Cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm is one of Chicago’s staunchest advocates of free improvisation, but throughout his lengthy career he’s also engaged with various pop modes. Groups such as Valentine Trio and Stirrup (his current band with band with bassist Nick Macri and drummer Charles Rumback) have braided together rigorous improvisation and richly melodic song forms. In the 90s Lonberg-Holm became a kind of unofficial house arranger for South Loop studio Truckstop, which produced recordings by the Boxhead Ensemble, Simon Joyner, and Sinister Luck Ensemble. But perhaps my favorite pop-influenced project of his has been Seval, a quintet with four of Sweden’s strongest improvisers.
Longberg-Holm has written delicate, tenderly tuneful songs for the group, and in live performances the players push and pull on them, creating spontaneous arrangements and mercurial accents. Every gig is different. The group performed rarely, especially in the U.S., but its set at the 2013 edition of the Umbrella Music Festival was extraordinary. Earlier this year Seval released its third album, Fragile (Found You), which the press materials identified as the ensemble’s swan song: “The members of the group continue to work in various groups both separately and together, but . . . this particular constellation has burned out.” Seval vocalist Sofia Jernberg especially has found herself in increased demand, because her skill at interpreting notated new-music works matches her improvisational ingenuity.
All the musicians shine on Fragile. Trumpeter Emil Strandberg blows consistently lyrical lines, some of which sound lifted from old Burt Bacharach arrangements. Bassist Patric Thorman and guitarist David Stackenäs move easily between sketching out the changes in a support role (while the tunes state their themes) and contributing angular shapes, counterpoint, and dissonance (as the arrangements hit the open road). The members of Seval had a strong rapport, and their elegant interactions made the group’s music pleasantly accessible, even when they employed jarring extended techniques. On “I Am Not Worried” Strandberg blows muted flurries, alternately sour and distorted, while all three string players throw down a gauntlet of thwacks, striated arco strokes, and gnarled patterns. Through it all Jernberg maintains a clear-eyed repose, even when she pulls apart the titular phrase to undermine its meaning.
Below you can check out one my favorite tracks, “I Worry,” which for Seval qualifies as a pretty ballad—it includes some of Lonberg-Holm’s loveliest playing. The record as a whole couldn’t be a more bittersweet farewell for the quintet.
Gary Peacock Trio, Eastward (Columbia, Japan)
Richard Dawson, Nothing Important (Weird World)
Yoshi Wada, Lament for the Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Crocodile (Omega Point)
Louis & Annette Kaufman, The Music of William Grant Still (Orion)
Bikini Kill, Pussy Whipped (Kill Rock Stars)