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Karsten Vogel - Overall Review

Prolusion. Danish saxophonist, keyboardist and composer Karsten VOGEL is a cult figure for Progressive Rock and Jazz lovers alike. He is known far outside his homeland, though above all as the mastermind behind the legendary vintage-era bands, Secret Oyster and Burning Red Ivanhoe (BRI hereinafter), and as a permanent member of Taylor's Universe and Taylor's Free Universe. There are too many Karsten Vogel-related reviews on this site to put the links to all of them here, but at least the one to the maestro's >interview shouldn't be missed. Now I begin a series of reviews in which I am going to examine all the solo and related (collaborative) creations Karsten has to his credit to date.

1990 - "Sindbillede"
(57 min, Music Mecca)
*****

TRACK LIST:

1.  Kirsebaersang 4:22
2.  Tango Maladie 3:22
3.  Maneskinsvalsen 2:44
4.  Anton 3:29
5.  Skov So 4:43
6.  Kokkenmorgen 2:37
7.  Eremitage 3:42
8.  Vabrud 5:33
9.  Lys Nat 3:04
10. Dis 3:25
11. Sindbillede 10:04
12. Min Skygge 3:47
13. Driver Dug Falder Rim 2:30
14. Himmelens Bue 0:26
15. Hvad De Gav 3:28

PERSONNEL:

Karsten Vogel - saxophones
Anton Kontra - violin
Boris Samsing - violin
Peter Fabricius - viola
Morten Zeuthen - cello
Nikolaj Bentzon - piano
Jorgen Emborg - piano
Niels Thybo - piano
Thomas Ovesen - bass
Kurt Larsen - accordion

Analysis. On "Sindbillede" Karsten Vogel appears more as a composer than as a musician, since he plays on only three of the recording's fifteen instrumentals. One piece, Anton (titled simply after the first name of the musician playing first violin here), although curious in itself, seems out of place on this album, compared to the remainder, sharply differing as it does from all the other tunes in tempo, mood and style all alike. Performed fast, with a rollicking violin solo brought to its fore, it for some reason reminds me of the jolly music of 'Russian' Gypsies. Otherwise the content of "Sindbillede" seemingly invites itself to be divided into two parts. The larger part comprises ten tracks and could easily have been subtitled as "When New Age and Classical Music Unite", the music flowing slowly throughout each of these pieces. The four totally dominated by violin quartet, Kirsebaersang, Eremitage, Driver Dug Falder Rim and Himmelens Bue, are pronouncedly dramatic, at times even requiem-like in mood. The former has an especially sad feeling, now resembling English doomsters My Dying Bride at their most symphonic (think the touchingly-melancholy violin-based pieces from their "Turn Loose the Swans"), now the opening cut of "Epilog" by the Swedish Art-Rock legend Anglagard, though of course, the similarities reveal themselves only on an associative level, and I haven't forgotten that each of the said discs was released much later than "Sindbillede". Tango Maladie, Maneskinsvalsen and Skov So all find the violins being joined by piano, their emotional palette suggesting a light sorrow, whereas the three featuring only piano, namely Kokkenmorgen, Lys Nat and Dis, are all mostly neutral in mood. The seven tracks described first are all charming, sonically saturated compositions, each bringing a certain philosophical message. However unlike the jazz-ambient pieces (see the review below) where each of the instruments involved weaves its special separate pattern, these usually contain only two distinctively different soloing parts and, therefore, are somewhat less eventful than those, even though repetition can rarely be met with. The remaining four cuts, Vabrud, Min Skygge, Hvad De Gav and the 10-minute title track, each combine New Age, Classical Music and composed Jazz, the latter three being those very pieces with Karsten Vogel's direct participation. The concluding opus, Hvad De Gav, is my favorite track here. It's the richest in instrumentation, featuring the four violins, saxophone and piano, whilst on the remaining three the string quartet is absent. Perhaps not the very best place for a Prog Rock lover to realize what a genius Karsten Vogel is, "Sindbillede" is still in many ways a remarkable creation depicting just a few aspects of the work of this more than merely versatile musician covering every possible direction lying between Classical Jazz and Classical Academic music.

