ELMA- Licentia Poetica (Hevhetia, 2022) ~ The Free Jazz Collective

By Sammy Stein

Polish vocalist Elma Kais, with Knox Chandler on electric guitar and electronics, Klaus Kugel on drums and percussion, and Daigo Nakai on bass guitar, has released an album of wordless musical poetry titled Licentia Poetica. The work is an improvised suite recorded live in 2020 in Gdansk, Poland, during Gdanskie Noce Jazsowe Festival. The tracks represent a collection of pieces inspired by verses of ancient poetry by Ovid.

The cover of the CD also attracts attention with Ola Leśnik’s drawings. Ola is an artist on the autism spectrum who does not speak but expresses herself and communicates with the world through her art. These drawings were also brought to life in the animation accompanying the album.

Elma Kais has released two earlier albums, Hic Et Nunc 2014 and Ad Rem
2016), which gained her critical acclaim. She studied classical music, has a doctorate in the psychological aspects of improvisation, and works as a music therapist. Knox Chandler is known for his work with 1990s electronic, alt-rock, post-punk, groups such as Depeche Mode, REM, and Psychedelic Furs. He toured with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cyndi Lauper, and Lou Reed and was part of Mars Williams’ Ayler Christmas project in 2018. Klaus Krugel has appeared on over 50 recordings with the international Improvising elite, including Charles Gayle, Joe McPhee, John Edwards , Theo Jörgensmann, and Ken Vandermark. Daigo Nakai is a member of the Australian ade ish trio, born in Japan and based in Berlin.

The recording was made live, uninterrupted, and on the release, just the applause and other extraneous noise were removed. The album is an extraordinary piece of improvised music, and while divided into ‘numbers,’ it really forms a continuum of an improvised suite.

‘Sponte’ opens the album and is atmospheric, with spoken, half-whispered, and sung vocals over electronic sounds, which forge a unique relationship. There are sections when the trained voice sounds over intricately layered percussion, making for an immersive listen. The music pulls you in, crowds everything out of your mind, and paints for the listener a musical landscape through which the vocal lines flit and fly, carrying the willing follower in its wake. From delicate babbling to intricately woven passages, the sound is immense and drifts from one revelation to another, the whole entwining into an extraordinary soundscape of powerful force.

‘Sua’ is delicate, contemplative, and transcendental, the voice finding different musical levels from which to launch to the ethereal heights emphasized by the accompanying instruments. From nasal whispered comments to operatic utterances, time seems immaterial as this music unfolds, enfolds the listener, and invites them to submerge into its intricate depths.

‘Carmen’ is nuanced with malevolence. Searing descents fall from the voice, tempered with repeated utterances of short, repeated sounds over tight percussion. There is a sense of rising, enraged with emotion, and floating back to earth in the second half.

‘Numeros’ begins with a solo from Kugel’s timpanic percussion over which Kais’s vocals drop Hagen-esque interludes, voice and drums forming a conversation of sorts, neither dominating.

‘Vaniebat’ is delightfully bonkers – scorching guitar, rivulets of vocal sounds, and sheets of soundwaves that combine to create an intense musical experience. On this track, the guitar is as explorative as the vocals and comes into its own over the equally explorative percussion.

‘AD’ sees a different approach to the improvised music the album is composed of. There is a gentleness and an exploration of curvy waves of sound, first by voice, then by the accompaniment, which tempers down to reflect the contemplative emotion of the voice. In the second half, a beautiful balance is struck between the voice and percussion, demonstrating that improvised music involves intense listening. The delivery is exceptional.

‘Aptos’ is playful with the vocalist in child-like mode, almost chanting before developing into semi-spoken motifs, while ‘ET’ is introduced by the bass note before the vocals pour across the top line in whispering, rapid-fire lines which sound unhinged in some places, yet incredibly intimately woven to the accompaniment in others. Kais uses repeated vocal notes to set up musical lines and suggestions that the others follow, adding their own improvised directions to the signposted.

‘Quod’ is contemplative, gentle, and questioning in its conceptual outlines. The vocals slide into a relaxed chest voice momentarily before sweeping up to create a broken line over the similarly spaced and gapped electronics. As the chaotic ensemble fades, one feels discomfited and, at the same time, deeply satisfied. At times, Kais sounds like one of the people you might pass, muttering to themselves but listening you realise that there is a purpose and direction to her reflective phrases as the electronics and percussion pick up the proffered ideas and run with them.

‘Temtabam’ is a thing of beauty, with the breath-like pulse of electronica, over which the voice warps, wails, and sighs. The voice seems to find the spaces the music allows and fill them with wonder.

‘Scribere’, as the uneven electronics give way to vocals which rise and fall is overah voluminous accompaniment, while ‘Versus’ explores countering rhythms and ascent, bass and guitar string warps and electronic sounds, over which the vocals sing ‘nyah ny’ nyah nyah’ in varying lengths, combinations, and timings. Strangely engaging but it is a relief when the vying for melody ceases. Kais’s voice has qualities that allow her to express opera-like explosions and nursery school-like chimes with equal effect.

‘Erat’ closes the album and sees the ensemble again working their ways along different musical paths, which converge, part, and recombine in unique ways, creating choices for both the ears and the mind to follow.

This ensemble seems to have found a way of revealing perfect alignment while retaining a strong sense of the cohort being made up of individuals with unique takes on the music. Elma Kais, Knox Chandler, Daigo Nakai, and Klaus Kugel are a collective, not a collection of musicians.

At this point, you would do well to refer to the liner notes written by Howard Mandel, where he says:

“A suite by a unique ensemble comprising a stellar vocalist and unconventional electric guitarist (both also using electronics), an exploratory bassist and masterful drummer who as one address the pulse of time loosely, as open and atmospheric rather than a rigid frame… ..Elma’s syllabic fluidity, her propulsive rush of all manner of utterances which her colleagues feed and around which they swirl, informs a coherent, cohesive, story-like audio experience.”

The album is the perfect mix of individuals with their distinctive ways of playing, coming together to create something magical, ethereal, atmospheric, and glorious in its concept and delivery. The intensity of the listening, the reacting, and the blending of these unique individuals into a cohesive whole is palpable – and potentially as fulfilling to the listeners as it must be to the players. This album is primal, mysterious, and an absolute joy. Listening to this, it feels like you are part of it, at one with the music because elements of it speak to us all.

Kais, Chandler, Nakai, and Kugel plan to continue as an ensemble, and this would be to the benefit not just of them as musicians but the listening audiences too.

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