Recommended: Benjamin Koppel – “The Adventures of a Polar Expedition”


Benjamin Koppel - "The Adventures of a Polar Expedition"An album that I’ve been absolutely taken with since it was first released is The Adventures of a Polar Expedition, a sprawling epic by a quintet led by Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel that puts sounds to the pictures and subject of arctic explorers.

Separated into four suites (“Time & Ice Suite,” “The Rise and Fall of the Andree Balloon Expedition 1897,” “The Magnificent Journeys of Nansen and Amundsen,” and “Friendship Suite: The Disappearance of Mylius-Erichsen and Jørgen Brønland”), Koppel’s ensemble captures the majestic visions of unexplored nature, as well as the peculiar oppressiveness inspired by a vast boundless landscape of endless icy whiteness and freezing temperatures.

The musicians also capture the emotions of exploration.  Opening track “Nothing But Ice” has the sunny disposition of optimism and hope.  Koppel and Ulrik send out warm tendrils, each on soprano sax, while Riel’s cymbals are an excited chatter.  And the speedy “Time Piece” skitters right along, with saxophones calling out with increasing frequency and intensity.

On the sublime “Quietness Before Departure,” bassist Danielsson and pianist Balke construct a framework of elegant lyricism for saxophones to lay down one melancholy line after the other.  It captures both the stoicism of facing a difficult odyssey and the contemplative moments that precede it.  Danielsson also contributes an essential part to the moody “Floundering On Ice,” a song that has baritone saxes murmuring bits of melody while Palle’s bass gurgles excitedly in the foreground, actually serving to enhance the song’s preeminent moodiness rather than detract from it.

Saxophonists Koppel and Ulrik often work in tandem, but with staggered start and finish times.  Their is a cohesion to their motion and sound, even as they remain separated by the slightest of spaces at all times.  “Struggling Homewards, In Good Spirits” has the duo fluttering about, sometimes mirroring Balke’s own fluttering piano lines, sometimes attaining an elevation high above it.

“Hallucinating Optimism, Yet Realizing the End” features Riel’s rare moment to raise his voice on drums, crashing down notes in a dance with the saxophonists’ equally excitable display of exuberance.  “The Balloon Launch” is another instance, in which Riel’s agitated drumming ties up the twisting saxophone parts into a neat little bow.  However, Riel makes his greatest contributions to this recording with gentle rustles of cymbals and brushwork.  On the “The Great Sled Journey,” Riel is the reason for the tune’s chipper demeanor, even though his restrained drumming keeps to the background of saxophone harmonies and Balke’s piano, which glitters like stars.

“The Legend of Fram” has baritone taking the low road, piano the higher, and what begins as a brooding tune suddenly takes to flight.  Balke instigates many such moments throughout the album, often the foil to whatever emotional stance the composition seems intended to adopt.  In this, providing just the right amount of contrast, Balke accentuates that to which he runs opposite.  In addition to “The Legend of Fram,” there is the ballad “Farewell My Heart, My House,” in which Balke’s piano warmth and joyful tone strengthens the song’s overriding melancholy personality.

Just a gorgeous, enchanting album.  Had this site been up and running a few years earlier, I am almost certain that The Adventures of a Polar Expedition would have been the Bird is the Worm 2010 Album of the Year.

Your album personnel: Benjamin Koppel (soprano & baritone saxes), Hans Ulrik (soprano & baritone saxes), Jon Balke (piano), Palle Danielsson (bass) and Alex Riel (drums).

Released in 2010 on Cowbell Music.

You can stream much of the album on the Cowbell site, and it’s accompanied by a photos from the actual expeditions.  It’s just about the coolest album stream presentation I’ve ever seen on an internet site.  To see it, follow this LINK.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon

Or purchase directly from Cowbell Music’s webshop, which, since it’s owned by Koppel himself, it’s the same as buying direct from the artist, which is always a good thing to do.