I’m a great fan of Swedish jazz pianist Esbjorn Svensson who was a recent guest on the excellent BBC Radio 3’s programme Private Passions (hosted by Michael, son of composer Sir Lennox Berkeley). Among Esbjorn Svensson’s eclectic choice of music was a CD by an artist that I had never heard of, which Svensson described as ‘one of the best records I have ever heard.’ So I had to find out more.
Radka Toneff (above) was a Norwegian jazz singer who died in 1982 at the tragically early age of 30. Her last studio recording was Fairytales with pianist Steve Dobrogosz. It is a mixture of standards (this is probably the last time an Elton John track will be recommended on an overgrown path!) and original compositions. The interpretations are quite straight, they remind me somewhat of Norma Winstone. But the singing (and piano accompaniment) are totally sublime. The producer was Norwegian bass legend Arild Andersen at an early stage of his career.
Esbjorn Svensson is spot on. This is an exceptional album, and is certainly a jazz classic. But here is the sting, how do you get hold of it? Fairytales was recorded for the Norwegian label Odin and is deleted. It is only available from the Japanese specialist label Bomba who have remastered it. The cheapest price I could find was 33 euros including shipping from the excellent Caiman USA via Amazon Germany. This translates to £24 or $42 for less than forty minutes music (it was recorded for LP, hence the short playing time).
But Fairtytales is quite simply one of the most musical albums I have heard for a very long time – and that includes jazz and all other genres. Forget the price, another jazz fan sums Radka Toneff up beautifully: "Her musical work is beyond words. If you see one of her albums, and you are interested in jazz – get it quick!"
Footnote: in one of those strange examples of coincidence which litter the overgrown path I typed this listening post listening to today's Private Passions with Scottish poet and guitarist Don Paterson. And one of the pieces of music he chose was from Fairytales, with Raka Toneff singing the title track from Kurt Weill's 1949 opera Lost in the Stars.
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* This article was originally published on July 18, 2005, and is reblogged here as part of On An Overgrown Path's second anniversary celebrations of Music beyond borders. Follow this link to read the comments posted to the original article.