With its cool, intoxicating blend of West African drumming, acoustic jazz, electronic pop and sung and spoken poetry, Batagraf is one of ECM’s more idiosyncratic groups. Where else are you going to hear a Norwegian poet declaiming (in Norwegian) over sabar and djembe? “Cry out/Have no fear/Of what is most fearful,” exhorts Torgeir Rebolledo Pedersen, a longtime collaborator of keyboardist Jon Balke’s. “For I, I am the wind calmer/Shall quieten the winds.”
Pedersen’s translated utterances aside, the winds are mostly calm on Say and Play, the first Batagraf album since its 2006 ECM debut, Statements. A lyrical player, Balke (Magnetic North Orchestra, Oslo 13, Siwan) alternates between acoustic piano with a percussive bent and atmospheric synth effects. The byplay between Helge Andreas Norbakken (an associate of Jon Hassell’s) on the West African drums and Erland Dahlen (a member of Nils Petter Molvær’s group) on traps is cozy, seductive and melodic: The talking drums sing.
But there’s an impulsive, possibly improvisational streak to this music. It’s revealed in the different ways the drums rise up to envelop Pedersen, or skitter and sigh around singer Emilie Stoesen Christensen as she dreamily intones Balke’s free-streaming lyrics on “Riddle #1.” The current version of Batagraf is smaller than the one that recorded Statements; in stripping itself down, and getting lighter on its feet, the band has become only more formidable artistically.