1994 - "Nordic Frames"
(49 min, Dacapo)
*****+

TRACK LIST: 

1.  Coffee Won't Do It 5:56
2.  Three Daughters 5:17
3.  Clouds & Light 3:51
4.  Seven Nordic Tales 5:55
5.  Northern Atlantics 5:20
6.  Crepuscule 5:44
7.  I Believe in You 6:01
8.  Alien Bird 3:16
9.  State of Mind 4:25
10. The Last Kiss 3:05

LINEUP:

Karsten Vogel - alto & soprano saxophones
Kenneth Knudsen - keyboards, piano
Michael Friis - bass 
Ole Kibsgaard - guitar
Klaus Menzer - drums
With:
Ole Fick - guitar
Jorgen Emborg - keyboards
Jacob Christoffersen - piano
Peter Hansen - bass
Jon Bruland - bass

Analysis. After seeing the lineup on "Nordic Frames" I thought this album would have a full-band sound throughout, but it turns out that my presupposition was only correct regarding half of the disc's ten instrumentals, only Karsten himself and his fellow Secret Oyster / BRI band mate keyboardist Kenneth Knudsen being featured on all of them. These remarks, however, don't mean at all that I have a liking exclusively for intense compositions, and some of the following lines will clear up that matter. Two of the five pieces performed by the entire quintet, Coffee Won't Do It and Northern Atlantics, are dynamic Jazz Rock, both being rich in contrasting transitions. However the former is progressively much more saturated than the latter, since it's made up of several different thematic sections most of which, moreover, reveal much diversity within themselves. All the participants are highly experienced musicians, but while none of the compositions allows the listener to feel a doubt about their exhaustive competence in what they do, it's still the opening number which seems to be notable for the best ensemble work - perhaps because it's the only one that includes high-speed maneuvers. The melodically pronounced Alien Bird has a dense, living sound throughout, but the music itself leaves me rather cold. I am not a big lover of swingy Jazz since any of its performers are inevitably forced to follow its cast-iron laws regardless of the profundity of their general creative ability. As if to justify its title, Clouds & Light is relatively transparent music indeed. Overall however, this is quite eclectic Jazz-Fusion reminding me slightly of those solo creations of Allan Holdsworth where his guitar playing is lushly illuminated by Alan Pasqua's keyboard work. State of Mind is basically similar, but with much more saxophone soloing from Karsten to the fore. The other five pieces, Three Daughters, Crepuscule, I Believe in You, The Last Kiss and Seven Nordic Tales, are all performed without drums. Each can hardly be defined otherwise than as Jazz Ambient which, however, has very little to do with classic Ambient. Although the music is slow, it constantly shifts its outline and is undoubtedly sophisticated, demanding much attention from the listener to be comprehended. Any open-minded Prog-head who will deign to lend an ear to these will definitely find that each is truly philosophic in its substance - well, perhaps with the exception of Seven Nordic Tales. This cut is less sonically saturated than any of the other four because it features only saxophone and keyboards, besides which both the instruments move too lazily to create anything really moving - sorry for the extemporaneous tautology. In all, "Nordic Frames" is a very good album. Recommended.

1997 - "God Only Knows"
(47 min, Stunt)
****

                                                               
TRACK LIST: 

1.  The First Goodmorning 3:06
2.  In Dreams 5:08
3.  God Only Knows 3:57
4.  The Last Kiss 7:07
5.  On My Mind 4:21
6.  Pacerace 3:48
7.  Se nu Stiger Solen 3:55
8.  No Way Out 6:51
9.  Dancing on Mirrors 3:40
10. The Last Goodbye 4:27

LINEUP:

