Release Date: October 6, 2023
Label: ears&eyes Records
Pulses, the groundbreaking new album from visionary flutist-composer Elsa Nilsson and her latest creative outfit Band of Pulses. What is the line that makes sound, music? Nilsson, along with pianist Santiago Leibson, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Rodrigo Recabarren, seek to answer that question in Pulses, a riveting eight-part suite based and built on the rhythmic and melodic aspects of Dr. Maya Angelou’s voice. Awarded a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Grant, Pulses explores the intersection between jazz and communication by highlighting the subtle melodic development and deep groove in Dr. Angelou’s reading of her poem “On The Pulse of Morning”. Crafted, composed, and improvised around Dr. Angelou’s pitch and phrasing, Pulses is an impressive creative experiment that brings to light the full depth of her sonic and poetic brilliance.
“I’ve always been drawn to Dr. Angelou’s work,” says Nilsson. “What I find compelling is her ability to look directly at difficult topics and approach them with both compassion and honesty. Her unflappable clarity in her expression of everything from the beautiful to the brutal is something I work to embody on my instrument as well. I return to her work often in order to guide myself back to center, and find a path forward in making art that feels genuine.”
The seeds for Pulses were first planted about three years ago, when Recabarren shared a clip of Dr. Angelou’s seminal recitation of “On The Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration with Elsa, as they were both working on musical projects inspired by the spoken word. “Ron Miles told me once to imagine lyrics to every note I play. This is something I listen for in music,” explains Nilsson. When listening to Dr. Angelou’s speech, she was immediately struck by the similarities in her voice to John Coltrane’s horn, and she surveyed the delicate balance between momentum and restraint in the poet’s voice. “Flute has not been a go-to instrument in jazz, and I believe a lot of it is because this kind of momentum doesn’t come naturally on the instrument due to its lack of resistance in the creation of the sound. It is much more of a vocal process, and so exploring how Dr. Angelou was creating that effect with her voice was exciting to me.”
Nilsson fully immersed herself in this musical-spoken word intersection, and came up with some intriguing findings. For one, the inescapable similarities of Dr. Angelou’s pitch and rhythms to the blues stuck out to Nilsson, drawing a connection between communication in speech and communication in jazz. Dr. Angelou uses diminished sounds to build intensity, and major sounds to release it, and when there is thematic development in the content, it is met with appropriate pitch and rhythm in speech. “The more time I spend with each inflection the deeper I hear the connection between her voice and the voices of musicians I love. At different points in her reading her phrasing will sound like John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and Ornette Coleman. She increases her rhythmic density to build tension and releases it in the same fashion found in bebop phrasing,” shares Nilsson. The deeper Nilsson dug into her inflections and phrasing, the more similarities with jazz she found, and this natural connection inspired the music that poured out of her. Granted permission from Angelou’s estate, Caged Bird Legacy, Nilsson incorporates the entire 1993 recording, formally merging these two mediums to make something entirely new.
Band of Pulses brings together four imaginative creative forces of the New York jazz and improvised music scene. Recabarren, whose credits include Guillermo Klein, Melissa Aldana and Clauda Acuña, first worked with Nilsson extensively in 2020 as part of their collaborative trio South By North East with bassist Bam Bam Rodriguez. Not long after the release of their critically acclaimed debut album for human beings (coincidentally, also drawn from poetry, as the title is connected to a favorite poem of his), the trio became a duo due to Rodriguez’s relocation. It was great luck then when Nilsson met Kenney (Allan Harris, Art Landy) and Leibson (Tony Malaby, Guillermo Klein, Francisco Mela), and felt an instant musical connection. “The way they played together felt like the exact right thing,” she says.
