Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Voice of The Heaven, Solveig Slettahjell

I am listening to the album Good Rain from Solveig Slettahjell Slow Motion Quintet now, while I am preparing this post. Just now, I have surrendered just as when I have heard her voice for the first time about 5 years ago. I can easily remember this day. Attracted by a beautiful face on the cover of an ACT Vocal Jazz Series' CD, I have come to home with the album, right in front of my hi-fi set. I was totally locked into the fabulous vocal entrance of Solveig Slettahjell with the question "Where Do You Run To?". No sound has touched to her voice for the first minute. She has asked the same question three times and added "I'm right here. I run to the mountains, and it's strong and it's quite, it's open and wide and I breathe, still I run on". These were her last solo words before some electronically supported rhythms and many other consistent softly played instruments started to accompany. 

During last five years, I have tried to collect all of her albums, which are mostly with Slow Motion Quintet. This magic voice became one of my favorite singers with her each newcomers and although it is released in late 2011, I just could find her latest duo album with Morten Qvenild a couple of months ago, named Antologie, which is full of wonderful covers and arrangements of fabulous music hits of their times. This latest work instantly triggered me to write a review for Solveig Slettahjell. She is already famous enough among Scandinavia and ACT followers all around the world but I feel like I should do anything for her to be more known to the world.

Let's start with a brief biography of a life full of music and a list of a glamorous discography. Then I'll continue with few details about some albums. 

She is from Oslo, Norway. As a daughter of a pastor, she started to sing in church choirs and started to study piano and singing in secondary school. From 1992 to 2000 she was in Norwegian Academy of Music, where she had got a master degree and met Sidsel Endresen, her teacher. 

Until the release of the album Slow Motion Orchestra in 2001 from the label Curling Legs with her name as the leader, we see Solveig Slettahjell in the acid-jazz/funk band Squid and vocal quartet Kvitretten. She has worked with Eldbjørg Raknes, Kjersti Stubo, Tone Åse, Anna Sundström, Hans Jørgen Stop and Kristin Asbjørnsen in this band. 
The album Super was made with Squid in 1998 and Everything Turns was made with Kvitretten in 1999. Meanwhile, she has participated in many vocal ensembles. Before those, surely, her duo performances with Håkon Hartberg until 1996 need to be mentioned. 

In 2002, another album is released with Squid and the album Silver is made with Slow Motion Quintet from the label Curling Legs again. Slow Motion Quintet were Solveig Slettahjell (vocal), Sjur Miljeteig (trumpet), Morten Qvenild (piano), Mats Eilertsen (double bass), Per Oddvar Johansen (drums) at these times and this personnel stayed the same until the album Domestic Songs in 2007 

On giving a wonderful performance in Jazz Baltica 2004, after which she is highly approved among jazz listeners, and signing with ACT, Solveig Slettahjell and her quintet released Pixiedust in 2006. Immediately after this album, Silver is reissued from this label and Good Rain is recorded and released in 2006 from ACT. ACT period has continued with Domestic Songs in 2007 in which we see Peder Kjellsby on harmonium, glockenspiel, guitar, percussion and Joe Berger Mhyre on bass.

The album Batagraf of Jon Balke from ECM label and Burglar Ballads from C+C records are among the ones in which she has been seen as a guest artist meanwhile. She has also recorded with Tord Gustavsen in 2008 within the album Natt i Betlehem, in which we also see Sjur Miljeteig from Slow Motion Quintet. 

In 2010, once again Solveig Slettahjell has recorded with Slow Motion Orchestra and the album Tarpan Seasons is released from Universal Music. This time there were Even Hermansen on guitars, vocals, Andreas Ulvo on organ, vocals and Joe Berger Myhre on bass. The last album Antologie is a duo with her long time friend from Slow Motion Quintet, pianist Morten Qvenild and it has come from Universal too.

