Music without vocals is sadly an acquired taste in this karaoke generation. Instrumental music is for the free-thinkers that don’t need to be spoon fed emotional messages in capital letters with a thick black marker pen, but can take little scattered sticky notes and piece together their own interpretation. Listening to the debut record from Swedish melodic jazz-blues ensemble Daniel Westin Quartet excels at showing what instrumental music does best.
Composer and pianist Daniel Westin and his companions, Sebastian Svensson (guitar), Jonatan Lundin (double bass) and Oskar Eriksson (drums), create an album that’s relaxing and peaceful like sunbathing on a blank schedule day but seen in the right way can be intelligent, expressive and powerfully evocative.
Before pressing play, you could use the album cover as the starting point or first note of guidance. Is it mundane or is it smartly ambiguous? Logic dictates that this candid vacation photo of an average populated beach should be in Scandinavia because of the band’s affinity, but there’s no indication of where or when this photo is taken and that vagueness is essential. It’s almost like it’s there to be helplessly over-analysed and paired with the inside content. That assumption works to some extent but other elements of the album associate themselves with scenes more extraordinary.
“Opening” complies to the first rule. The shuffling drum brushes slide rigorously in a rough and coarse manner on the skin like the texture of sand, whilst the grumpy plucks of the double bass have a hard edge consistency. Yet the rest of the instruments paint the overall picture: the piano is bright, sunny, friendly and clearly daytime, whilst also being reminiscent of the default music on holiday slideshows. The ambient guitar compliments, rather than, controls the mood and hints at an exotic pineapple-hanging paradise. The cymbals crash at the end but rather than disappear immediately, their tremolo effect keeps them rippling like puddles in the sea.
The rest of the album follows in a similar pattern but rather than simply reflect the present moment of its sedate setting, it could also predict the time before or after the event. The title track “Notes” contains suspenseful, unnerving and hurried twists from the piano’s darker key change and drum intensity but springs back its original tone as if it was a set of short premonitions of what might happen next. It’s also worth noting that Svensson’s soothing guitar strokes gets time out of the shade and in front of the usually dominant piano to create a varied dimension.
The same case goes for the ironically-titled “Hymn“, where it’s mostly relegated to the basement of the composition as an insistent piano loop as hissy cymbals and Lundin’s double bass get promoted into the sun. Sparkles glimmer like rainbow-coloured wind chimes at the tail end of a track that’s plagued by a doubtful personality. As “Waltz” suggests, it has the modest odour of ballroom fragrance in its piano performance. Its aristocratic elegance and interior environment, seems like the direct antithesis to the album cover. However the concept of movement is perhaps a correlation. Predominantly piano, there is also choppy inorganic percussion- also featured in “Hymn” – that modernize its rhythm.
“Organizer” is the only track to feature a warm and gospel-like electric organ – which contrasts with the cold steel of the metallic guitar. It starts off lively and optimistic but has moments of subdued temperament and suffers from sluggish repetition in it’s final third. “The Train On The Meadow” is more immobile but announces it’s self-assured tranquil landscape from the very beginning.
“Dante” is the album’s spellbinding surprise and the band’s magnum opus, due to its low frequency oscillations, experimental trumpet jazz and epic 8 and a half minute time length. There’s something evolutionary about it, in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Oddysey. It’s as if it encompasses everything that happened before the album cover’s momentary situation in an absorbing scientific nutshell.
Starting off with flanging effects that seem as if they represent mini-Big Bang blasts that ripple with consequence in a spacious void. The piano stays grounded like the timeline or frame of the events. The pace builds up with earthly drums and a frantic pace before entering the human development phrase with its double bass. The chaotic free-jazz fronted by a wheezing middle-eastern-like trumpet could symbolize the confusion of modern day society.
However you interpret their cryptic canvas, Notes is a great example of how instrumental music can switch on more cerebral lights than music that spouts worthless words of imprudence. Daniel Westin Quartet’s debut album Notes is out on May 15, and you can stream the entire album exclusively below. Pre-order Notes on iTunes here.
Words by Matt Hobbs