships, held in Iceland, against Russian Boris Spassky in 1972. One has to say that knowledge of this is most definitely not a prerequisite to enjoying this album. In fact, the information is superfluous to the listener to be honest, as the music speaks for itself. It’s always nice to have a bit of background info though as often it can help to understand where the musicians find their inspiration.
Máni is something of an old-school jazz guitarist, in a very good way, drawing on the rich jazz tradition of guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. He successfully blends this respectful nod to the past, with a keen ear on more contemporary guitarists such as Lage Lund and Rotem Sivan. “Bobby” is predominately a straight-ahead jazz guitar/bass/drums album, but it also benefits from an atmospheric richness that is rare to hear from a composer so young. At times the music is alive with melody and improv, with all three musicians creating a beautifully interwoven tapestry of sound, whilst at other times there is a calming, meditative flow to the music that is as equally impressive in its own way.
Each of the ten tracks have a lovely fresh vibe to them. There’s a refreshing 70’s-like gentle groove to the opener “Board Games”, the trio very quickly showing the intuition and skill that flows through the music of the entire album. Tracks like this, along with the wonderful “Reykjavik 1972” and the cool originality of “Sol” highlight the trio at their best. The reflective nature of the guitarist comes to the fore on pieces like “First Impression of a Fragile Man”, “Betrayal of an Insecure Soul”, and “Down in the well”. Máni shows a subtlety beyond his years on many of these tunes, with a delicate, thoughtful touch which provides the reflective spark for his band-mates to create a spellbinding atmosphere through intuitive playing of their instruments. The collective feel is of a oneness and togetherness that many trios struggle to achieve through many years of performing together.
Whilst this album shows much promise from the young guitarist, I can’t help feeling there is so much more to come from him. It’s like there’s a more vibrant, adventurous version of himself just waiting to be set free. He’s an emerging talent for sure, on the cusp of something special.
Oh, and if you are a chess lover, I’d heartily recommend putting this album on whilst reading one of the finest chess-based novels ever written; Walter Tevis’ “The Queen’s Gambit”.