Originally from Gothenburg, Sweden, Brooklyn-based Nilsson is a musical visionary with boundless creativity. A founding member of the Esthesis Quartet, and leader/co-leader of nearly a dozen albums, Nilsson’s growing discography reflects an astute perspective, informed by deep research and immersion. Her adventurous 2022 ears&eyes release, Atlas Of Sound - Coast Redwoods - 41°32'09.8"N 124°04'35.5"W” brought listeners into Redwood National Park, and was praised by Bandcamp’s Dave Sumner as being “as close as you’ll get to being there without actually being there,” adding that it was “yet another intriguing project from Nilsson that touches upon themes of experience, memory, and interconnectedness.” Hindsight, her 2020 release inspired by the street protests after the 2016 election, did the same thing by incorporating the rhythmic cadence of protests and chants and turning them into compelling melodies and motifs. Pulses follows in the footsteps of these great contemporary works by marrying music and the spoken word in impeccable fashion.
Coast Redwoods 41°32’09.8”N 124°04’35.5”W
Release Date: April 22, 2022
Label: ears&eyes Records
Coast Redwoods 41°32’09.8”N 124°04’35.5”W is the first release from Elsa Nilsson's Atlas of Sound series, which is inspired by human connection to locations of the natural world. Lush and melodic, at times subversive, Nilsson’s trio recording invites listeners into dense woody thickets where breezes idle and sounds of footsteps disappear into layers of pine needle. The ten-movement suite emerged from improvised material Nilsson recorded at two sets of coordinates, a month apart from each other. When she began composing in earnest, the Brooklyn-based artist out of Sweden had in mind her personnel: Jon Cowherd on piano and Chris Morrissey on bass, two fiercely exploratory artists who intuit aspects of Nilsson’s orchestration and enter each sound grove with nimble awareness.
“The secret is in the tempo,” says Nilsson, “how slow [the redwoods] move. For me to hear them I have to slow down, stay still. Really, really listen. When I do, I find music in every movement. There’s a melody in the rustle of leaves as the wind blows through them and they release and float to the ground, a groove in the sound of footsteps, real or imagined.”
“[Nilsson] is the logical choice to provide a needed next step for her instrument in the world of jazz and improvised music”
— All About Jazz
Another secret is in Nilsson’s treatment of leitmotif throughout the recording: “For me, an ecosystem is expressed in the similarities and connections between things.” She sought to have the gesture appear in every movement, but not wholly materialize, developing instead across the arc of the suite. “It pops up and goes away.” Elements of the motif might emerge in the bass movement, or in the piano responding to a related phrase. “When you get to the final movement, it’s familiar and you don’t know why. It’s like the feeling you get when you’re walking among trees where you’ve never walked before.”
Certain movements, including “Old Growth,” “Hold On To Each Other” and “Proof of the Unseen,” engage the leitmotif using giant intervallic leaps. Others, as in “Sunshift Haze,” allow melodies to pass from one instrument to another: “I’ll take a piano melody and move two or three notes into the bass part — there’s a connection to every part of the ecosystem from the bottom of the roots to the top of the trees.”
During her visit to the north end of Redwood National Park, Nilsson recorded what would become the seeds for seven movements, later recording those for “Old Growth,” “Proof of the Unseen” and “Coralie” in the Grove of Old Trees outside Occidental. “The suite depicts many different aspects of how we relate to the Redwoods and their connection to each other … It is a story of interconnectedness that spans our history and informs our future.”
The third of her records to be mastered by Nate Wood, the Coast Redwoods opens in tender inquisition on “Sunshift Haze,” named for the morning hours when fog blooms across the redwoods before the sun breaks through. The melody develops over time, playing in totality only toward the end of the movement. “As the piece progresses, the melody becomes more and more clear, like the sun burning off the fog,” says Nilsson. “The flute represents the sun, bass and piano the fog, and together we clear the way for the day to begin.
Throughout the suite, motivic melody passes intentionally among piano, bass and flute/ Morrissey handles its lyrical arc on “Catching Droplets,” the first movement to unveil the suite’s leitmotif in its entirety. “The bass [represents] the roots enjoying their gift of water from the fog,” says Nilsson. “The flute and piano represent the droplets falling from the canopy and running down the bark, making little rivers from the Redwood created rains.” Beautiful and somber, “Old Growth” features Morrissey’s arco as it engages the vocal quality of Nilsson’s flute song alongside atmospheric motion from Cowherd.
