Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: Fabula Suite Lugano

Much as he did on his previous recording The Zoo Is Far, Christian Wallumrød's Fabula Suite Lugano finds the composer and pianist distancing himself from anything remotely jazz-oriented for a through-composed collection that has considerably more in common with classical chamber, baroque, and Norwegian folk styles. That the recording is credited to the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble is wholly apropos because, even though an occasional solo or duo setting appears, the material is very much group- as opposed to soloist-based.

The very sound of the ensemble offers plenty of timbral rewards, as the distinctive interplay between Wallumrød's piano (plus harmonium and toy piano), Tanja Orning's cello, Giovanna Pessi's baroque harp, Eivind Lønning's trumpet, and Gjermund Larsen's violin, Hardanger fiddle, and viola accounts for a major part of the recording's appeal. In a few cases a single voice is heard (“Solo,” a piano coda by Wallumrød) or two (“Quote funèbre,” based on isolated chords from the music of Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman, augments sparse piano chords with Larsen's improvised commentary), but most of the recording features the exquisite playing of the full ensemble. A classical dimension is sometimes present, as evidenced by the lovely renderings of “Jumpa,” “Scarlatti Sonata,” and “Valse Dolcissima.” Of particular note is “Jumpa,” a stately setting whose Baroque quality is strengthened by Larsen's presence (Wallumrød himself notes that the piece reminds him of the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully).

Some track titles are associative, others so direct they're programmatic (what else would “Drum” be but a spotlight for percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen); “Pling” turns out to be rather onomatopoetically titled due to the sparse piano plinks that dot its landscape, while “Snake” slithers (suggested in equal doses by the cello and harp) rather surreptitiously, as if mimicking a reptile with a skin pattern camouflaging its movements. “Blop,” on the other hand, hardly seems the optimal word to capture its elegant harp strums. The opening setting “Solemn Mosquitoes” captures the fluttering quality of the titular pest in the trills played by the ensemble with such flair, while “I Had A Mother Who Could Swim,” inspired by Wallumrød's a memory of Nina Simone's rendering of “Nobody's Fault but Mine” while he was swimming in a lake in Lugano, brings a hint of gospel and slow blues to the recording.

There's much to admire and recommend about Fabula Suite Lugano. Even so, one of the more difficult things for a recording to achieve when it's comprised of eighteen pieces, especially when many are short, is a sense of unity and cohesiveness. It's therefore not entirely surprising that the album, as strong as it is, ultimately registers as somewhat unwieldy in its make-up.

May 2010