Liberia Ballad is the fifth album from Örjan Hultén Orion. It sees the Swedish band collaborating with Liberian singer-composer Ernie Bruce. I for one was unaware of the long historic links between Sweden and Liberia. These are social and commercial links stretching over hundreds of years but here the currency is music. This does not mean that a group of Swedes and an African have come together to produce a worthy World Music blend. Liberia Ballad is as much about the American art form as the ethnicity of the musicians who are making the music. Each bring their own take on that art form channelled through their individual experience of the music from their location in its history and development. At the risk of this turning a little too serious, on to the music which at heart is joyous, positive and full of life.
The instrumental title track opens the album with its street sounds reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘Black Market’ before taking us into a loping piano-driven tune by Torbjörn Gulz who is responsible for many of the compositions on this collaborative album. He says of ‘Dreams’ the first of the vocal tracks on Liberia Ballad, “we started a collaboration, where Ernie provided some of the compositions with lyrics, and I wrote ‘Dreams’ in the Spring of 2019. I composed it with the image of Ernie, sitting next to me at the piano with an always present laugh”. Ernie Bruce says, “I had to be very careful in complementing Torbjörn’s incredible piano platform to dance on”. ‘Dream’ is urging us to reach inside ourselves to find and connect with our dreams. Bruce’s voice warm but with a hint of fragility. The only obvious jazz comparison I could bring to mind here was the Johnny Hartman / John Coltrane collaborations without reliance on the American Songbook.
Elsewhere ‘Sixto’ sees Bruce crafting a lyric about Sixto Rodrigues, the subject of the 2012 award-winning documentary directed by Malik Bendjelloul, to the original Hultén composition which closed their 2016 album Faltrapport. It basically retells that story and features some urging, preaching tenor saxophone from the composer and finishes with an appreciative laugh from the lyricist who has treated us to some Eddie Jefferson style vocalise along the way.
Of the instrumentals which appear on Liberia Ballad, ‘The Bird’ is a lovely jaunty soprano outing based on the call of a bird which Hultén heard outside the band’s hotel in Monrovia. It is delivered as a trio with Filip Augustson at the bass and Peter Danemo drums. Sounds of heavy rain introduce ‘Liberian Rain’, an evocative bucolic composition by Torbjörn Gulz about “water in its various forms”. It has a simple but beautiful melodic form with Augustson’s bowed bass interlude particularly appealing.
‘Liberia Waltz’, a delightfully light, optimistic-sounding number features some crisp cymbal work from Danemo and a lyrical bass solo from Augustson before composer Gulz treats us to another of his uplifting solos.
‘Treaty Suite’ is strangely at odds with the mood of the rest of the album. Though not I think in a negative way. Where to place it on the album must have led to some interesting conversations I imagine. It appears as the sixth of nine tracks and features what sound engineer Johan Berke describes as a “collage of sound depicting a surrealistic dream sequence”. It opens with scene-setting by Gulz and Hultén before Ernie Bruce enters, not singing this time but reading in declamatory fashion from the text of a treaty of 1864 between Liberia and The Sweden-Norway Union. This is treated electronically to echo and repeat certain keywords against a backdrop of electronically processed sounds which swirl around the spoken lines in psychedelic fashion. An interesting aural experience through headphones. The electronic soundscape carries us to the second half of the composition with a gradual underpinning by piano and saxophone as though commenting upon the spoken text to a bass statement from Filip Augustson which becomes a definite bass hook leading us into a wonderful Coltranesque section with the band in full flight and Hultén’s strong tenor saxophone at its standout best. The coda brings us back to bleeping electronics.
Credit must go to Johan Berke whose electronic soundscape lifts ‘Treaty Suite’ to another level. It’s a strange but interesting trip.
‘When Delilah Smiles’ brings us back to earth. It’s the most classic jazz ballad on the album with a dancing solo from Gulz and lyrics from the vocalist which ask questions about Delilah which paint her as an enigmatic Mona Lisa figure.
The album’s closing track, ‘Sangay’, with music and lyrics by Ernie Bruce is in his words “about an imaginary African figure, who can be whomever the listener wishes it to be”. The repeated name of the songs central character leaves us with her shadow as an earworm.
Liberia Ballad is an interesting change of pace and experimentation for Örjan Hultén’s Orion. Their collaboration with singer Ernie Bruce is largely successful with everyone rising to the occasion. In the current times, we need to be reminded of the positive power of music and cross-continental friendship. Liberia Ballad reminds us of that. I look forward to hearing where we travel to next on our voyage.