On Rosenhill is a tribute to the neighbourhood where the composer and jazz trumpeter Jakob Buchanan grew up and which he has revisited many years later. A Danish housing project characterized by identical concrete housing blocks when it was built in the 1960s, today's Rosenhøj (Rosenhill) is a fascinating cultural melting pot that offers previously undreamt of possibilities to its residents. The album is Buchanan's first for Dacapo Records, introducing a wonderful new group of close musical associates in music of flowing lyricism, delicate texture and inspired interplay in settings of poems by the best-selling writer, Iain S. Thomas.
Music of the clouds
by Christian Munch-Hansen
In a way, it is very simple: a soaring trumpet, some open soundscapes and a pulse from below. Something utterly Nordic mixed with a blue melancholy. A particular gentle caution resides in the intonations of the trumpeter and composer Jakob Buchanan as if it is ultimately not he who is coming up with things but the music that is elicited by an imaginary landscape. As a musician, Buchanan knows the jazz tradition intimately, although he has found his own path to an open, Scandinavian sound. The grand universe of classical music, also, forms a sounding board, which over the years has become increasingly evident in his music.
The music of Jakob Buchanan (b. 1968) revolves around roots and narratives. This recording too has its own history, which initially dates back to 2017. On a January evening, a spectacular event took place in Aarhus at the opening cere mony of Aarhus 2017 – European Capital of Culture of the year: a torchlit procession in which people walked through the city holding small lanterns shaped like ships. Ships being a symbol of Aarhus as a historic port serving routes to many places around the world since the Viking Age. The whole scene was accompanied by Jakob Buchanan’s large-scale, evocative work The Voices from Rosenhill, which had been written for the occasion. The solemn procession moved down to the waterfront watched by tens of thousands of onlookers who experienced the colourful Viking ships moving like a wave through the sea of people as part of the parade, their lit-up sails displaying the faces of young people from the residential neighbourhood ‘Rosenhøj’ ( Rosenhill). Over the loudspeakers one could hear them reciting the famous phrase ‘I dreamt a dream last night’ first in Danish, then in their original mother tongues. A beautiful and straightforward way of including the diversity of the citizens of Aarhus. (‘I dreamt a dream last night’ is a line from the oldest known secular song in the Nordic countries, originally written in runes on two simple staves in an early form of musical notation.)
Buchanan explains: ‘I was born in Rosenhøj. This neighbourhood is where I come from and where I spent the first 7-8 years of my life growing up. The area has changed a lot and has become very multi- ethnic. One hears about the problems only, but it is a fascinating cultural melting pot. Rosenhøj is an Eldorado of languages, colours and opportunities. And when one does not understand everything that people say, the languages themselves also become a kind of music’.
And thus the voices of 12-14 nationalities merged with the sound of Aarhus Jazz Orchestra’s warm brass and woodwinds, their rhythm section and a vast choir of adults and children as a collective rite in Aarhus’s winter darkness.
It is this musical material that Jakob Buchanan has adapted and further developed into a completely new work entitled On Rosenhill. The original two movements, including a reminiscence of the old folk melody, now form the conclusion of a more extended suite in seven movements. The ensemble is centred around Aarhus Jazz Orchestra and the soloists Indra Rios-Moore (vocals), Chris Speed (clarinet and tenor saxophone), Simon Toldam (keyboards) and Helge Andreas Norbakken (percussion).
It has become a personal work whose core is still a musical meditation on his childhood neighbourhood, the highly profiled soloists adding unexpected gifts to the work as a whole. As Buchanan explains: ‘They all have a special ability to blend into the music and become a part of it. For me, the music is a state, some special moods inspired by Rosenhøj, and the soloists have been invited into these moods. Part of the beauty of improvised music is that the soloists’ voices also tell stories within the story.’
One can imagine the composer sitting on a balcony in a rented flat in Rosenhøj, playing around with scales and melodic ideas and recalling the significance of the place. That was actually what happened in the summer of 2016. In this work, Buchanan scales up his Nordic chamber jazz and gives it an orchestral form that does not really resemble anything else. There are reminiscences of Kenny Wheeler’s orchestral music and a feeling of spiritual kinship with some of Buchanan’s favourite works and composers, such as Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Hildegard of Bingen’s archaic melodies and Gil Evans’ timbres.
Jakob Buchanan’s approach to composition is intuitive rather than conceptual. The writing is linked to his experiences as a musician: ‘I write largely as a trumpeter. I am fascinated by scales and drones above which melodies and voices can be developed. In On Rosenhill I have written long passages with broken triads, among other things. Certain melodic lines are used in several places. Besides, there are ‘songs’ embedded in the work, that is, poems by Iain S. Thomas set to music.’
With this, Buchanan is referring to the collaboration he has built up with the South African poet, Iain S. Thomas (b. 1980), the author of several collections of poems and short stories, and one who has a growing readership worldwide. Buchanan discovered Thomas via the latter’s internet blog. ‘His poems read like proverbs; they are not culturally determined, but rather very existential. This lends them universal validity,’ says Buchanan of the selected texts, which widen the perspective, being lyrical maxims about human life. Singer Indra Rios-Moore interprets the lyrics with a voice that combines the sublimely beautiful with the unaffected and natural, in the same way, that she interpreted Christian and Buddhist sentences in Requiem (2015), Buchanan’s award-winning work for big band, choir and soloists. A large-scale work which combined elements from the Latin mass for the dead with European choral tradition, Nordic orchestral music and improvisation.
In 2001, Jakob Buchanan became the first jazz musician at the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus to take part in the soloist programme, previously reserved for classical students. Today he teaches composition in the rhythmic department: ‘In Aarhus, you are part of a diverse environment, where jazz is close to classical music, because the Academy has merged the courses. I have always loved the great works and, when I was a student, I could find a way of sneaking in and attending conductors’ rehearsals with strings and orchestras. I studied Russian for a couple of years at the university, and there I discovered Russian avant-garde art from the beginning of the 20th century, including the painter Malevich, who worked with points, lines and surfaces. When I listen to Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mahler or James Macmillan today, I can find myself listening for the points, the lines and the surfaces of the music. It can be a new way to experience how works are composed.’
Since Requiem, which also saw the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with choral and orchestral conductor Carsten Seyer-Hansen, several orchestral projects have seen the light of day. In 2017, as mentioned, it was The Voices from Rosenhill written to celebrate Aarhus 2017 – European Capital of Culture. In 2019, Songs To The Green Land for big band, choir and soloists was performed in Aarhus and Copenhagen. Buchanan has also written and recorded with guitarist Jakob Bro a work for choir and instrumental soloists that have not yet been published. And a new commission awaits – a piece for Aarhus Jazz Orchestra and the Copen hagen Royal Chapel Choir under the direction of Carsten Seyer-Hansen. Jakob Buchanan has quietly become a new and exciting voice in Danish orchestral music.
More than once, the meditative atmosphere of On Rosenhill touches our hearts and reminds us of the inexplicable, the beauty of life, fragility and the fleeting realisations that come and go like clouds – as expressed in a poem by Pia Tafdrup:
Clouds drift away, the sound
of clouds is the sound
That most I want to hear
Listen to On Rosenhill for its coolly coloured wind sequences, for Chris Speed’s intense clarinet melodies, for Simon Toldam’s discreetly present keyboard playing and space sounds, Helge Andreas Norbakken’s rippling rhythms, the soaring of Jakob Buchanan’s flügelhorn and Indra Rios-Moore’s voice and captivating interpretations of Iain S Thomas’ poetry. And listen to how everything contributes to the evocative architecture of the work as a whole.
Christian Munch-Hansen is a music writer, author and teacher