Väsen, Trio (Northside, 2003)

Väsen is Olov Johansson on 3-row chromatic nyckelharpa and kontrabasharpa, Mikael Marin on viola, 5-string viola, and pomposa, and Roger Tallroth on 12-string guitar and bosoki. Having had the opportunity over the last few years to immerse myself in many of Väsen's recordings, see them perform live, and interview Olov Johansson, these musicians (unbeknownst to them) have become old friends. Just recently they were guests on A Prairie Home Companion and my ears perked up, I got all excited and rushed to turn up the radio. Hey, Väsen is on with Garrison Kiellor! This is so cool! So I'm happy to be able to tell you about this album entitled Trio.

I appreciate Rob Simonds' comments in the booklet (he's the founder and chief bottle washer of Northside Records). He explains the issue of Väsen as a trio and a quartet. Percussionist André Ferrari often performs with the other three, but unfortunately not often outside Sweden these days, leaving non-Swedish audience members longing to travel with the hopes of seeing the quartet in action. Sometimes the trio will call in Fredrik Gille to fill the percussion gap when André can't do it. Faced with a dilemma, Johansson, Marin, and Tallroth have decided to have two Väsens: one with percussion, one without. This decision gave them the opportunity to reconnect with their original sensibility as a trio, but doesn't shut the door on the repertoire that works best with percussion. Brilliant idea.

These players are incredibly tight, smooth, and expressive, and play and breathe as one organism, not three. Generally, Johansson's impeccable nyckelharpa melodies take the lead, Tallroth's ever-interesting rhythm guitar provides the foundation, and Marin's viola is the glue in between. Of course, they also all shift roles effortlessly depending on the tune, but this is where they start. They are masters at getting the widest variety of sounds and emotions out of their instruments and are very conscious of the use of dynamic range.

All of the cuts on this CD are wonderful. Just when I thought I had a favorite, I change my mind. Each of the musicians contributes original material and there are two traditional pieces that round it out. Rather than go in to detail about each track, I'll select a favorite from each writer and one traditional. It'll be hard to choose, but here we go.

"Lost in the Sugar Beet Field" launches the CD with a light, dancing melody on Johansson's nyckelharpa. Soon enough Marin and Tallroth sneak in for another couple of rounds. There's a feeling of anticipation to the music in the beginning. Hmmm, I'm wondering what it's all leading to ... when Tallroth jumps the tracks and pulls out his power house rock rhythm guitar. Ok, so this is where it would have been fun to have the percussion, but I'll buy this arrangement.

Marin's waltz "In the Middle of Life" stood out for me during my first listening. The liner notes say "when you turn 40 you might need a waltz" It starts with a reflective melody, full of wisdom, in a medium-to-low register on the viola. When the B part comes in, Marin glides through a series of triplets that feels like someone has come up behind me, lifted me high in the air, then brought me down gently to the ground. It's as if to say "40 isn't so bad, you know. Here's the good part". Tallroth's ability to dance around and in and out of the down beat with the guitar is always so satisfying and it keeps the piece from getting bogged down in a predictable one, two, three. Johansson slides from the melody to supportive harmony with the higher tones adding a sparkle. "In the Middle of Life" works just as well for this 50-something too.

A great example of Tallroth's writing and sense of rhythm can be heard in "Norwegian Boards". He describes it as a tune that is "part of a longer choir piece and the a-part is to be played at same time as "Norwegian Wood."" We don't hear the Beatles song in this arrangement, nor is there a choir. I'd love to hear that version someday. Instead, he has retrofitted this composition to work with the trio. You can tell the rhythm guitar player wrote this one. The A part takes on a strong duple meter only to be circumvented by the triple time in the B part. There's no subtle change to it either. The time changes yank the listener from one direction to another. Imagine being on a carnival ride that constantly takes hard right and left turns.

You can't have a Swedish CD without a polska and Johansson gives us a fabulous one as the second half of track #3 (beginning at 2:00), "Pedalpolska". He plays this on an "old style kontrabasharpa," which I will assume is a lower range nyckelharpa. Marin and Johansson work their tight melody together as is their wont with Tallroth adamantly staying off the down beat. Half way through Marin and Johansson duke out the melody, counterpoint, and harmony in a flurry of notes like a flock of birds taking off after being spooked. Wow, what a great ride this piece is!

It's tricky sometimes trying to take these tunes apart and identifying who's playing what when especially between Johansson and Marin. Part of that has to do with the close range and timbre of the stringed instruments and part of it is attributed to their intense tightness as a trio. No matter, this is a wonderfully satisfying listening experience -- rich in beautiful melodies, moods, and modes. You don't need to worry yourself with too many details -- just turn it up and be surrounded by the music.