Record Review: Filip Jers, “Spiro”
Spiro is the first commercial release by Swedish composer/arranger/harmonica player Filip Jers. It’s an ambitious project in many ways: in addition to composing, arranging, and performing all 13 pieces on diatonic, chromatic, and bass harmonicas, acoustic guitar, acordian, jaw harp, and a few other instruments, Jers also recorded and mixed the record (with the help of a second engineer). In other words, the record presents Jers as an artist of many talents, in full control of his material. The results are remarkable. This record is one of the most innovative harmonica records I’ve ever heard; most of its 13 pieces are exceptionally good, a number are masterpieces, and it’s the first complete statement by an artist who’s going to be important if he keeps this stuff up. Fans of harmonica music should get a copy of this record right now.
Some of the reasons why I really like this record
Jers, the only musician appearing on this CD, is a trained musician who understands harmony in both its simple and extreme forms. He has an innate sense of melody, which combined with his knowledge of harmony makes for some striking compositions. He’s a skilled and often virtuosic player on all of his various instruments, and his recording technique, which he uses to build densely overdubbed arrangements, is apparently pretty good too. When all of these talents come together, as they do on many of the pieces on this record, the results are stunning. I heard some amazingly powerful harmonica textures on this record that I have never heard before, anywhere. Among other things, this record demonstrates that there’s a lot more mileage left in just playing the harmonica with lungs, lips, hands, and heart, never mind the electronics. The harmonica ensemble work is new and bold; the harmonica quartet has never sounded better, with harmonies as dense and modern as anything you would hear in a concert hall.
The CD starts with a short solo piece, “Intro,” an enjoyable melody that’s followed by “On the Way,” a solo diatonic piece that’s well played but not very interesting, consisting almost entirely of a few too-simple phrases. The next couple of pieces, including a straight-up blues (“Blues 2002”) that’s mixed to sound first like an old 78, then like a modern recording, then like a 78 again, also didn’t excite me much, though the performances are more than competent.
Then along comes the fifth track, “The Basement,” and the record takes off in new directions and never looks back. Beginning here, the compositions and performances are new and powerful. “Basement” unfolds step by step with bass, chromatic, and diatonic harps, plus jaw harp, and it holds my attention from start to finish. “February Sun” is a beautiful melody for guitar and diatonic harmonica; the off-tune bends on diatonic irritated me occasionally, but the piece is lovely. “Folkstone” suffers from the same problem and has the same strengths–some off-kilter bends on diatonic, and an utterly beautiful composition. “Follow Me” is meditative, with terrific chording and hand articulations. “Vastra Staden” is a flat out masterpiece, four harmonica parts (is one an accordion?) that together produce an amazingly pure, almost electronic tone. “Skansk Vintervals” is a romantic piece that was marred for me by rough timbres and tuning on bent and overblown notes. “Improvisation XI” is an abstract piece in which Jers produces some of the most amazing sounds I’ve ever heard from a chromatic harmonica–or is that a real shakuhachi in there? Either way, this is another masterpiece. The chord textures on the chromatic are big and complex, very new and striking. “Den Bla Timmen” is a jazz duet for chromatic harmonica and guitar, and it’s beautifully done, both sunny and sad. “Ostra Promenaden” is a bluesy 2-chord vamp whose melody line works even though there are prominent altered pitches in it.
I’ll summarize briefly: I don’t think Jers is always on target with both performance and composition, but he is most of the time, and on some of these piece he’s doing things that have never been done by anyone–and making it work. I had plenty of “wow” moments listening to this record, inspired by Jers’s sounds, his melodies, his expressive guitar accompaniments–there’s a lot to like.
Jers is obviously still experimenting. If I was his coach, I’d advise him to look at non-standard diatonic tunings to expand his harmonic palette for both solo and ensemble pieces, and allow him to avoid some of the tuning and timbre issues he’s encountering when he plays in 4th or 5th position on the diatonic.
I’d also suggest that he get a band together, preferably with multiple harmonica players, to perform this material. Recent videos of Jers show him in solo or duo configurations, but his ideas are bigger than that–the more instruments in play on a given track on this record, the better it is. He’s got a large canvas in his mind and plenty of technique at his disposal, and he needs to put all of it in front of an audience.
And of course, I suggest that he start singing. Why not? Jers writes very nice stuff on this record, everything from folky stuff to original jazz tunes to complex chamber compositions. If he could sing and write lyrics (and dance), he’d already be a pop star.
All by way of saying: more, more, more. This is one of the most original and compelling solo outings by any soloist I’ve ever heard, and a very strong debut for a player focused on harmonica. I strongly recommend that fans of harmonica music get this record. You can hear samples at: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/filipjers
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