Hilmar Jensson: Ditty Blei
Songlines SGL SA1547-2
Hilmar Jensson (electric guitar)
Jim Black (drums)
Andrew D'Angelo (alto saxophone, bass clarinet)
Herb Robertson (trumpet)
Trevor Dunn (acoustic bass)
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Review by Mark Werlin - May 30, 2022
This remarkable DSD release from the early years of SACD demonstrated the capacity of the technology to capture the nuances and vividness of a live-in-studio performance, and preserved a set of outstanding performances of innovative jazz music.
Icelandic guitarist-composer Hilmar Jensson, during his time of residency in New York City, formed a trio ensemble with percussionist Jim Black and reeds player Andrew D’Angelo called Tyft, which released a self-titled CD for Songlines Records in 2002. Hilmar and Black had originally met in 1990 when they were attending Berklee School of Music, and later shared a New York flat with D’Angelo and saxophonist Chris Speed in the early ‘90s. The music on both “Tyft” and “Ditty Blei”, in Hilmar’s words “revisit[ed] this period, taking the musical ideas that initially brought us together and expanding them.”
Augmented by bassist Trevor Dunn and trumpetist Herb Robertson, the Tyft trio performed the compositions on “Ditty Blei” at Joe Marciano’s System Two studio in 2004. Marciano recorded the band live to multichannel DSD; the tracks were then mixed to 2 and 5 channel in the analogue domain, and output to DSD.
In the album’s liner notes, Hilmar writes that the pieces he’d conceived as “song-like” were transformed into more complex structures. This method of through-composed segments interspersed with passages of improvisation can be heard in the opening “Letta”, where the front line of guitar, trumpet and bass clarinet state a recognizable theme that flows into a solo by Robertson, a return to the ensemble for further development, then a brief solo by D’Angelo, whose use of overblowing suggests both the cries of New Thing and the roars of Peter Brötzmann. The subsequent tracks follow a similar pattern of defined heads, ensemble restatements, and space for soloing. In “larf” D’Angelo’s anguished alto moans contrast with Hilmar’s cleanly articulated, angular lines.
The attentive listening that Hilmar, D’Angelo and Black developed over years of living and playing together is exemplified in “Mayla maybe”, where the multiple voices retain their distinctive sounds both in free-blowing sections and in tightly-arranged written ensemble passages. A quiet, unaccompanied acoustic guitar intro sets the introspective tone of “Correct me if I’m right”. In response to the wistful opening theme, Robertson blows a solo that answers the guitar’s call with legato lines that convey poignant longing.
On “Grinning”, a folk-like lament, Hilmar plays against the grain by turning up his guitar distortion and unleashing Jim Black’s formidable polyrhythmic drumming. A coda for muted trumpet, acoustic guitar, bass clarinet and brushes on the drums returns to the quiet solemnity of the opening. It’s a piece of skillful writing (and audio editing) that speaks to the emotional depth of Hilmar’s compositions. The plaintive "davu" further displays Hilmar's careful part-writing, while the final piece "everything is temporary" sets the musicians adrift on retreating waves of half-uttered melody and broken rhythm.
Reviewing an album in retrospect of nearly two decades provides an opportunity to consider the music in the historical context of its production and in relation to subsequent work by the performers. Hilmar’s later activity has primarily been in or near to his home in Iceland. While his discography may not be very well known outside the circle of jazz and new music guitar aficionados, he has continued to lead his own sessions, collaborated with fellow Icelandic musician Skulli Sversson, and participated in Jim Black’s long-running project Alasnoaxis.
Andrew D’Angelo and Jim Black, at the time they performed on “Ditty Blei”, had been working for several years in the quartet group Human Feel, with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and reeds player Chris Speed. Human Feel’s 1996 album “Speak to It” which was recorded live to two-track analogue and originally released by Songlines on CD, was reissued in September 2021 as a 24/192 download, after Speed fortuitously located the original master tapes in his archives.
“Speak to It” is one of the most exciting and engaging albums and one of the best-sounding recordings of NYC downtown jazz from the 1990s. Though separated by eight years, the musical conversation heard on “Speak to It” informed and inspired the group interaction on “Ditty Blei”. The special quality of Human Feel’s communication has endured; years later, the group reunited for a European tour and recorded the album “Gold” for the Intakt label.
Most of Songlines Records’ SACDs are still available in disc format, either directly from the label or from Amazon and other sellers. Songlines’ high-resolution and DSD releases from 2002 to present can be purchased as downloads from the Montréal-based vendor ProStudioMasters.
At the time of its release, “Ditty Blei” earned rave reviews for its musical vitality and superb sonics. Don’t miss the chance to rediscover this gem from the SACD treasure chest.
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