For me, the most rewarding music, regardless of genre, fires the imagination and takes me on an emotional journey, adventuring into places I’ve rarely been, tugging at the heartstrings along the way. Danish bassist/composer Kenneth Dahl Knudsen seems to have an uncanny knack of achieving this. His 2016 release “We’ll Meet In The Rain” was an astonishingly beautiful album, written for and performed by a 19 piece jazz orchestra. His 2018 quintet album “Tete” was no less impressive. Let there be no doubt, “Uummat” is a massive artistic statement, both in terms of its complex compositions and the stellar musical performances by a diverse ensemble of musicians from both jazz and classical musical backgrounds.
As a reviewer, I rarely comment on how I approach a review. Everyone takes a different view, and indeed, my approach varies from album to album depending on a whole host of different reasons and circumstances. But there’s always one thing I like to do, and that is to listen to the music before reading any notes, info or press release. I find it easier to listen to the music with an open mind. And then I read up on the artist and album. A lot of the time the information is not that relevant, but occasionally, as with this recording, it adds awareness and gravitas, increasing the depth and meaning of the music itself. I love it when this happens. When I first listened to “Uummat” I was completely blown away. It’s a journey of the most compelling kind; beguiling beauty, tenderness, unparalleled joy, mixed with dark melancholia, a sense of danger and unease, and a harrowing restlessness and uncertainty. It’s all in there, and much more besides. As a whole musical piece, I feel it has the same kind of oeuvre as Henryk Gorecki’s masterpiece, Symphony No.3, otherwise known as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with its direct and highly emotive themes based around war and persecution, and a parent’s perspective on losing a child. Those were my first impressions. And then I read the “Uummat” album notes…
Working on Western Greenland island Ummannaq, Knudsen was exposed to the vast, calm and awe-inspiring surroundings, which were the first catalyst for a new set of compositions. Soon, a second incidence added a new dimension to the music. During a dinner with the leader of a local orphanage, the composer was invited to read from author Lise Andersen’s book Uummat – Stories from the heart, a book documenting the personal experiences of neglect of children from the orphanage. Third, Knudsen encountered the rich Greenlandic folklore in the recently published Bestiarium Groenlandica – an illustrated handbook of mythical beings, spirits and animals. The resulting music is rich and organic, ranging from clear and precise compositions to wild and chaotic improvisation. As Knudsen comments in the album’s liner notes; “It was heartbreaking to learn of these stories, and be in the midst of it. To witness how life still prevails and how resilient people can be. I had to write this music.”
Musically speaking, Knudsen wears his heart on his sleeve. And thank goodness he does. I do not know him personally, but in him, I feel something of a kindred spirit. Maybe there are many who do, who knows. What I do know is just how incredibly powerful his music is. It is life, it is nature, it is human-kind. It stirs the emotions, whether they be empathetic and euphoric, or dark and disquieting. Uummat’s riveting journey of discovery begins with “Allamioq”, acoustic piano and edgy strings leading into the melody. There’s an uneasy eloquence that builds with tension, the music revealing its beauty as the piece unfolds. Throughout the entire album, Knudsen juxtaposes hope with despair perfectly, the highs and lows creating a diverse world in which the listener never quite knows what’s just around the corner. Undine Rolava’s voice is stunning. Her crystalline vocals add an immense presence and depth to the entire recording, with a purity that truly raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Uffe Markussen and Tedas Pasaravicius, the two excellent saxophonists stand out on several of the tracks, none more so than on the mesmerising “Uummannaq”, a gloriously beautiful piece of music. I can feel the heart and soul of compassion shining like a guiding light as I listen and get lost in the emotive wonder of this. The arrangements are fresh and inspiring, whether it be a quiet reflective section of music, or a full-blown cacophony of sound, as heard on “Monsters” and “Maliina”. Experimental electronics blend with crazy sax improv and a frantic, screaming voice of despair. Imagine you’re with that person who half-hides their eyes whilst watching a horror movie, yet are still glued to what’s happening, unable to look away. This is the musical equivalent of that scenario. “Anngiaq” brings a sense of serenity to the proceedings, and a joyful exuberance as the strings dance and play with an arrogant frivolity. As with much of this recording, there are surprises galore towards the end of the track, surprising and delighting in equal measure. “The Sleigh” wouldn’t be out of place in any of the great composer’s masterworks. It’s like Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff getting drawn into Igor Stravinsky’s strange new world. Shades of light and dark are a repeating theme throughout the album, with unfathomable textures and blinding colours creating sounds, paths, footprints, memories and imagery. The mood can change in an instant, as on “Inua” where sweet moments of beauty mix sympathetically with a sudden moment of unease. The cascading rhythms of life lead us into the closing piece “Sorsunneq” a cross-pollination of all that is modern jazz and contemporary classical music, in a life-affirming celebration of sound.
Kenneth Dahl Knudsen’s “Uummat” is an incredible achievement. The music is nothing short of astonishing; at times comforting, safe and homely, at times challenging and testing. Ultimately it is intensely rewarding. In my humble opinion, it defines what truly great music is all about, and indeed, what it is to be human, with passion, depth, honesty and integrity.