Daniel Herskedal, “A Single Sunbeam”
By Peter Margasak · March 05, 2024

Norwegian tuba virtuoso Daniel Herskedal emerged from his homeland’s vibrant jazz scene nearly two decades ago, but from the beginning it seemed certain that his musical vision couldn’t be contained by a single tradition. Indeed, while attending the prestigious Trondheim Conservatory he formed his first band Listen!, with pianist Espen Berg and saxophonist Bendik Giske, all of whom have pursued successful careers creating music that radiates from a jazz core, yet which has extended far beyond its strictures. While Herskedal has worked in a variety of stylistically disparate contexts—in Magic Pocket and alongside saxophonist Marius Neset—over the last decade he’s gravitated toward an engrossing collision of ambient music and Scandinavian folk. Most of his multifarious interests come together on his gorgeously lyrical new album A Single Sunbeam, where his overdubbed tuba and bass trumpet produce a dense, lush timbre that evokes the winter chill of his homeland viewed from a toasty sitting room.

Herskedal has enlisted a variety of collaborators to bring his vision to life, including veteran violinist Ola Kvernberg, drummer Helge Andreas Norbakken, and vocalist Marja Mortensson, who help forge the music’s resonant depth and melodic elegance. While the leader’s patient, contemplative compositions have the same time-stretching qualities as the best ambient music, Herskedal doesn’t overlook the art of songcraft. While his multi-tracked brass serves as a dense foundation for these performances, with rolling low-end and atmospheric lines recalling the splendor of Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen and the dramatic sensibility of the Iceland rock band Sigur Rós, it’s the leader’s engagement with native folk traditions that truly sets the music part. Moretensson is a member of Norway’s Sami community, and her ability to reshape her people’s joik tradition in the context of hypnotic ambient music is astonishing. The clarity of her instrument and the pinched, almost hectoring quality of joik—which traditionally tries to articulate the essence of an animal, person, or landscape through sound—both fits into the slow-moving arrangements like a glove and cuts against its gentle grain like a razor, bringing a contrasting element missing in a lot of ambient work.

Herskedal is content to sketch out the forms of his tunes with full-bodied brass arrangements, eschewing solos in favor of subtly churning lines distinguished by quietly evolving colors, although his extended introduction on the title track leaves no doubt that he can easily summon spontaneous constructions of great depth. Kvernberg delivers hushed yet grain-heavy counterpoint, playing lines that either feed off the brass or intersect it with contrapuntal agility. No less important is the clopping, almost ritualistic drumming of Norbakken, who worked previously with Mari Boine—an obvious antecedent of Mortensson’s style-crossing approach. His cymbal-free beats provide floor-rumbling depth and jagged propulsion, suggesting thunder more than percussion. In the end the music seems to emanate from the ether as much as the human imagination.

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