Our first evening in London was spent listening to Mozart.  The next two evenings were occupied with music of a very different kind, taking in concerts that were part of the 2013 London Jazz Festival.  On Saturday we went along to the Southbank Centre to hear Arild Andersen’s star-studded Quintet, and were blown away by the opening act who were previously unknown to me – a Dutch trio going simply under the name Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla.  This turned out to mean a brilliant jazz/chamber/world music combo featuring Ernst Reisjeger on cello, Harmen Fraanje on piano, and Mola Sylla on vocals and percussion.

Mola Sylla

They began quietly enough, pianist and cellist on stage trading lyrical lines as a chamber duet unfolded. Then – for a split-second – I thought some kind of protest was taking place as a man’s voice wailed at the back of the auditorium.  Turning to look, it was the third member of the trio, Mola Sylla, moving down through the auditorium singing in the declamatory style of the West African griot.  It was a spine-tingling moment that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

What followed was a varied and tremendously exciting set which blended elements of European jazz and chamber music with African rhythms in a seamless mix. At times dynamic and dramatic, at others gentle or elegant, the trio combined voices and solos with both sensitivity and a wild, impassioned freedom. One minute Fraanje or Reijseger would pursue a lyrical passage that might have originated in the conservatoire, before striking out into angular, percussive improvisation.

Musicas do Mundo 2013 Festival in Sines

Reisjeger was a revelation, playing his cello in every way imaginable – bowing the strings in a conventional manner to produce fragile and haunting melodies, plucking the strings for jagged pizzicato passages, drumming on the body of his cello, and strumming chords while holding the instrument across his knee, like an oversized guitar. When bowed, Reijseger could make his cello evoke a Baroque melody. Plucked one way he caused it to sound like a jazz bass. Plucked another way, it echoed the tinkly notes of Sylla’s m’bira.

Sylla would respond with impassioned vocals, his voice at times strident and impassioned, at others tinged with melancholy. In robes of crimson and gold, he would stride around the stage twirling bird-callers and African rattles or, seated, pluck a delicate tune on the m’bira (traditional thumb piano) or xalam (the Wolof name for the two- or three-stringed instrument known as an ngoni in Mali).

Reisjeger Fraanje Sylla

Though from different backgrounds, Reijseger, Fraanje and Sylla have, I have learned since, been playing together for many years, both as a trio and in other projects, such as film scores for Werner Herzog’s recent films.  Sylla, from Senegal, met Reijseger after playing his first concerts in Amsterdam with his group Senemali in the late 1980’s. Since then Amsterdam has been Sylla’s home base. During the nest two decades they playing together frequently. Then, in 2007, Fraanje asked both Reijseger and Sylla to join him in a trio.

Back home with Google, I realised that I had been hearing Reijseger for some time: after starting out in the thriving Dutch Baroque and early music scene before branching out into avant-garde music and jazz, he is now best known for the boundary-crossing scores he has written for recent films by Werner Herzog, such as Requiem for a Dying Planet, The Wild Blue Yonder, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Earlier this year the trio released their first record, and I’ve been listening to it a lot during the past week. Deep Down features many of the pieces performed at the Southbank Centre concert, and highlights include Reijseger’s melancholic ‘Elena’ and ‘Amerigo’, the spell-binding concert opener.  My favourite track at the moment is ‘Shaped by the Tide’, which begins with an intricate interplay between Fraanje’s piano and Sylla’s xalam before the cello enters, longing and lyrical.  Seven of the tracks feature Sylla’s vocals – sometimes declaiming his own Senegalese lyrics, sometimes singing wordlessly.

I’ve listened to several very good albums that blend African and European musical traditions. One example is Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko’s exquisite collaboration with the French cellist Vincent Segal, Chamber Music, the work of two musicians from very different backgrounds who seem to understand each other almost intuitively as the kora trades rippling lines with the cello. Another Sissoko collaboration, Diario Mali consists of duets with the Italian classical pianist Ludovico Einaudi on which the piano and kora interweave to produce sheer loveliness.  Or there’s the
Kora Jazz Trio, three West African musicians (Guinean kora player Djeli Moussa Diawara, Senegalese pianist Abdoulaye Diabaté and percussionist Moussa Cissoko) who effortlessly mix traditional West African styles with American jazz standards.

Deep Down ploughs the same furrow with but with a more improvisational and unrestrained approach. As in the concert we saw, classical elements are juxtaposed with the characteristic wailing chant-like melodies of the West African storyteller while at any moment one of the musicians will veer off into angular or rhythmical improvisation, all held together by the exuberant strumming, plucking and battering of his cello by Ernst Rejseger.  One review summed up the album perfectly:

Deceptive in its blend of folkloric naiveté, structural sophistication and improvisational élan, Deep Down truly sounds like no other recording, as romantic classicism intersects with African culture and jazz-centric improvisation.

Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: Amerigo live

Reisjeger/Fraanje/Sylla: Raykwela live

Encounters on Tour

Encounters on Tour is a short film by Myles O’Reilly that follows Trio Reijseger Fraanje Sylla on tour.

See also

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