Pick your duality and Fred Lonberg-Holm’s not only been on either side of it, he’s navigated the continuum in between. You want atomized acoustic improv? Check out the cellist’s duo with Michael Zerang on BOXmedia. Face-plastering assault jazz? Check his late 1990s tenure with the Flying Luttenbachers. Mellow acoustic swing? The Valentine Trio. Mind-melting electronics? Dig that solo halfway through the new Ballister CD-R. Abstracted Americana? The Boxhead Ensemble. This could go on a long time, so let’s just stop and deal with the record at hand.
Seval tries to have it a couple ways at once, and often succeeds. The combo is all acoustic and mostly Swedish; Fred’s an American with Swedish roots, and singer Sofia Jernberg was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Vietnam before settling in Stockholm. The cellist and guitarist David Stackenäs has been playing together since the late ‘90s; Lonberg-Holm’s acquaintances with the singer, bassist Patric Thorman, and trumpeter Emil Strandberg are much more recent. Without vocals, Seval would likely sound like a mostly polite chamber combo with a penchant for brief, impolitic sneezes of more harmonically challenging improvisation. The bassist brings a sort of swinging tango vibe to any rhythm, and the trumpeter rides herd on the melodies that the other strings alternately express and spook.
But even though Lonberg-Holm generally records his tune-oriented ensembles without singing, those tunes generally start their lives with words. Seval shows us what he’s been hiding, and it’s not a talent that belongs under a rock. “Maybe It’s Too Late” is a slow swoon of regret, with an alternately creeping and climbing progression that could make it a new jazz standard. “I Won’t Go” unpacks a moment of conciliatory intimacy with a brisk blitheness worthy of Burt Bacharach in his prime.
Jernberg is just the singer to bridge the songs’ pop forms and Fred’s more outside impulses. She has a winning combination of youthful range and sophisticated chops, so that the moments of high and sweet sailing can suddenly spin and wheel like a swallow in a daredevil mood. But she can also match the ensemble’s spiky, meterless interludes with some squeals and back-of-the-throat utterances that will fully challenge any listener intolerant of extended vocal techniques. The blend of ingratiation and confrontation feels more like a tumultuous dalliance than a marriage, but that’s part of Lonberg-Holm’s M.O. — his discography is littered with groups that lasted long enough to get their sound down on one or two records before the lights went out.