• Jon Edergren
  • Sofia Jernberg

Tonight the Umbrella Music Festival gets under way at the Chicago Cultural Center, where the two-day European Jazz Meets Chicago mini-fest occurs. One of the groups I’m most excited about is Seval, a quintet featuring Chicago cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and four excellent musicians from Sweden: singer Sofia Jernberg, trumpeter Emil Strandberg, bassist Patric Thorman, and guitarist David Stackenäs. I’ve been particularly impressed with Jernberg and Strandberg of late, who’ve both released some fantastic recordings outside of Seval in the last year or so.

Stackenäs joins Jernberg as a member of the New Songs, a daring quartet that also features French pianist Eve Risser and Norwegian guitarist Kim Myhr. The group’s fantastic debut album, A Nest at the Junction of Paths (Umlaut), showcases many of the things that make Jernberg so unique. If Seval is a pop band of improvisers, New Songs is an art song project of improvisers; Jernberg and Risser wrote all of the music. The singer possesses remarkable pitch control, guiding her crystalline voice through all sorts of swoops, intervals, and wordless flurries. While she rarely cycles through the melodies without radically transforming them at every pass, she doesn’t needlessly draw attention to herself either. Whether embroidering or radically reinventing written themes or deploying a huge arsenal of extended techniques, Jernberg’s machinations always feel tightly woven into the fabric of whatever project she’s involved with. The instrumentalists that surround her also follow suit, improvising heavily along the loose composed patterns and interacting with one another at a very high level, but never grandstanding. Below you can check out one of the singer’s pieces, “Reality Had a Little Weight.”

Jernberg is also a core member of the excellent Paavo, an ensemble she leads with Swedish pianist Cecilia Persson; its third and latest album, The Third Song of the Peacock (Found You), strips down the usual chamber ensemble to just a trio, with Jernberg and Persson joined by the marvelous reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist, whose band Yun Kan 10 includes the singer. Jernberg wrote most of the music, and her tunes again dance around the boundaries of jazz, pop, and art song; the melodies are graceful and sophisticated, with unerring commentary and support from her collaborators, and the singer’s articulation is perfect. She takes some greater liberties here as an improviser—as you can hear below on the album opener “Correct Behaviour” she shows off her more extroverted side, but again, it fits the performance, which at times suggests what Bjork might sound like as a cabaret singer. The package also includes an excellent DVD featuring live performances by the full group—trumpeter Strandberg, Ljungkvist, reedists Nils Berg, Thomas Backman, and Marcelo Gabard Pazos, bassist Clas Lassbo, and drummer Gustav Nahlin—in various combinations.

  • Micke Keysendal
  • Emil Strandberg

Strandberg visited Chicago for the first time in March of last year, and back then I wrote a blog post lamenting the fact that he’d yet to release an album under his own leadership. That situation was finally remedied earlier this year with Works (Found You), a wonderful trio album with Stackenäs and bassist Pär-Ola Landin, featuring eight concise performances of tunes by the trumpeter. The album captures Strandberg at his most tender and lyric and the sparse setting prevents him from hiding within the sounds generated by his band mates. His tone is pure and strong, and his compositions are consistently lovely—his “Changes,” for example, sounds like a classic ballad that could have emerged from the Great American Songbook. The accompaniment of Stackenäs and Landin is loose but alert; in particular the adventurous guitarist walks a thrilling line between clean-toned accents and comping and splintery effects and dissonant soundbursts. It’s not all strictly inside: “Sthlm Stomp” is a jagged little digression with a wobbly center that seems to right itself as often as it veers off course, while the closer “Komposition” includes some masterfully incorporated silences and gestural accompaniment. But by and large this record focuses on the hornman’s deft melodic gifts. Below you can check out the opening track, “Maybe It Is.”

Strandberg also turns up on another collaborative album with Thorman and pianist Sten Sandell—a single 33-minute free improvisation recorded live at Stockholm’s Fylkingen last September called It Is Right and I Am Lost (Found You). Chicagoans have heard Sandell in numerous contexts—whether it was his killer trio with Mats Gustafsson and Raymond Strid called Gush or in solo mode, where sometimes he accents his own turbulent, brooding lines with throat singing—but here with the trumpeter’s lyric voice his playing feels less weighty. Below you can check out an excerpt of the first six minutes of the album.


Today’s playlist:

Sven-Åke Johansson, Für Paul Klee (Jazzwerkstatt)
3 Hürel, 3 Hürel (World Psychedelia Ltd./Diskotur)
Fruko & Joe Arroyo, Rebelión Tropical: the Very Best of Fruko & Joe Arroyo (Nascente)
Akira Sakata and Nobuyasu Furuya, Live at the Bitches Brew (Solid, Japan)
Serge Chaloff, The Fable of Mabel (Storyvile, Japan)