Nilsson composed “The Ground is Its Own” for First Nations “that belong to the trees.” The gesture spotlights nimble spontaneity between Nilsson and Cowherd. Charting the deep-rooted symbiotic relationship between the redwoods and fungal mycorrhiza, “Proof of the Unseen” feature’s Morrissey performing lyrical ornaments around Nilsson’s long-held melodies. “Epicormic” prompts an energetic current of improvisation that settles into an almost cyclical melody, exploring fire as a natural part of the redwood life cycle. “I wrote this [movement] in the midst of lockdown when I felt my world falling apart around me in a myriad of ways,” says Nilsson. “Even when the world around us burns, there are seeds for something new to come.” Cowherd and Morrissey proffer thoughtful solos on “Fairy Rings” before Nilsson and Cowherd take out a percussive variation on the melody.
“Coralie” opens in meditative warmth, unfolding in tribute to Nilsson’s niece, part of “the third generation to grow up calling these trees home.” The Coast Redwoods leitmotif emerges in the piano part on “Molted Steps,” one of the suite’s gentle yet kinetic movements. Intentional pauses and beats of non-playing reflect the feeling of walking along the fallen needles. “Suddenly you don’t hear your own feet anymore,” says Nilsson. “You feel the motion of it — you feel that things are moving — but it doesn’t sound like it.” When listeners hear “Hold On To Each Other,” the suite’s final movement, they encounter an unnamed familiarity in the resolution of the leitmotif: “It’s an exhalation. If we support each other we are all stronger. If we all hold on to each other, less of us are likely to fall.”
Nilsson ensures each leader release includes an element of written word. The Atlas of Sound series invites listeners into the expanse of her imagination through original poetry, providing them the option of gaining a different perspective on her music and her artistic expression. “The way poetry and instrumental music complement each other,” says Nilsson, “is that they can either focus or dispel a direction.
“Because of the abstraction of instrumental music, what I put out into the world doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the listener. That doesn’t mean that all of the thought and all of the processing and all of the growth…everything that goes into creating art is gone. It just means that it’s taking on its own life.”
for human beings
Release Date: May 15, 2020 (digital-only release)
Label: BumbleBee Collective
With the release of for human beings, Sweden-native, New York City-based flutist and composer Elsa Nilsson debuts her new collaborative group South by North East (SXNE). On this five-piece improvised suite, Nilsson is joined by Bam Bam Rodríguez on bass and Rodrigo Recabarren on drums. Recorded on January 24, 2020, for human beings has since taken on a whole new perspective as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The video for a clip from the track “Forward” will be released on May 12th. To mark the release day, SXNE are inviting fans to join a Zoom meeting with them - at 1pm (EST) on May 15th, the attendees will join the band in each colouring a letter while listening through the album. You can register in advance for this meeting here.
Upon returning to these recordings amidst the early days of isolation, this trio found glimpses of solace and comfort. With each playback, these three musicians were struck with new thoughts, emotions and felt a multitude of fresh, creative doors opening. As many people are now faced with unprecedented space in their day, Elsa, Bam and Rodrigo want to share each of their creative spaces with their audience - a space to be whatever one needs to be; To sit in stillness, or in turmoil. SXNE invites listeners to join them in making something together - Bam is making stop motion animations and doing daily live streams of music to breathe, write, meditate, read and feel. Elsa is creating mandalas for fans to color that when combined, will build the words of the Rumi poem referenced in the track titles. Rodrigo is transcribing and building music around rhythms of important speeches and making life beautiful for his wife and son.
for human beings follows the February 2020 release of Hindsight, Elsa Nilsson’s third album as a leader, a recording on which - according to Hot House Magazine - "Elsa imbues resonating, percussive lines with profound emotional responses to personal experiences and global issues." On for human beings, the flutist and composer’s combined passion for music, protest and justice is evident once again. Living in New York City, each of these musicians are particularly exposed to the sheer juxtaposition that has presented itself - the contrast between a prior life in a loud, fast and stressful city to one that has come to a frighteningly sudden and unexpected halt.
