The new CD by Agnar Már Magnusson riffs off the Icelandic folk songs that have formed the leader’s musical essence. There’s an air of suspense and a depth to the title track “Mor” that plays like a turning point in life. A pulled-back tempo and sluggish brushes with a solemn bass line keep the listener engaged, its seamless chord colors describing an internal journey. Another song, “Isaspong af Andan” (“Isaspong of the Spirit”), is sadness wrapped in beauty, the ensemble again melding impeccably. “Grafskrift Saemundar Klemenssonar” (“Tombstone of Saemundar Klemenssonar”) hesitates in its storytelling, the air around it formed into different shapes by a percussionist whose passion is palpable. This new work is touching, majestic, honest and beats like a human heart.
Personnel: Agnar Már Magnússon – piano
Valdimar Kolbeinn Sigurjónsson – bass
Matthías Hemstock – drums
Stefán Jón Bernharðsson – Horn
Asbjörn Ibsen Bruun – Horn
Frank Hammarin – Horn
Nimrod Ron – Tuba
Why did you choose piano and who are your favorite pianists?
There was a piano in my house when I grew up. I started studying organ at first, though, and then piano from age 11. I liked it more because of the dynamics. Loved to play loud. And soft.
I’ve had so many favorite pianists. Early years of Herbie come to mind. Also early Bill Evans. I love Keith of course and Brad totally changed everything. Larry Goldings is someone I can always learn from listening to.
Why did jazz captivate you?
I started studying jazz as a teenager. I did not intend to become a jazz musician. But it grew on me. I guess it was the freedom. And the unbelievable abilities of the great ones to create new music in the moment.
How would you characterize Icelandic folk music- what are the elements of harmony and melody?
Icelandic folk music is somewhat primitive. Monophonic or if there are harmonies then they are often in parallel fifths. Parallel fifths are a big no-no in traditional Western music theory so this is some earlier form of harmony that may have been invented here in Iceland. There are some uneven combinations of rhythms sometimes. Melodies that follow the lyrics and therefore skip beats in the underlying meter.
How has your heritage inspired you to compose original music today?
To me the folk music is so open and leaves so much for interpretation that it is really interesting to create something new and original from that. I’m not really aware of much influence from my heritage but of course your roots shine through in everything you do. I think nature is more of an influence for me than Icelandic folk music.
Why did you choose to add tuba and French horns into the instrumentation?
I made a similar album in 2007 arranging and harmonizing folk melodies. The album is called “Láð”. There I had three woodwinds and one horn. I was toying with the idea of doing the same on this album but I have always loved the French horn. So this was the end result, three French horns and a tuba. I love the soft but rich texture of their sound.
What is the meaning of “Mór”?
Mór is a type of soil, dried up swamp. It was used in Iceland in the old days as building material. It can also be burned for heating houses. The cover of the CD features a photo of Mór.
What were the highlights of producing this album?
Working with the trio. We have a pretty small jazz scene here in Iceland but some great musicians to play with. Me Valdimar and Matthías have worked together in many different settings. But it is always a pleasure to work with them on this type of material.
What was the most difficult track to write or record?
I think it was probably “Blástjarnan.” It is a really challenging track to play because of the irregular form. But it came out nice in the end.
Are you able to perform live now where you live?
Right now there is a bad COVID outbreak going on. But I was lucky to be able to have a release concert in the beginning of September at the Reykjavik Jazz Festival. Things were better then. But now we just have to wait and see when it will be possible to perform again.
What are your plans for the rest of 2020?
I’m teaching piano and composition. A lot of the teaching is online nowadays. I also decided to start studying composition. So I’m doing a master’s degree in composition. It’s fun.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) 2020 Debbie Burke