On analysing the albums released with Slow Motion Orchestra (named as Quintet sometimes) in a chronological order from 2001(SMO, Slow Motion Orchestra) to 2010(Tarpan Seasons), I can say that some very important common aspects draw attention. First of all, t
he music is slow, detailed and organically concentrated on nuances. Started from Silver(2002), the instruments are occasionally supported by electronics and effects. The vocal is consistently soft and at the forefront but solidly accompanied by the other members of the quintet. Each detail of the sound is given close attention. The style of the arrangements and compositions is actually reflected in the names of the band: Slow Motion Quintet/Orchestra. I think Solveig Slettahjell's graduate study has a profound effect on this choice and incredibly successful results. She has studied on rhythmic aspects of phrasing during this period. It is sometimes really hard to play together in such a very slow tempo. Singing within this tempo requires a real high vocal power. In my opinion, the real power and uniqueness of Solveig Slettahjell resides at this point. Her vocal is soft and strong at the same time. A long time durability of a silky alto vocal is what I am trying to describe. When you especially think of the last duo record Antologie, you realize that Solveig Slettahjell is so successful that she can carry the melody on her own. It is known that even many instrumentalists are afraid of solo and duo performances due to the vulnerability to easily observable mistakes but Solveig Slettahjell is always like a self-confident, calm and strong river.

When we start to talk about varieties in these albums, I'd like to mention that there is a certain difference between the album Slow Motion Orchestra (2001) and the others. Slow Motion Orchestra is almost a jazz standard album having a strong swing feeling with just a little bit of Nordic effect.  I have felt a sharp difference on hearing the first piece of Silver, Take it with Me of Tom Waits (which would be revisited by Solveig Slettahjell lately on the album Antologie). However, especially in the live records at the end of Slow Motion Orchestra, you can easily see some signals for the future works: the tempo is drastically slowed down so that it is hard to recognize the main theme but at the same time easier to understand the details of the composition. (You can check Wild Is The Wind piece in the album to better understand what I am talking about.) Thus I can accept that we see similar pieces in Slow Motion Orchestra and Silver.

The album Silver is first released by Curling Legs in 2002 and reissued by ACT in 2006. On starting to listen to the albumI saw some clues about the futureThe vocal style, compositions and performances are various. The performance of Take It With Me of Tom Waits  is almost at the point that she is now in Antologie. However we see some similar performances with the previous album in following tracks. The composition from Morten Qvenild, What If, can easily prove that he has a profound impression on the overall style of the music made by Solveig Slettahjell. Nina Simone's Nobody's Fault But Mine, Moon River and Time After Time (a great duo performance with Mats Eilertsen's double bass) are other distinctive performances. In Time After Time you can listen to an awesome scat performance of Solveig Slettahjell. You can also listen to a solo vocal performance at the end which carries the name of the album, Look For The Silver Lining. The album is recorded and mixed by Vidar Lunden in Musiklofftet, Oslo. The mastering is made by Gierts Clausen and Knut Vaernes in Fersk Lyd, Oslo.