“We used to live in a world where just being is boring, and arrived at one where "just" being became overwhelming. That idea is what we want to represent with this music.” -Bam Rodriguez
Each composition on this five-track journey moves in many directions, just like many listeners might now find themselves exploring new places, emotionally and mentally, during isolation. “Every day contains so much space.” As Elsa continues to reflect, “when we recorded this, there was no way we could have known where it would go. These tracks lay waiting for weeks untouched after recording because we were busy. Life was moving fast. And then suddenly it slammed to a stop. The loss is overwhelming - both the loss of our heroes, friends and loved ones, and the loss of the lives we knew.”
This music then returned to Rodrigo, Elsa and Bam in the midst of the global pandemic. In it, they heard all the thoughts, wearies and emotions they were now experiencing - the fear and anger, the deafening silence of the empty streets of New York. But also the space to move within - to take the time to have those long conversations with oneself that used to be hard to find time for; To sit in stillness and confront their thoughts, their fears, their dreams, the realities of what they actually want out of life.
Keep walking, though there is no place to get to.
Don't try to see through the distances.
That's not for human beings. Move within,
but don't move in the way fear makes you move.
Release Date: February 21, 2019
Label: BumbleBee Collective
Sweden-native, New York City-based flutist and composer Elsa Nilsson is proud to announce the February 21strelease of Hindsight, her third album as a leader. Hindsight is a direct reaction to the result of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the issues that have manifested since; it is a ten-track collection of resistance compositions, embedded with the rhythmic chants of a nation. The Elsa Nilsson Quartet features Jeff McLaughlinon guitar, Alex Minier on bass and Cody Rahn on drums/percussion. Throughout 2020, Elsa will tour this music across Pennsylvania, North Carolina, West Virginia, Vermont, Gothenburg, Malmö, Stockholm and Copenhagen. Before and during this tour, videos for each of the tracks will be released – each of which have been created by individuals who experience, or are at least exposed to the direct effects of the social and political disorder brought to light by these compositions.
With every political and social issue that resonated with the flutist came a new composition – an outlet for objection and resistance. Upon bringing this music to her band, the individual rage, frustration and confusion that Nilsson had been harboring found support and solidarity as the musicians added their thoughts and perspectives, giving the music expanded depth. Nilsson says: “the music became a record of our reactions to the changing world around us. My mission with Hindsight is both to express my feelings around the topics I care deeply about, show solidarity with everyone who is directly affected and gratitude for everyone who is showing up to make a difference in any way they can.”
Music is both a reaction to and an inﬂuence on its culture. The ﬂute is her voice and on Hindsight Elsa Nilsson uses it to translate the language of political movement. Music begins to communicate where language ends. It is an attempt to describe what we can’t even understand – to communicate a thought that hasn’t been fully formed. This band imbibes the energy of rock n’ roll, the cadence of street protest, the visceral improvisations of jazz and the compositional language of Classical music to express the emotional turmoil that goes beyond words in reaction to the state of our world. There is democracy in improvised music. All voices are heard and are integral to the argument, even if one voice is leading the conversation. Each person leads the discussion, at some point or another. If a voice is missing, the absence is felt. There is democracy in music, but there is also music in democracy. Elsa saw that music in the protest chants that inspired this album. The improvisations and compositions heard on Hindsight intertwines dialog from speeches and the rhythms from protest marches that Elsa has witnessed and been a part of.
“Changed In Mid Air” was inspired by the infamous Travel Ban. It captures the uncertainty of the traveler, the fear of having the rug pulled out from under you and the action of all those who came to the airport to protest and help. The chant used is “Say It Loud, Say It Clear, Refugees Are Welcome Here”. “Worth The Risk/Maria” describes the process of realizing you are being forced to leave your home. There are moments of imagining a better life, the dream of who you could be if you get to where you are heading safely. No one chooses to be a refugee, but some things are worth the risk. “Maria” is the storm. Both the literal storm of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico and the figurative storm of the dangers of imigration and the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers at the border. “Will Help Come” expresses the long wait for aid after Hurricane Maria hits. Faith turns into desperation.
“Enough Is Enough” forces its audience to reflect upon another recent tragedy in US history. The tune is 6 minutes and 20 seconds long – the exact length of time that the gunman was active at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school. It uses the rhythms from chants “Enough is Enough” and “We Call BS”.
