At first sight this collaboration between two of ACT’s established artists seems an unlikely alliance.
Swedish singer Gustafsson has released a series of albums for the label, all the titles ending with the word “You” so in effect I guess this is her record. Gustafsson is an assured and soulful singer schooled in jazz but with an innate feel for the rhythms of popular song ( her album “Close To You” is a celebration of the music of Dionne Warwick). She is also a more than useful songwriter and wrote the bulk of the material on her 2007 release “Alone With You.”
radio.string.quartet.vienna won great critical acclaim when they first burst onto the scene in 2007 with their album “Celebrating The Mahavishnu Orchestra”. Their ingenious arrangements of the music of John McLaughlin proved remarkably successful both artistically and commercially and in 2008 the group released their second album “Radiotree”, a collaboration with Austrian accordionist and bandoneon player Klaus Paier. This time the focus was largely on original material composed either by Paier or by members of the quartet.
On “Calling You” the material is a mix of inspired covers from both the jazz and pop songbooks plus a smattering of original material from both Gustafsson and members of the quartet. The quartet’s line up remains unchanged with Johannes Dickbauer and leader Bernie Mallinger on violins, Cynthia Liao on viola and the extraordinary Asja Valcic on cello. RSQV break pretty much all the rules for a string quartet, playing pizzicato almost as much as arco and generating an incredible rhythmic drive, much of this due to Valcic in the proverbial engine room. The level of technical skill displayed by the players is astonishing and their arrangements, shared between Mallinger and Dickbauer, are always adventurous and colourful. No wonder the press release states that the group have “totally redefined the string quartet genre”. What is amazing is the ease with which the quartet dovetail with the voice of Gustafsson to produce something unique. It all sounds perfectly natural and what might have been a musical disaster area is, in fact, a huge success.
The ensemble commence with a wistful,slowed down version of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”. The quartet complement Gustafsson’s voice superbly and shine in a spectral instrumental middle passage. The imaginative arrangement and Gustafsson’s delivery bring out the pathos in Simon’s lyrics. It’s a stunning version of the song.
RSQV know how to have fun as well as how to emote. The jazz standard “Makin’ Whoopee”, a tune Gustafsson has covered previously, gets the playful treatment complete with buzzing strings and scat vocals.
Gustafsson’s own “Goodbye For Now” could be a jazz standard and features the singer at her most flirtatious. There’s even the sound of whistling (Gustafsson presumably) over the sound of massed pizzicato strings.
It’s back to the serious approach for Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. Gustafsson’s yearning vocal brings out the sense of loneliness expressed in the lyrics.
The brooding string arrangement complements her perfectly and in it’s way this is just as radical an interpretation of the tune as that of the White Stripes.
By way of contrast Valcic’s “Fancy Nancy” is a joyous romp with Gustafsson camping it up above furiously sawing strings. It’s a bit throwaway but great fun.
The ensemble like to mix moods and styles and no two tunes follow the same pattern. Their version of Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” is achingly beautiful, Gustafsson’s pure vocal augmented by an unusually “straight” string arrangement. Immediately afterwards Richard Bona and John Legend’s “Please Don’t Stop” marks a return to the playful, flirtatious approach complete with finger snaps.
Gustafsson’s album notes state that the group merely picked songs that meant a lot to them regardless of genre and classification. However they do seem to have a particular affinity for the works of Bacharach and David. A remarkable reworking of “Close To You” imbues the song with an ethereal sense of wonder, it’s fragile and vaguely Bjork-ish in spirit if not in delivery.
Johannes Dickbauer’s writing contribution is the haunting “Wherever We Go” beautifully delivered by Gustafsson above Dickbauer’s own arrangement.
Joni Mitchell’s “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” with music by Charles Mingus is an altogether more challenging piece of work. Gustafsson’s virtuoso vocal performance and Mallinger’s grainy, sometimes dissonant arrangement are hugely effective on the album’s most extreme piece of work.
Bob Telson’s much covered title track from the 1987 movie “Bagdad Cafe” also works supremely well. Gustafsson’s singing and Mallinger’s arrangement conjure up the emptiness of the desert highways referenced in the song’s lyrics. I’m not familiar with the other covers by the likes of Celine Dion and George Michael but I’d imagine they pale in comparison to this.
“Nothing’s Better Than Love” is Gustafsson’s second writing credit. She deploys semi spoken hipster vocals and the playing by the quartet is typically sparky but it’s not one of the record’s most memorable cuts.
Given that the bulk of the songs covered on the album are the work of Americans Gustafsson redresses the balance with the closing item, a beautiful rendition of the traditional Swedish folk tune “Ack Varmland Du Skona”. Gustafsson sings in her native tongue, it’s a nice touch from a vocalist who has made herself so much at home in the American idiom.
When RSQV took their Mahavishnu project on the road they won fulsome praise for the quality of their live performances. Together with Gustafsson they are currently touring the music of “Calling You” around Europe and it’s likely that further plaudits will be forthcoming. Listening to the album it’s apparent that this combination of voice and instruments should make for a hugely impressive live show.
The album itself is a highly impressive piece of work and as I’ve intimated it should work very well live. Whether it’s the kind of album that will remain a regular favourite after the initial sense of admiration/novelty has worn off I’m not yet certain but there’s no doubt that the singing and playing is of the highest order. (by Ian Mann)
Rigmor Gustafsson (vocals)
Radio String Quartet Vienna:
Johannes Dickbauer (violin)
Cynthia Liao (cello)
Bernie Mallinger (violin)
01. Still Crazy After All These Years (Simon) 4.31
02. Makin’ Whoopee (Kahn/Donaldson) 3.54
03. Goodbye For Now (Gustafsson) 3.16
04. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (David/Bacharach) 3.57
05. Fancy Nancy (Valcic) 2.29
06. If It’s Magic (Wonder) 4.03
07. Please Don’t Stop (Legend/Bona) 4.03
08. Close To You (David/Bacharach) 4.16
09. Whenever We Go (Dickbauer) 5.24
10. The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines (Mitchell/Mingus) 4.42
11. Calling You (Telson) 5.04
12. Nothing’s Better Than Love (Gustafsson) 3.28
13. Ack Värmland Du Sköna (Tradional) 5.41
14. Calling You (Telson) 5.18