Anders Jormin’s new Swedish-Japanese project returns the highly distinctive voice of Lena Willemark to ECM – it’s her first appearance on the label in more than a decade - and introduces koto player Karin Nakagawa. In this trio music the Japanese classical tradition and the stark, archaic sounds of the koto, allied to Jormin’s powerful and subtle bass playing, form a unique context for Lena’s sung poems, delivered in her native Älvdals-dialect. Traditions and non-idiomatic improvising are cross-referenced and new paths opened up in these compositions.
The collaboration between Anders Jormin and Lena Willemark has strengthened since the recording of the song cycle In winds, in light in 2003, and bassist and singer have worked together regularly. In 2013 Lena was also featured as singer in Anders’s oratorio Between Always And Never, premiered with the Jönköping Sinfonietta and Chamber Choir. A shared
wish to take the music into “unexplored regions” prompted Jormin to write to Karin Nakagawa, the koto virtuoso he had seen in concert years before, and propose a new trio: “Both Lena and I felt this would be a challenging project with exciting and unpredictable potential.” Nakagawa’s enthusiastic response set the first challenge: “From here on, the history became about me learning the functions and possibilities of composing for koto. Lena wrote a series of poems that I set to music, and then we had Karin fly over from Japan to meet us for a first week of playing together.”
Karin initiated Anders and Lena into some of the mysteries of the thousand-year-old koto tradition. Lena, in turn, taught Karin how to play Swedish polska, and Anders posited the trio’s conceptual parameters, the improvisational and compositional dimensions which the group would balance. They gave concerts in Sweden and Japan and worked on the music for almost two years before recording the present album at Studio Epidemin in Göteborg. The music now consists of compositions from all three players, based largely upon Willemark’s poems. One of those poems, “Lyöstraini” (Trees of Light) gave the players a name for their project as well as an album title.
A vitally important figure in Swedish folk music, Lena Willemark has also been influenced by jazz and improvisation. She has made interesting observations about the relative densities of folk and improvised forms. Folk music, especially European dance forms and fiddle tunes, tends to be very dense, and note-packed. One of Willemark’s goals as an improviser is to let more air and light into the material, and this is splendidly realised in the trio here. Nakagawa’s approach to the koto, her dramatic use of light and shade, seems also to drive space into the music, her resonant notes creating a clearing in which both Willemark’s voice and Jormin’s bass can move.
Karin Nakagawa is today considered one of the leading exponents of the 25-string koto which she studied with innovative master musician Keiko Nosaka from the age of 12. Her improvisational versatility is well-known and she has collaborated with musicians across the genres, from contemporary music to traditional, as well as diverse transcultural projects. In Japan she is also known as a theatre actor and painter.
Anders Jormin’s sensitivity to music from sources beyond conventional definitions of jazz has long been apparent in repertoire choices made for the Bobo Stenson Trio for more than 20 years. On ECM the bassist has also been heard with Don Cherry, Charles Lloyd, Tomasz Stanko, Sinikka Langeland, Mark Feldman and Jon Balke. As a leader he has been heard on Xieyi (solo with brass quartet, recorded 1999), In winds, in light (song cycle, 2003), and Ad Lucem, (2011, settings of Jormin’s own Latin poetry). On Trees of Light he and Lena Willemark draw melodic inspiration from proximity to Karin Nakagawa’s soundworld, and the reverse is also true. Anders Jormin: “The music on this recording is the result of a long and exciting process, filled with curiosity and respect for each other’s knowledge.”
Lena Willemark’s previous ECM recordings as a leader/co-leader are Nordan (recorded 1993), Agram (1996), and Frifot (1998). Trees of Light is Karin Nakagawa’s ECM debut.