I was initially leery of this album titled Nordic Balm with its whiff of New Age, but because I was very favorably impressed with Karl Seglem’s 2012 release NyeSongar.no, I resolved to set aside my prejudices and approach it with open mind and ears. It was a good choice. (It usually is.)
Seglem, a Norwegian saxophonist with a fondness for also playing goat horns, has been playing with his Acoustic Quartet, three younger musicians, for nearly a decade. The four — Seglem plus pianist Andreas Ulvo, bassist Sigurd Hole and Jonas Howden Sjøvaag on drums — have developed quite a bit of sympathetic vibes in those years, and it shows on this, their third studio album.
The opening track “Balsam” fits the mood of quiet healing music that I expected on an album with “balm” in the title. After an introduction of light arpeggios from pianist Ulvo on a prepared piano, the rest of the players unite in backing Seglem on a stately and soothing melody that never descends into pathos but maintains a clear-eyed dignity; it turns out that it’s a song for Seglem’s brother who’s being treated for cancer. The ending section has a lovely bass-piano duet that definitely places this in the realm of jazz. It’s followed by the similarly uplifting and measured “Lys i Glaset” or “Light in the glass,” which features some lovely work by Sjøvaag the drummer and bassist Hole, too. If you didn’t know you were in Scandinavian territory already, this one would tip you off.
Next up, “Eldblome” is much more upbeat, a quick-paced melody shared by piano and sax with a solid improvised section that reveal this quartet as a top-notch jazz ensemble.
“Ned Dalen” or “Down in the valley” is also a bit more upbeat, a melodic bit of post-bop that’s not as pastoral as its title would suggest, thanks in large part to Sjøvaag’s quietly insistent timekeeping, particularly a long section where he turns his brushes on the toms. Hole really stands out on the bass on the intriguing “Februargras,” another lovely melodic piece with some darker undertones. “Helgheim” is downright urban-sounding, with a rhythmic foundation that’s almost hip-hop and a soaring melody on Seglem’s tenor. (The very avant-garde improv middle section is all jazz, though.)
I mentioned goat horns, and Seglem plays extended jams on these ancient instruments on a couple of tunes. “Myrull” is an ancient-sounding melody, doubled by Ulvo on piano for much of the piece while Hole lays down a deep bass drone for much of the time. The horn in Seglem’s hands (or lips, actually) is more versatile than you’d expect, sometimes sounding for all the world like a muted trumpet, others like a soprano sax, and often like just what it is, rustic and primal. The other goat-horn piece is “Fjordskimr,” a much more avant garde work, with Seglem wailing expressively and in a wide variety of tones over the urgent staccato bed laid down by the rhythm section. Not soporific at all, and obviously a lot of fun for the musicians!
So, don’t fear that Nordic Balm is an album of smooth jazz destined to become aural wallpaper. Far from it. Even in those places where it’s obviously intended to sooth, it always maintains its integrity, and there’s always something quite interesting going on if you’re paying attention.