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Seafarer's Song

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Album Review

The inside booklet for Norwegian pianist and composer Ketil Bjørnstad's Seafarer's Song begins with a small statement by the Spanish author Juan Jose Millas about the plight of the truly shipwrecked, the ruined in our postmodern times, where messages of distress don't come in bottles, but inside the real human bodies of refugees. It speaks volumes about the music included here. Bjørnstad has given us yet another album of the water to be sure, something he has done since the inception of his solo career for ECM, but he has done so in a completely different way. There is no jazz on the Seafarer's Song, and yes; that's a plus. Utilizing his long-standing band which includes trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, guitarist Eivind Aarset, drummer Per Lindvall, bassist Bjorn Kjellemyr, and cellist Svante Henryson, Bjørnstad ups the ante by employing the brilliant if unconventional vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen, whose amazing voice walks the dull knife-edge between Kim Carnes' throaty growl and Victoria Williams' jazzed-out phrasing. In sum then, the Seafarer's Song is a rock album, albeit a rock music that no one's heard before because it begins in the spirit of jazz. Bjørnstad based his lyrics on the poems, essays, and novels of Homer, Emily Dickinson, Giles Tremlett, Helen Hunt Jackson, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Emily Bronte, and Rudyard Kipling. These are songs with the sea in their hearts, as both literal transport, and geographic and spiritual terrain, and as metaphor for transformation, dislocation , dissolution, and redemption. The music here swirls, whirls, and undulates, its pulse always detectable in the drift of motion and dynamic, in those moments where the chaos of an out-of-control cello meets the subtle washes of ambient guitar as in "Tidal Waves," or in the time tick of drums and droning guitars amid the modal piano lines in "He Struggled to the Surface." And throughout it all, Asbjornsen's vocal rises above, and pushes the listener down into the maelstrom that is at the heart of all of this music. But that chaotic tension is balanced by the music's other heart: the peace that dwells in the depth of sound, of a longing that tells us we are human, of acceptance (the piano and vocal duet that is "How Sweet the Moonlight Sleeps Upon This Bank"). By the time we reach the final fourth of this album, the listener has been moved into another place, a space where time doesn't cease to exist so much as wrap itself to traverse willy-nilly between past and present as if to connect them inextricably in the heart of the listener who can observe the characters in the stunning crock-and-roll crunch of "I Had Been Hungry, All These Years," or becomes the voice of the lost in the minor key waltz of "The Exile's Line." Notions of hope, disappointment, and disappearance float and sting the music and lyrical lines in these songs, until the final two tracks, where "I Many Times Thought Peace Had Come," which calls forth a promise and cancels it out only to begin building it again, as the cello sings every refugee's song from time immemorial. And in the whispered grace of Bjørnstad's piano on "Night Is Darkening Around Me," by Bronte, is a tale of resolve and a prayer for deliverance. The album somehow just fades into the silence, carrying in its wake the weight, promise, and grief of the displaced who seek, against all hope, a place of refuge. The Seafarer's Song is breathtaking as a piece of music, brave and unflinching in its vision, and has the ability to move a listener from indifference to empathy and wonder.


Born: 25 April 1952 in Oslo, Norway

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

A classically trained jazz pianist with a bent toward avant-garde improvised music, Ketil Bjørnstad is a well-known musician and writer in Europe. With his cerebral, atmospheric style that belies a palpable inner passion and an inclination toward genre-crossing compositions, Bjørnstad helped develop and popularize the "European jazz" aesthetic. He is also a writer and poet and has published over 30 works beginning with his 1972 poetry collection Alone. Born in Oslo, Norway, Bjørnstad studied classical...
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Seafarer's Song, Ketil Bjørnstad
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