Reviewed by Johan Palme on 16th December, 2018
Pia Raug is a sensitive, warm Danish folk singer-songwriter, rooted in a thoroughly american-inspired 1970s tradition that approaches blues, country and pop with as much reverence as traditional folk songs. She’s accompanied on solo piano by Steve Dobrogosz, an extraordinary cool-jazz pianist, famous for using smatterings of minimalist harmonic colour and floaty rhythmic ambiguity to eke ethereal musical dreamscapes that completely reconstruct standards.
So what on earth are they doing tackling a repertoire of Lutheran Christmas hymns together?
Martin Luther is said to have been a man of many talents, certainly, but his musical legacy is rather more peculiar than groundbreaking. He wrote a number of hymns himself, and a number of his followers added on additional ones, and for the most part they’re a mixture of naivité and unconventional thinking – basic harmonies, almost hypnotically regular melodies, and a complete disregard for musical form. All fully intentional, of course, since they were meant to be sung in unison or simple two-part harmony by untrained lay congregations.
It makes for an interesting clash with both Pia Raug’s and Steve Dobrogosz strengths. Even though most of these hymns are from a later date, they share the essential characterstics of Lutheran tradition, and adding things like harmonic colour, bluesiness or rhythmic variation to them often proves beyond the grasp of the musicians. And yet, at their best, the challenges of the material brings out new aspects of their work. Steve Dobrogosz is more disciplined, low-key and trying his best to expand on the ideas inherent in the sacral music, and some of the songs are truly beautiful in their reverent simplicity. And Pia Raug tones down the Danish hygge and gives the music exactly the bleak, bare, breathy treatment they deserve. It’s Christmas without the pomp, and yet, the emotional impact is striking.