Karsten Vogel - soprano & alto sax
Niels Thybo - piano

Analysis. "God Only Knows" should no doubt be regarded as a collaborative effort of Karsten Vogel and (pianist) Niels Thybo, since the names of both musicians are featured on the booklet's cover and on the CD itself as well. The album was most likely recorded live in the studio, as I don't hear any overdubbing. There are two types of music here - jazz-tinged Ambient and something halfway between genuine Jazz and New Age, five representatives of each mostly alternating with each other. Those from the former category, The First Goodmorning, the title track, On My Mind, Se nu Stiger Solen and The Last Goodbye, are all notable for equal performance contributions from the two musicians. In other words, each finds Karsten's sax and Niels' piano constantly interacting with each other, but since the music is always very slow and peaceful alike, nothing there interesting, to say the least. The other pieces, In Dreams, The Last Kiss, No Way Out, Pacerace and Dancing on Mirrors, are more promising from a progressive mind, the latter two being the richest in pace changes (though personally I find these to be excessively upbeat). Some fine trills from both musicians can be heard on each, especially so from the pianist who at times provides some really mind-blowing passages. I only regret Karsten leaves him playing alone in most of such cases. I think the adherents of Jazz should appreciate about a half of this disc, but I am far from the thought of recommending it to Prog lovers.

2000 - "Light When Dark"
(44 min, Tuti)
***+

                                                               
TRACK LIST: 

1.  I Believe In You 3:25
2.  Grottocatta-1 1:39
3.  Gandadagur 3:07
4.  Grottocatta-2 1:30
5.  Grotimol 5:11
6.  St. James Infirmary 4:50
7.  You are In My Heart 2:35
8.  Grottocatta-3 3:19
9.  Grottoblues 4:25
10. Stick & Stone 0:46
11. Crosscurrents 3:12
12. Se nu Stiger Solen 1:26
13. Cavebirds 3:31
14. Prelude 3:16

LINEUP:

Karsten Vogel - alto saxophone
Kristian Blak - keyboards

Analysis. Just like the previously described recording, "Light When Dark" features only the two performers - Karsten himself on alto sax and Kristian Blak on keyboards. There are no pauses between the fourteen instrumentals here, although most of them are filled up with the sound of wave lapping which, additionally, serves as a background for Vogel's improvisations everywhere on the recording, being mostly at the same volume and never fully subsiding - even just for a moment. It's most likely nobody other than Mr. Blak who elicits all those 'wet' sounds that this stuff seems to be soaked with throughout, but real keyboards can rarely be heard. To be more precise, they're either completely absent or are just barely audible (and only in places) on more than half of the tracks, namely I Believe In You, Grottocatta-1 & 2, Gandadagur, St. James Infirmary, Stick & Stone, Se nu Stiger Solen and Prelude, the latter, for some reason, concluding the album. Grottocatta-3, Grottoblues, Crosscurrents, You are In My Heart and Cavebirds, each contains some more or less easily recognizable synthesizer sounds, though the latter two exclusively in the form of one dark low-tone chord which is as if emanating a feeling of despair. All in all, Grotimol is the only piece where the keyboards sound just as they should sound to my way of thinking and, at the same, is the only place on the disc where there is a genuine interaction between the two instruments involved. The CD press kit presents this music as 'Jazz for meditation'. I don't know whether any people used "Light When Dark" for their contemplation indeed, but for me personally it was quite a distressing audio experience. Really, it's a sheer hell to hear the waves endlessly, with a maniacal monotony surging towards the seashore at a rainy night, with the sax hovering over them like a lonesome gull vainly seeking for any shelter.

Vogel, Lofvander, Siboni - 2004 - "Stained Glass Music"
(51 min, 'Oyster Songs')
***+

                                                               
TRACK LIST: 

1.  Opening Stroke 2:22
2.  Stained Glass 1:53
3.  Sound Cathedral 3:57
4.  Cavum Nasi 7:33
5.  Fenja & Menja 2:47
6.  Leaded Visions 2:40
7.  As Desmond 4:36
8.  Durin & Dwalin 5:29
9.  Mesa Verde 2:56
10. Pech-Merle 5:09
11. Ignigena 3:28
12. Padirac 2:57
13. Celestial Underground 5:18

PERSONNEL:

Karsten Vogel - saxophones, bass clarinet
Skye Lofvander - vocals
Hanne Siboni - vocals