Generally speaking, Pixiedust (ACT,2006) has a more naive sound than the Good Rain. The instruments are generally minimal again and Solveig Slettahjell’s vocal is well at the front. There are some acoustic samples that is electronically mixed and electronic supports in both rhythm and melody. At first sight, the entrance piece Hope colored by trumpet, harp (I can bet you ten bucks that there is a harmonica but it is not mentioned in the liner notes)  and soft brushes on the drums may cause you to think that this is a very warm album. However, as the piece giving the name to the album, Faith, Trust and Pixiedust has started to find your ears with ice-cold bass of Mats Eilertsen, you suddenly feel like the emotional state in the album is swinging. As you listen to the other tracks, you can easily see this pattern: independent of the emotional state of the lyrics, the odds are warm, the evens are cold. Hiatt's wonderful composition Have a Little Faith in Me is also very well performed by Solveig Slettahjell and her friends in this album. Especially percussive touches at the back while our heavenly singer is singing like an angel, is so amazing. Morten Qvenild is right there again with his naive piano tone and some electronic based keys. Sjut Miljeteig's trumpet is in a great harmony with the vocal as always. Solveig Slettahjell's sophisticated touch to Billie Holidays' and Arthur Herzog's incredible Don't Explain should also be mentioned. The quintet is performing this piece again in a very slow tempo which seems a strange at first for this well know tune. However, as you go further in the record you realize that this is the pure beauty in slow motion. My another favorite performance in this album is Starpillow. The entrance is made by a distorted electronic-signal and samples that sound like some falling-object in a well with a very slow tempo. Then Solveig Slettahjell appears at the center gathering all these sounds with a sharp vocal. Then suddenly the tension is decided to be raised. You can observe here how a vocal should be when the tension is desired to be controlled with it. She is doing this in harmony with the drums so comfortable and beautiful that you feel like she is a living instrument. I should emphasize again on her vocal power. To understand better what I am talking about you should use a good equipment to hear every detail of the record. Solveig Slettahjell’s vocal has many layers to be heard. There are little tails in it when the sound is decaying and you should give attention to them. In this performance solo piano part of Morten Qvenild in the second half also need to be listened carefully. How they are connected with Solveig Slettahjell, how they are so careful about tempo… All of these should be analysed carefully. The rhythm given by a sound similar to a saw cutting a wood in the piece Sleepy Pixie should also be listened. The end of the album is made by a very interesting and a slow motion arrangement of the well known tune When You Wish Upon A StarThe records and mixing of this album are made by Andy Mytteis at Bugge's Room in Oslo, Norway. It is mastered by Fersk Lyd in Oslo.

The album Good Rain (ACT,2006) as you may have noticed at the beginning of this article, is my favorite one. In my humble opinion, the most detailed record for Solveig Slettahjell’s vocal is achieved in here. On the other hand her vocal style is a bit more colorless. I usually listen to this album when I feel myself exhausted. The slowed down rhythm, sophisticated compositions and beautiful lyrics have a power to make your heart beat slower and make you relax physically. Consistently, the other members of the quintet have also chosen a colder and more mechanical sound. Its concept is similar to Pixiedust but its sound is a bit darker. The entrance piece Where Do You Run To is sharp and touching. It's like a manifest to a lover, a friend or today's human being not to be lost in this wild world. Lyrics are written so intensely that they can easily carry you in a state in which you ask yourself where am I running to. All you need is a deep silence and an open heart. After the first minute of solo vocal, we start to hear Mats Eilertsen's deep double bass and Morten Qvenild's keyboard softly accompanying Solveig Slettahjell with some additions of electronics by Per Oddvar Johansen. After the first half, a rustling trumpet tone from Sjur Miljeteig appears with some little percussion while a deep, continuous and electronic bass is filling the low frequencies. The result is just amazing. The piece and the band is like a living organism. It is unnecessary to listen to each instrument or the vocal individually. Give yourself to the sound and the idea. A distorted electronic signal on the right channel and a muted trumpet from the right introduce us one of the darkest song of the album: Another Day. The speed is sometimes doubled up and carried back by the percussion to prevent monotony. The emotional composition of Solveig Slettahjell Colour Lullabye is the most melancholic piece in the album. She softens her voice, tries some highs and is accompanied by a compatible piano tone. You should certainly give attention to the perfect percussion of Per Oddvar Johansen in Morten Qvenild's composition Flawless. Its like the sound of a slow horse car on a concrete road. This rhythm continues throughout the piece. Another important aspect is the harmony between the tension of the trumpet and Solveig Slettahjell's vocal. As far as I have heard two trumpet records are mixed one of which is played with a mute. We were indians is Sjur Miljeteig's composition and it is used in an introduction video in ACT Music page. The tension is again swinging but generally high. Especially in solo performance of Fossett's Do Lord, Solveig Slettahjell is like a magic. I don't believe there are too many singers on this earth that can sing this piece as beautiful as Solveig Slettahjell. The music, the melody and the rhythm are in her lips. Some arcade-game-like signal played in a couple of different notes are what we hear in the beginning of Miljeteig's My Oh My composition. As the melody is started to be supported by trumpets which is recorded and mixed in many layers, the tension tends to increase by help of percussion. Solveig Slettahjell's rising vocal and some signals from other instruments explode like a bomb and we, as the listener, find ourselves in a very different emotional and rebellious state. As soon as the tension goes back to low levels, the piece ends and Peder Kjellsby's beautiful composition which gave the title of the album is performed with a naive style: Good Rain. Please give your attention to the beautiful trumpet entrance made by Sjur Miljeteig. Per Oddvar Johansen is using his brushes in this piece while Morten Qvenild is playing some inanimate notes from the piano and keyboard at the same time. Solveig Slettahjell's vocal is again like any other instrument; melodic and touching. The records of this album are made by Andy Mytteis at Bugge's Room in Oslo, Norway and at Is it Art Studio in Kölviken, Sweden. It is mixed by Sjur Miljeteig and Andy Mytteis at Bugge's Room and mastered by Audun Strype and Sjur Miljeteig at Strype Audio. 

