In a review of an album from former EST drummer Magnus Öström a couple of years ago, I described Swedish-based guitarist Andreas Hourdakis - who plays in his band - as “one of the most distinctive guitar voices in European jazz”, a description now being used by his record company to promote this album. Having listened to In a Barn many times, I stick with my original description, even though this trio format does rather limit Hourdakis’ scope for breaking out and demonstrating his mastery of the six strings. Nevertheless, this is a great album from a player who I think has got much, much more in store and, with the right choices, can reach great heights in jazz.
As a debut album, In a Barn offers a glimpse of something special. Adopting a straightforward trio set up of Hourdakis on guitar, Martin Höper on upright bass and Ola Hultgren on drums (with the excellent keyboardist Daniel Karlsson guesting on crumar organ on two tracks), Hourdakis presents seven original compositions on an album which has a pastoral quality to it (as the cover painting by Lina Tjernald suggests): the sound is subdued, with little ornamentation, and the recording very successfully draws out the simple joy of playing and improvising which this band evidences. Dues must be given to producer Göran Petersson for creating such a subtle and open air feel to this album. On the CD, indeed, the band picture shows them recording in a barn in a forest north of Stockholm, converted to a studio, and this stripped down, rustic environment has definitely seeped into the music.
In a Barn is not an album to set the pulse racing. Rather, it calms the mind and soothes the soul. It is musically beautiful. Track one, Ski Nautique, is driven along by an insistent drum pattern over which Hourdakis layers a simple melody, adding filigree touches to what is a basic tune but one with an overall sound that soothes the ear. Illy, the second track, is a simple ballad, stripped down, which is perfectly listenable, if lacking in anything which makes the listener sit up and take notice. Track three, Domes, picks up the pace and again relies on simple melodies, embellished with fretboard flourishes and tweaks to create an overall sound and rhythm which works to great satisfaction. But what works well with Hourdakis’ playing is, at key points, a recognition that simplicity is a virtue; it works well in creating a sound on this and the other tracks that is open and unhurried. Zorro is one such quiet, unhurried track, although it is perhaps the least interesting of the seven compositions, even though it has its moments.
The album picks up pace tremendously on track five, the title track, In a Barn, a modest tune where the subtle addition of Karlsson’s organ sound overcomes some of the obvious limitations of a trio by adding a little bit of further texture and volume. The melody is beautiful in its simplicity and reflects the simple joy of playing jazz in an old barn with the sun shining, the woods and meadows outside clearly providing a wonderful backdrop against which to compose. Track six, Sikoti, is pushed along well by Höper’s simple bass rhythm, over which Hourdakis picks out a lovely choice of chords and changes which entrance without the need for excessive showmanship or technical brilliance. Final track, Lake, is more broody and introspective, but enlivened by some gorgeous chords picked out by Hourdakis over a very simple composition.
This is a great album. Not perfect, but very good for a debut recording. Hourdakis is not a particularly expressive player in a trio format, but he has something in his sound which I think works very well, in both a subdued setting as on this album and certainly in a more expansive, fusion environment (which I’d like to see more of on his sophomore album). Hourdakis writes and plays nice tunes. That’s it, that's the secret to this album. Sweden and Norway are productive nurseries for some of Europe’s great new jazz talent and Hourdakis is one of those players who are offering something a little different to the jazz listening audience and growing musically in such a supportive environment. Why this is so I don’t know, but there must be something in the nordic air which is creating a thriving, if modest, jazz scene of which this album, in its way, is a by-product.
Andreas Hourdakis is an in-demand guitarist in Sweden’s music world. His guitar sound and tone belies little of his past as a guitarist in hardcore band Neverending, but his distinctive guitar tone - more restrained on this album, but very evident on his playing on Magnus Öström’s two albums, on which Hourdakis' guitar sound jumps out at the listener and demands to be heard; indeed, makes the album - does retain some non-jazz DNA which makes his playing just a bit more distinctive and interesting than a lot of jazz guitar players I’ve listened to. His compositions on In a Barn are good (if not yet of a Pat Metheny standard, let’s say) and evidence a guitarist who doesn’t require bombast and the hubris to articulate what he wants to say.
A fixture with Magnus Öström and a partner with other swedish jazz up-and-comers such as Daniel Karlsson (check out the great Fusion for Fish, on which Hourdakis returns the favour and plays on two tracks), Hourdakis clearly benefits from playing with a variety of bands and players in Sweden and the US, and imbibes their playing to nourish his own. The fact he has little profile yet on the UK and wider European scene reflects, perhaps, his development in one of Europe’s smaller jazz scenes. But I think with album, he has demonstrated he has enough potential to become more widely known. Next album, however, let’s get the volume turned up and the effects pedals turned on!