Analysis. The fruit of a collaboration between Karsten Vogel and two singers, Skye Lofvander and Hanne Siboni, "Stained Glass Music" continues the line of the maestro's ambient creations, in a general kind of way. The music is for the most part either slow or just extremely slow - as is on Opening Stroke, Pech-Merle, Ignigena and Celestial Underground, as a result of which it is impossible to determine which of Karsten's four instruments declared in the booklet (alto, soprano and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet) serves as the background for female vocalizations on any of these. The title track, Leaded Visions, Sound Cathedral, As Desmond, Mesa Verde and Padirac all suit my concept of jazz-tinged Ambient, although the former two cuts still come with vocalizations, Hanne singing mostly in a clearly operatic fashion this time around. The remaining three pieces find both Hanne and Skye experimenting, say, with various oral styles (many of which hardly associate with traditional vocalizations, being just clownery in the end) either alone (Cavum Nasi and Durin & Dwalin) or to Karsten's improvisations (Fenja & Menja). As I see most of this recording as nothing more than pleasant quiet background music, I would have probably omitted it had I not listened to Karsten's latest three releases that follow this one.

Vogel Steinmetz Quartet - 2006 - "Sweet & Aggressive"
(59:25, 'Oyster Songs')
*****

                                                               
TRACK LIST: 

1.  Nine-and-a-Half 4:12
2.  Make a Buck 5:10
3.  Intoxicated Lady 6:03
4.  Jacksonii 4:12
5.  Joe Hoe 3:07
6.  Moonshine 4:04
7.  The Andalusian House 3:53
8.  The Inner Voice 5:15
9.  Blocks of Noise 4:29
10. Collective Memories of the Past 2:50
11. Goldika 4:19
12. Tatjana 7:05
13. Sweet & Aggressive 4:24

LINEUP:

Karsten Vogel - alto sax, bass clarinet
Hugo Steinmetz - trumpet
Kasper Tagel - bass
Lars Juul - drums

Analysis. After a whole decade during which Karsten was only occupied with ambient music, here is finally the "Sweet & Aggressive" album by Vogel Steinmetz Quartet, signifying the artist's return to a full-band sound (which is approximately as intense here as that on his second solo offering "Nordic Frame"). Unlike that creation however, "Sweet & Aggressive" doesn't feature a guitar player, so the rock component is much less vivid in this particular case. Nine-and-a-Half, Jacksonii, Joe Hoe and The Andalusian House are all swing-based, for the most purely improvisational tunes whose genre definition would probably be simply Jazz rather than Jazz Rock, although drummer Lars Juul always tends to break the swinging chains:-), at times far transgressing the bounds of a set theme with his powerful and, at once, pounding, highly diverse beats. By the way, it happens very rarely that I welcome drum solos done out of the context of a band's joint performance, but the two on Nine-and-a-Half and Jacksonii are both really enjoyable. The 'sweets', Make a Buck and Goldika are basically very similar, but while those four pieces all only begin and end with unison and the like (e.g. in fourth and fifth) interactions between either sax or bass clarinet and trumpet, otherwise being highly improvisational in nature, these two retain a distinct melodic feeling almost throughout, reminding me somewhat of a pop jazz orchestra in sound. Nonetheless the quartet could have marked out some place on each exclusively for bassist Kasper Tagel's acrobatics. It seems the fast and dynamic Blocks of Noise and the title track both are designed to embody the 'aggressive' side of this accurately titled recording. Each finds the outfit's two primary driving forces, saxophonist / clarinetist Karsten Vogel and trumpet player Hugo Steinmetz, improvising really intensely, the men playing jointly much more often than alternating with each other at the fore. Even though there are still swing-based movements here too, as just one of the styles contributing to the pieces' general architecture, it comes across fine this time. Taking also into consideration that these two are additionally the richest in transitions, it is easy to see which are the winners, although the remaining five cuts are all only slightly inferior to these. The darkly colored Moonshine is built upon the contrast between slowly, yet diversely moving trumpet and clarinet on the one hand and fast bass and drums on the other. Collective Memories of the Past is just the same story - only with the bass and drums creeping along at a snail's pace and so on. Very expressive. The longest three tracks, Intoxicated Lady, The Inner Voice and Tatjana, are the most eclectic, and the only reason I can't put these on the same plane as Blocks of Noise and the title track is the presence, still, of some traditional tricks on each. In all, "Sweet & Aggressive" is in many ways an outstanding album, though it is destined exclusively to jazz lovers.

VM: January 16 to 19, March 14, May 5, 2007


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