Estonian accordionist and composer Tuulikki Bartosik recently recorded an album with Hannah James - Chatterbox - which for most listeners would have been their first encounter with her virtuosity. But although that quality is undoubtedly present in the accepted sense of the term, in sheer dexterity and technique, it's also more of a subtly graded versatility that comes across in the tuneful simplicity and intrinsic sensitivity of her playing. Here, on Tuulikki's solo project Storied Sounds, while her signature accordion remains at the centre of the sound picture for much of the time, her compositional skill is brought to the fore in imaginative scoring that allows for other timbres to integrate and interact believably with her own instrument. In this instance, Timo Alakotila's piano plays almost as prominent a role, bringing an element of almost minimalist poise to the proceedings while on many tracks also taking the pivotal guiding role.
The album presents a sequence of pieces that together form an affectionate portrait of, and tribute to, Tuulikki's own heritage and the Estonian landscapes of her childhood, moving on to more recent adventures and to family and friends. Through their intense evocation of the sense of place, these pieces encourage us to reflect on the convergence of memory, music and nature. This evocation is enhanced by the generous, yet occasional, and beautifully finely balanced, incorporation of ambient field recordings made in Estonia - water, birds, fish, trees, and even a city soundscape at one point, all introduced and configured unintrusively. The music itself contains distinct elements of tradition - that of Scandinavia, and in particular its dance music, predominates (logically enough, I suppose, given the close linguistic kinship of Finnish and Estonian), although the freshness of approach adopted by Tuulikki in her careful arrangements enables gestures and influences from other central and eastern European and Russian folk music traditions as well as modern classical music and even jazz. There's a handful of original tunes too, scattered throughout the disc, which form a seamless link with the traditional sources and their creative adaptation.
Favourite tracks for me change on each replay, as I keep finding new nuances and delights emerging from the limpid and uncluttered yet meaningful textures. Time?/Aeg? enables some freewheeling musical experimentation of the potential of Tuulikki's accordion in conjunction with Dylan Fowler's guitar, which also duets delectably on Theo The Tiger; Leo Slängspolska imparts a newgrass feel with Villu Talsi's mandolin. The latter guest musician is deployed even more imaginatively on the disc's lyrical emotional centrepiece Josefins Vaggvisa, a close-on-nine-minute gentle improvisatory ramble that towards its close also introduces the sound of the metallophone. On Orsa, Tullikki's accordion clearly enjoys skipping around in counterpoint to Timo's walking-beat motif. Calling In Röuge is a short but extraordinary vocal ululation, in itself possibly the most directly evocative item on the disc; Moon Salutation eases the accordion into the fray with further wordless vocal incantation, and this track exudes an air of eerie contemplation that proves hard to forget, even when it's followed by the lovely tune titled, and obviously dedicated, To Hannah And Ben.
Storied Sounds is a gently compelling listen, and one tends not to notice the comparatively restricted instrumental palette when the musical invention is so constantly beguiling.
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