Domestic Songs is released in 2007 from ACT label again. As can be understood from the name of the album, this is a home production. "It is recorded in Solveig's place, mixed at Sjur's place" is what it says in the liner notes. In this record two members are new to Slow Motion Quintet's: Peder Kjellsby on harmonium, glockenspiel, guitar, percussion and Jo Berger Myhre on bass. In fact we don't see any Slow Motion Quintet expression in the album booklet. The entrance is made by two duo records. 4:30 AM seems to be composed at around that time. Peder Kjellsby is accompanying Solveig Slettahjell's silky voice and emotional piano. In this piece her vocal is perfectly musical and its harmony with her piano is incredible. Emphasizing on the present time, present conditions and present place, Solveig Slettahjell's composition I do is like a poem of simplicity. She is again with her own piano in her living room. How should I describe this voice? It is like a warm and tender blanket that finds you when it is too cold. This time, Sjur Miljeteig is next to her playing mellophone and euphonium. He is coming into stage when Solveig Slettahjell is increasing the tension with harder touches to the piano. Solveig Slettahjell's cover for Tom Waits' incredible composition Time is one of the most important performances of the album. Solveig Slettahjell is performing solo in this song with her piano. There is no one between her and Tom Waits. The wide dynamic range she has presented with her vocal and the emotional state she has carried to the audience is wonderful. It may be the best cover I have ever heard for this song. Following this, Solveig Slettahjell's composition Snowfall is performed by the whole line-up with Per Oddvar Johansen on drums and Jo Berger Myhre on bass. This is the most energetic piece in the album. The gospel style performed Match Perfect is another important piece. Oh Sweetly is performed by Solveig Slettahjell and his brother Olav as a sincere vocal duo. Before that we listened to a beautiful trumpet partition from Sjur Miljeteig in Solveig Slettahjell's composition Leave Me Here. This album is giving some signals about what Solveig Slettahjell would do in Antologie. The album is recorded and mixed by Sjur Miljeteig and Peder Kjellsby. It is mastered by Giert Clausen at Fersk Lyd, Oslo with Knut Vaernes.      

