Maria Kalaniemi & Sven Ahlbäck’s Ilmajousi / Luftstråk

cover art for IlmajousiTwo musical innovators, Finnish accordionist Maria Kalaniemi and Swedish fiddler Sven Ahlbäck, have pooled their considerable talents to produce a recording of subtle delights.

The 36-year-old Kalaniemi, who has top billing here, has rapidly risen to the top ranks of accordionists throughout Europe. Since completing her studies of classical and folk music at the prestigious Sibelius Academy, she has formed a groundbreaking group, Aldargaz, pursued a successful solo career, and performed with top European musicians including Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon and the Finnish folk-pop vocal ensemble Värttinä.

A decade ago, Kalaniemi and Ahlbäck discovered a mutual love for improvisation and contemporary arrangements of traditional Nordic folk themes, and have finally collaborated on this disc. It’s title translates to “air bowing” in English, reflecting the musicians’ attempts to meld the sounds produced by their instruments’ bellows and strings, respectively.

It’s a remarkable synthesis of sounds, styles and genres. The duo plays nine traditional pieces, most of them arranged by Ahlbäck, and eight contemporary works, six by Ahlbäck, two by Kalaniemi.

The traditional pieces are mostly polkas and other dances given modern arrangements by Ahlbäck. Generally, Kalaniemi plays a melodic bass line in an innovative style she devised using almost entirely the bass buttons of the accordion, while Ahlbäck plays the melody. One of the traditional numbers is a slow and stately 19-century minuet with a Hungarian-like melody augmented by lots of trills and grace notes on the fiddle.

Also included are three vocal works, sung by Susanne Rosenberg. Two are traditional songs with scat-like vocals taking the part of another instrument; “Sorglaten” sounds like Medieval jazz, “No Skall vi ga i Skogen” has a call-and-response scheme between the singer and fiddle. Ahlbäck’s “Luoto” is a modernist piece with a soaring fiddle line over counterpoint by the singer and accordion.

The title track and “Randen,” both by Ahlbäck, anchor the album. “Luftstrak” has a cold, mysterious Nordic feeling, with the two players swapping improvisatory leads. “Randen” is a semi-classical work in three sections, featuring some truly impressive work by Kalaniemi, as she sometimes plays dual melodies on the bass and treble keys.

Kalaniemi plays two short solo pieces of her own composition, “Miete,” a jazz-inflected meditation on a folk melody, and “Alli,” with echoes of spaghetti-western themes — a haunting melody line on the upper keys over a droning bass line that slowly fades into the sunset.

There’s not a single “oom-pah-pah” on this entire record, so if that’s your idea of European folk music played on accordion, you owe it to yourself and the instrument to check out Luftstrak.

(Amigo/NorthSide, 2001)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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