For those unfamiliar with his work, Daniel Herskedal is a Norwegian jazz musician regarded as one of the most talented jazz tubaists on the scene today. I know what you are thinking: tuba as a lead instrument in jazz? Outside of larger jazz ensembles and the New Orleans Brass Band scene, it is of course fairly rare for the tuba to make an appearance in jazz, especially as a lead instrument. The tuba typically isn’t considered a versatile jazz quintet instrument, but in Herskedal’s hands, it is transformed into something beautiful; capable of creating romantic, delicate moments on ballads and intense, bold statements on more audacious tracks.
The Roc is a dizzying excursion through some of the most musically fertile areas of the Middle East. Upon first listen, it becomes clear that a strong Arabic influence runs throughout the album. The concept of this record has its roots in inspiring trips Herskedal made to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. From song-structure to song titles, the themes of presence in foreign lands and travelling outside of one’s own socio-cultural norms are abundant throughout the record. The title of the LP itself is a reference to the great bird of pan-Asian mythology, which routinely appears in Arabic geographies and natural history, popularized in Arabian fairy tales.
As interesting as the background to the writing of this album is, what makes this record so instantly likeable is how memorable the tracks are. And while instantly hummable melodies are not required for a jazz recording to be considered great, they certainly create a desire for repeatedly listens. Fortunately, The Roc is full of these moments. In “The Seeds of Language”, the indelible melody is accentuated by mid-tempo piano lines which dance around the forceful, percussive cello to create a tune perfectly suited as a Side 1 Track 1. And even though this track plays like a typical jazz quintet, when the cello/viola pizzicato and staccato piano runs break through to the forefront of the mix, you can see that these aren’t your typical carefree, heavily improvised tunes, but structured, meticulously performed pieces.
Aside from the complexity of the tracks, on an album with as diverse of influences as The Roc and with a quintet with such individually expressive voices, it is vital to have a bandleader who isn’t an amateur at setting the tone and pace of these pieces. Further, a great musical mind is needed even more so where traditionally “non-jazz” musical elements are heavily explored (the Kurd and Nahawand musical scales, Bayat musical mode, etc.) and played through the medium of traditional jazz and Western Classical music instrumentation. Fortunately Herskedal is excellent at all of these things and the result is not only fascinating, but surprisingly accessible.
Tracks such as “Hijaz Train Station” and “There Are Three Things You Cannot Hide”, “Love, Smoke and a Man Riding on a Camel” are actually delightfully claustrophobic and unnerving, while other tracks come across as downright jubilant. Further, Herskedal’s own playing on the record cannot be overlooked. From the dynamic, higher register playing in the title track, to the beautiful, contemplative musings on “Eternal Sunshine Creates a Desert”, Herskedal’s playing makes a compelling argument for the tuba and bass trumpet to be considered mainstay instruments of jazz.
For years, American media has created a particularly negative image of individuals and cultures in the area of the world that Daniel Herskedal explores on this record. This depiction by much of the media is ignorant, hurtful, and embarrassing. The Roc is a stark reminder that music can be the binding force between groups of people that the media purports to have seemingly endless differences. Herskedal’s record is a call to arms and, in a way, an indictment of the inclusiveness of the Western cultural bubble. It is an album that demands taking the time to understand others through experiencing what they experience in their own daily lives, in their own backyards, from their own perspectives.
The Roc is out now on Edition Records.