Songs of the Balkans
Its appeal somewhere between those of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a leftfield favourite in the 1980s, and the collaboration between the saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the singers of the Hilliard Ensemble in the 1990s, Medna Roso is an album taken from a concert in a Cologne church in 2021 by PJEV, a quintet of female singers specialising in the traditional songs of Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia, with the alto saxophonist Hayden Chisholm and the organist Kit Downes.
Chisholm left his native New Zealand in the ’90s to explore the world of music: jazz at a conservatory in Cologne, Carnatic music in Chennai, and the music of the Balkans. I heard him at a festival in Berlin a few years ago, where I admired the distinctive personality of his playing, later enjoyed on a fine album called Breve which he made with the late pianist John Taylor and the bassist Matt Penman, released in 2015 on the Pirouet label.
Downes, of course, is the gifted English pianist known for his work with Empirical, ENEMY, Troyka and the cellist Lucy Railton, among others. His playing on church organs — which he studied at the Royal Academy of Music — has been heard on an album with the saxophonist Tom Challenger under the name Vyamanikal and on his ECM albums Obsidian and Dreamlife of Debris.
In collaboration with the singers Jovana Lukic, Zvezdana Ostojic, Gloria Lindeman, Lana Hosni and Julijana Lesic, the job of Downes and Chisholm (who also plays analogue synthesisers and shruti box and adds his own throat singing) is to create instrumental textures and interludes, counterpointing, underlining and separating the eight traditional songs that made up the programme for a concert held in St Agnes’ Church as part of Cologne’s JazzWeek.
The voices are plangent, not as lush as the Bulgarian choir, keening and ululating with an ardour and a harsher edge that seems to come from somewhere deep in human history. The songs are about life in mountain villages: families, lovers, the seasons changing (translations are provided in the accompanying booklet). Chisholm and Downes find ways of enhancing their inherent qualities, adding new dimensions and perspectives, providing connective tissue that swells and glows quite beautifully. In the eternal search for music suitable for quiet Sunday mornings, Medna Roso is a valuable discovery.
It’s also the third release on Red Hook, a label founded by the producer Sun Chung, the son of a classical conductor, who grew up in Europe and the US and studied at the New England Conservatory before spending several years at ECM, observing Manfred Eicher’s approach in the recording studio. His label’s debut, a final solo recording by the late pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, called Hanamichi, was one of the finest releases of 2021. Medna Roso will be on this year’s list, no doubt, and deserves a very wide hearing among those likely to respond to its special properties.
* The photograph of PJEV with Hayden Chisholm was taken by Niclas Weber during the concert in Cologne’s Agneskirche. The album is released on 5 May.
Matt Penman is a bass player not a drummer
Thank you… a bit of slip between brain and fingers. Will correct.