The album Tarpan Seasons (Universal, 2010) softens the sound further by almost leaving no clue of standard jazz or soul. I see Tarpan Seasons as a link between older albums with Slow Motion Quintet and Antologie from some points. The album is starting almost from where Good Rain has left the band. We see Andreas Ulvo on organ, vocals and Even Hermansen on guitar and vocals in Slow Motion Orchestra as new names considering last line-up. The first piece Precise Content is like a smoother version of a composition from Good Rain. On the other hand, Solveig Slettahjell seems to sing in a different style and the electronic usage by musicians seem to be less. As far as I have heard Solveig Slettahjell is generally in or near high notes with a more mystical tone. I think this change has given a warmer and more emotional identity to the album. Especially Sjur Miljeteig's composition Your River, Solveig Slettahjell's compositions How They Shine and Three Hearts in a Bowl are very melancholic pieces whose vocal partitions are very well performed by Solveig Slettahjell in almost a whispering style. There are also energetic pieces in the album such as Visit whose drum and bass performances are very successful. The solo acapella-like performance of Solveig Slettahjell in You Go I Go and her lyrical style in Be Steady are my favorites in this record. The records and mixing of this album are made by Sjur Miljeteig and Peder Kjellsby at Is it Art Studio in Kölviken, Sweden. It is mastered by Björn Engelmann at Cutting Room in Stockholm, Sweden.
In the latest album Antologie (Universal, 2011), Solveig Slettahjell has worked with her long time friend from the quintet, Morten Qvenild, who has a dominant effect with his piano on the style of almost every album he has participated in. Solveig Slettahjell explains this album in the CD-booklet as a kind of turning back into herself where she sees a singer before a composer. She says she remembers the time she comes home and sings alone with the piano. The song choices are related with these memories. In my opinion, some of the covers of popular hits in Antologie such as Wild Horses, Crazy, The Winner Takes It All and The Famous Blue Raincoat (more than just a cover, we can describe them as rearrangements) are probably the best ever done so far. The entrance to this album is made with Mick Jagger's Wild Horses. A reverberant crystal-like piano and a lyrical vocal are preparing you for this great album in the beginning. The feeling reaches to the top when Solveig Slettahjell was on the high notes through the end of the song. I don't know whether I will hear anything more emotional than the vocal in The Winner Takes it All. She has really felt the song before singing it and we, as the listener, has vast of time to absorb what's going on due to the slowed down tempo: the harmony between piano and vocal, the tensional progress in Solveig Slettahjell's vocal... You may even imagine her face while singing. Some of the expressions are so sharp that they almost become facial. If you do not start to think your ex-loves during listening to this piece, I think there are some missing points in your life. The most energetic piece in the album is Crazy of Gnarls Barkley. The vocal becomes colder, the piano becomes more percussive around bass line and some electronics is used to realize this energy. The main rhythm seem to be produced by a synthesizer. Even that energetic hit is changed into a slow, delicate and detailed artistic piece with a wonderful arrangement. Especially the moment that the rhythm gets silent and Solveig Slettahjell stays alone in the middle of the song with her fantastic vocal is unforgettable. The incredible lyrics of Leonard Cohen meets Solveig Slettahjell's magic voice and wonderful pronunciation in Famous Blue Rain Coat. Take it with me of Tom Waits is sang by Solveig Slettahjell several times before, but in this duo configuration we are with best of the performances made so far. Generally speaking I can say that Solveig Slettahjell has a more popular vocal style in this album without giving any concession in sophistication, which means she sings like herself: elegant and dignified. The album is recorded by Morten Qvenild at Malmoya. It is mixed by George Tandero at Living Room Studios and mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound New York.

Besides her album with Slow Motion Orchestra I should write something about Natt i Betlehem that Solveig Slettahjell has recorded with Tord Gustavsen and Sjur Miljeteig. The album have the musicians' versions of Chrtistmas Hymns (from Solveig Slettahjell's webpage). If there wasn't such an album I really would fell myself unlucky not to have listened any Norwegian lyrics from Solveig Slettahjell. The soft touches of Tord Gustavsen is in a great harmony with the vocal. Besides, the reverberant sound of the album is very well suited with the concept. I am so deeply affected by some pieces such as I denne sote juletid and Det kimer na til julefest.

Here I will share some samples from youtube for the readers to get a quick idea about this incredible singer. However, here I also would like to demand from any readers to be a real LISTENER. Buy albums, use some proper equipment to listen to music, learn more about what you listen. Search for more, discover other albums of any musicians you like and try to join a live performance of this musician.

Wild Horses from Antologie:
The Winner Takes It All from Antologie:
Crazy from Antologie:
Have A Little Faith In Me from Pixiedust:
Flawless from Good Rain:
and some other samples:

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