“Hindsight” is the seed of this entire project. It is a reaction to a broken system, a system where people feel their votes don’t matter, resulting in a government that they feel doesn’t represent them. “What Can I Do” stems from the rhythm of “Black Lives Matter”. This piece is built around the rigid structure of an 11 note tone row that we then have to navigate within, much like how citizens of a nation need to figure out how to exist within the structures of institutionalized racism and its effects on their psyche and society. Traditionally this compositional technique uses 12 notes, but I left one note out to represent what we are leaving out in how we relate to each other on issues of race.
“Trickle Down” is based on “We Are The 99%” and is a representation of how we are taught to believe that if we work hard we will get what we deserve. Unfortunately, there are many unpleasant factors involved; socio-economic background, race, gender, privilege, debt, luck and more all play an inexorable role.
The album shifts to the topic of the Kavanaugh hearings with “I Believe You” and “Fill The Courts”. “I Believe You” moves through the immense bravery of Dr. Ford coming forward with her story, the hope of her being believed and into the realization that it didn’t change a thing. “Fill The Courts” expresses the unstoppable momentum of the years of setup to fill the courts with conservative justices. The amount of preparation and planning that has gone in to making it possible for the current administration to fill so many vacant court seats is – to Elsa – overwhelming. The video for this track, which will be released in April, is credited to Lisa Russel – a filmmaker for the UN.
The album closes with “We Show Up” – the composer’s anthem of gratitude for everyone who stands up and gets involved in the causes they believe in. “Every time I see anyone take action, stand in line outside their polling location, speak out on behalf of others or change their own ways for the better, it gives me hope. I wanted to end this record with a piece to honor the best in all of us. I truly believe we are not alone in this. We don’t have to agree, but the urge to make the world better is a fundamental human instinct that we need to nurture.”
In recording and playing this music live, it has taken on a life of its own – it now belongs to every listener and audience member. These songs that began with the flutist alone in her practice room have grown, much like the chants have and continue to do so in the streets.
"What I find most interesting are the composed passages where the band plays in unison with the pitches, rises, falls, and intonations of Angelou’s speech. "Read the full review here.
THE NEW YORY CITY JAZZ RECORD
"Pulses interrogates freedom in America via free playing and free interpretation of Angelou’s seminal poem. " Read the full review here.
For Coast Redwoods 41°32’09.8”N 124°04’35.5”W
"For Earth Day, flutist and composer Elsa Nilsson has given us the perfect gift." Read the complete album announcement here.
"There’s music that approximates the tranquility and timelessness of nature, and then there are albums that simply channel it." Read The Best Jazz on Bandcamp for April 2022 here.
"The result is probing music of genuine character elevated by the close listening of its creators." Read the review here.
NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD
"The music is sumptuous and melodic.." Read the review in the September 2022 issue of New York City Jazz Record here.
TAKE EFFECT REVIEWS
"An excellent starting point for the poetic artist, there’s a nature-esque theme running beneath these tracks, and with the help of Cowherd and Morrissey this first album sure does not disappoint." Read this review here.
"The flutist’s 10-movement suite, including improvisations recorded at Redwood National Forest and the Grove of Old Trees, captures the heart of the prevailing tranquility as it courses into the flow of the trio session.." Named to the Best Jazz Albums of 2022 list here.
For Dark Is Light Is
THE FREE JAZZ COLLECTIVE
"Dark is Light is is a holiday album for a holiday that you may not even knew you needed. It comes at a real solstice ... things indeed got dark and the coming days hopefully will again be getting lighter." Read more here.
For for human beings
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Nilsson has a purity of tone, and astonishing facility as a player." Read full review here.
"There’s a churning cadence to the songs on Music for Humans. Melodies are a natural byproduct of this motion; that’s why Elsa Nilsson’s flute sometimes flutters like a butterfly, and sometimes sweeps across the surface like ice ripping through tufts of snow." Read full feature here.
"A technical master, Elsa imbues resonating, percussive lines with profound emotional responses to personal experiences and global issues." Read the full feature here.
NEW YORK MUSIC DAILY
"Count this as one of the best albums of the past several months in any style of music." Read the full review here.