Elysian Fields invite people to come together with ‘Fika’ [REVIEW]

‘Fika’ is a Swedish word usually translated as a coffee break, but as band leader Jenny Eriksson tells us in the sleeve notes to the second album from Sydney band Elysian Fields, it’s more about the time you spend with friends and family while drinking the coffee and sharing something to eat. The musicians wanted “to create a beautiful recording that would bring people together as fika does”; hence the album’s title. Their aim of creating a beautiful recording has well and truly been achieved, and once our lives return to some semblance of normality following the emergence of the virus that has shaken the world, Fika will indeed bring people together.

The music on this album represents the ‘fika’ concept, with Scandinavia at the heart of it, and includes music from Norwegian composer Jan Gunnar Hoff, iconic Swedish band e.s.t., a number of Swedish folk melodies and a couple of original pieces from band members, about which more below. The cover image, Pink Lake by Swedish artist Nils Gunnar Zander, is a further nod to the fika idea, his interpretation of South Australia’s salt lakes a wonderful visual accompaniment to the music.

With the exception of the song ‘Vi ska stalla till en roliger dans’ (We are going to put on a fun dance) which is a happy rustic folk dance complete with a folksy violin, all the tracks have a meditative quality to them. The opening track ‘Living’ begins and ends with Eriksson’s electric viola da gamba, a modern version of the baroque instrument that sits surprisingly easily in a contemporary improvised musical setting.

In a 2016 interview, Eriksson commented:

“The lowest note is a gravelly A way below middle C on the piano, and the highest string is an A up in the mid-register of the violin. This means I can play bass lines, melodies or harmonise in the middle voices like a trombone.”

Elysian Fields, by the way, is the only electric viola gamba group in the country.

The composer of ‘Living’, Jan Gunnar Hoff, has seamlessly melded medieval, folk and jazz musical elements, a true fusion of styles. When Matt Keegan makes his entrance, it brought to mind the glorious 1994 album Officium. In this instance, Keegan reminded me of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the rest of the band acting as his own personal Hilliard Ensemble. Keegan, of course, has his own style, but in this piece and in the haunting ‘Meditatus’, the gorgeous full sounds of his saxophone add the same kind of richness that Garbarek’s did when he played over the sixteenth-century melodies sung by the four men who made up the vocal group the Hilliard Ensemble. ‘Meditatus’ is in fact part of a mass for jazz ensemble and choir. It’s been arranged for this recording by Eriksson who makes sure that Susie Bishop’s sublime rendition of the ‘Kyrie eleison’ is the hero of the piece, while still allowing for outstanding improvisational passages.

Some of the tracks, like the Swedish folk song ‘Peace on Earth’ (usually heard at Christmastime in Sweden) have a kind of threnodic streak reflecting, in this particular piece, the somewhat introspective lyrics. Arranged by pianist Matt McMahon, ‘Peace on Earth’ showcases piano and viola da gamba before the entrance of Bishop’s vocals. Her voice evokes icy crystals glistening in the moonlight. There’s much to enjoy here, from McMahon’s graceful solo complemented sensitively by drummer Dave Goodman, using brushes to gorgeous effect, and an understated melodic bass from Siebe Pogson.

‘Tune to my father’, written in the 1960s by Pers Erik Olsson and arranged by renowned lutenist Tommie Anderson and Matt McMahon, put me in mind of the Australian folk song ‘The Streets of Forbes’, which perhaps shows something of the universality of folk traditions in music right across the globe. Previously recorded by Eriksson’s baroque ensemble The Marais Project, this arrangement is also for trio, this time consisting of violin (played by Bishop), viola da gamba and piano.

The plaintive ‘When I was in my eighteenth year’ again showcases Bishop’s vocals, this time singing about a girl pining for the boy she knows she’ll never have. The viola da gamba maintains a steady melancholy hum; saxophone, piano, crisp percussion and mournful bass guitar further enhance the girl’s sorrow.

The grandeur of Sweden’s frosty landscape inspired Matt Keegan to compose ‘Cold Soul’. It’s a bewitching piece, with one of the highlights being McMahon’s hypnotic piano, which fills in all the spaces between the strings. Underneath his solo, Dave Goodman’s brushes and cymbals suggest a little of that cold northern clime, tempered by the warmth of Pogson’s lush bass guitar.

‘The Tragedy’ is the first movement of a three-part work composed by Pogson, who also wrote the lyrics, performed immaculately by Bishop. Invited into the piece by the piano, it warms up when the electric viola da gamba and saxophone begin playing in tandem. Keegan’s sax is as mesmerising as ever and McMahon gives us another finely-worked solo. Fans of e.s.t.’s ‘Belief Beleft Below’ won’t be disappointed. It’s a thoughtful arrangement of the song by Jenny Eriksson, where she has, as she writes, taken advantage of the voice-like quality of the viola da gamba to harmonise with Bishop’s vocals and Keegan’s sax.

It’s impossible to put Elysian Fields, made up as it is of baroque and jazz musicians, into a definitive musical category. In fact, their particular fusion of jazz, classical and world music with its inventive melodic and rhythmic innovations is in a class of its own. With Fika, the musicians of Elysian Fields have given us music to help soothe our souls as we navigate the current choppy waters of the pandemic.