Thursday, December 3, 2009

In review--Norwegian Holiday

Mathias Eick, Pasha Hanjana and Ertan Tekin
The Three Wise Men
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

Stephen Brandt-Hansen
In the Light of Christmas
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

Since 2003 when I discovered the Norwegian blues musician Knut Reiersrud, holiday music released on the Norwegian label, Kirkelig Kulturverksted (KKV), has become a tradition for me. Founder of the label, Erik Hillestad and his colleagues produce holiday music with an ethnic edge, certainly the holiday records I listened to as a child did not feature Iranian nays (a reed flute) and Turkish instruments—I only wish that they had! A few years back, the Palestinian vocalist Rim Banna made her European debut on a KKV holiday recording. She would later follow up with three successful solo albums released on the label. For the 2009 holiday releases, trumpet Mathias Eick and tenor Stephen Brandt-Hansen set the stars in the firmament.

The Three Wise Men featuring three wise musicians hailing from Norway (multi-instrumentalist Mathias Eick), Iran (Pasha Hanjana on nay) and Turkish duduk (a reed instrument) player Ertan Tekin. They perform mostly familiar holiday classics, with a few exotic ones tossed in. Mathias’ arrangements of piano, trumpet, vibraphone, duduk and nay could be called exotic as well. In fact, listeners might feel tempted to light incense of myrrh and frankincense.

This beautiful global recording features traditional songs from Germany, France, England, Norway, Italy, and Palestine. The opener, a somber Scandinavian traditional song, My Heart is Always with Jesus with its East-meets-West arrangement, if you can imagine jazz trumpet backed by the nay and duduk. Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night and Little Town of Bethlehem would sound familiar to the typical American listener, whereas, listeners with global and early music interests will welcome the French traditional, Ave Maria Stella and the Sicilian O Sanctissima. Eick’s trumpet on Little Town of Bethlehem might have the late Miles Davis questioning why he didn’t produce a holiday jazz album—I am guessing.

The collection of songs could not be called rousing nor would I recommend playing this recordings as background music for a holiday party. The arrangements work best as contemplative music, curling up reading a book, meditating or reflecting over a cup of tea or hot chocolate. And this recording would be a wonderful introduction of Middle Eastern instruments to children of all ages.

Tenor Stephen Brandt-Hansen enjoys fame in Europe as a theatrical vocalist. His rendition of Silent Night, Oh, Holy Night, Noel, Noel and other favorites which appear on In the Light of Christmas are beautifully rendered. Any time I hear any version of Silent Night, I recall when I learned how to play the song on a little organ when I was a child—long before I knew about God or religion. I found the song exquisite then and I find it exquisite now. Oh, Holy Night with its vaulted melody that few people can sing well, and it must be sung well, wins the award of my favorite Christmas song. The jaunty Oh, Rest Me Merry Gentlemen with the harmonica kicks up its heels.

Brandt-Hansen goes beyond just doing justice to the song, he sings grace notes in the most difficult passages, almost giving it a baroque treatment and then when the choir comes into back his vocal phrasing, I doubt any listener will not shed a tear for the sheer beauty of it. Iver Kleive (organ/piano), Anders Engen (percussion), Sigmund Groven (harmonica) and a choir directed by Marian Lisland round off the stunning arrangements.

In the Light of Christmas (also the title of a song on the recording penned by Erik Hillestad), could be played in the background of a small dinner or sedate get-together, but it too falls into the contemplative listening scenario. Listeners that prefer vocally-led holiday music would relish this one, but the songs are sung in Norwegian and create a world music listening experience.

I wish everyone in Norway and beyond a happy holiday season. Let 2010 be the year in which we all come together and create peace on earth. Then the real healing can begin.

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