Samsingen is an unlikely collaboration between Swedish classical vocalist Anna-Kajsa Holmberg and a group of Italian improvising musicians led by the Serrapiglio brothers. Holmberg, described as a 'lyric coloratura mezzo-soprano' by her artistic management representatives, is a graduate of the Carl Nielsen Academy, and has played lead roles in 20th Century operas by composers such as Peter Maxwell-Davies and Per Nørgård. Unlike the stereotypical operatic vocalist, Holmberg's approach to the decidedly non-operatic music on "Samsingen" is unassuming and not the least bit overbearing. However, she is clearly the centerpiece of "Samsingen" and her perfect intonation, effortless phrasing, and unaffected delivery are a joy to behold.
The rest of the ensemble does more than merely provide a backdrop to Ms. Holmberg's stunning voice. Holmberg interacts with the instrumentalists - and they interact with her - in a variety of interesting and unexpected ways. Their music is moody, atmospheric, often somewhat melancholy - like something that would not be out of place in the ECM 'New Series' catalog. In many ways, "Samsingen" owes somewhat more to 20th Century avant garde chamber music than it does to either avant garde jazz (á la Jimmy Giuffre's early 60s trio), or to traditional Swedish folk music.
Though Italy and Sweden seem to be worlds apart, the collaboration actually works extremely well, as the quartet consistently focuses on the most passionate, most intense aspects of the Scandinavian folk canon. 'Väntat Haver Jag' is a great example - Holmberg sings the tragic-sounding theme, which ebbs and swells as the vibes and bass clarinet muse in the background. It's all very restrained, yet packed with seething emotions. Cellist Andrea Serrapiglio takes the jaunty, sparkling 'Aller e Re' and reconfigures it into a bleak, droning soundscape, only to be overtaken by a particularly carefree vocal rendition of the theme. They really hit their stride on 'Kväller är I Tuna,' where Holmberg's riveting vocal is accompanied by the ensemble's enthusiastic Medieval-sounding accompaniment - it's the aural equivalent of an allegorical tableau by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 'Ack Högaste Himmel' is more outwardly creepy, with its slowly-changing backdrop of scraping cymbals, cello drones, and malevolently humming electronics. Electronics and sampling crop up again on the wildly hiccuping 'Hej Hipp Remix,' which might make you think that the CD is defective at first listen.
Though Samsingen is clearly Holmberg's show, each of the instrumentalists spends considerable time in the musical foreground. All three are effective improvisers, particularly bass clarinetist Luca Serrapiglio. I especially enjoyed Nicola Guazzaloca's cool, detached vibraphone work throughout. The only misstep on this fine debut CD are the brief passages of free improvisation, which seem - to my ears - to be just a tad stiff and calculated-sounding. But this is a minor quibble. Samsingen is a strong debut by a distinctive group of young European musicians. When their music comes together in tight focus, the results are quite powerful.