Brussels-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Anja Kowalski has been around the Belgian musical scene for a pretty long time now. She was first encountered by my ears, and eyes, during the Middelheim Jazz Festival in 1999, if I recall correctly. Anja Kowalski was the guest vocalist for soprano sax Pierre Vaiana's African project Foofango. I honestly didn't care much for that combo, I was there for Misha Mengelberg Trio and ICP Orchestra, which had a standing ovation for their unique and brilliant take on Duke Ellington's repertoire. Nevertheless, if Foofango's gig was unmemorable, Anja Kowalski stood out as a particularly interesting and extraordinary singer. I told myself two things, first "I've never heard such a voice before" and "how is it possible she's looking even more beautiful when she's singing ?" And I told myself a third thing : "This is an artist to follow and I can't wait for this lady to come out with her own musical project".
Well, Anja Kowalski wasn't easy to follow, and if she has taken part in several musical projects of her own (the chamber-folk trio Swiebel, the piano and voice duo Purzelbaum Unlimited and the last intimate duet Seven Stumbling Poets), only the second mentioned issued an album, "DÖ"... ten years ago. As a vocalist on the other hand, Anja Kowalski on records can be found alongside Antwerp's experimental jazz-rock ensemble Think Of One and more prominently Belgian best big band ever, and possibly one of the best, period : the iconoclastic, explosive and oddball avant garde cabaret jazz orchestra Flat Earth Society (I beg you to listen to their handful of records, you have no idea).
Good news appeared in 2009 with the creation of Anja Kowalski's own four-piece band Wolke (German for 'cloud'), the release of a beautiful self-released EP and several gigs around Belgium. But up until April 2015, and despite several concerts around, I honestly thought a full Wolke album will never see the light of day.
"Beauty Is a Rare Thing" is an Ornette Coleman's composition, which appeared on his seminal "This Is Our Music" in 1960 ; both titles could very much be applied to Anja Kowalski's first album under her own name, "Wolke" being relegated to the album title : this album is a thing of beauty, and this is their, mostly her, music. The Brussels record label, NAFF rekordz, bandcamp liner notes include Marlene Dietrich, Hanne Hukkelberg, Robert Wyatt, Eintürzende Neubauten and Bill Frisell as references, but if it gives an idea of what to expect here : melancholy, playfulness, fragility, punctual sonic destruction and succinct avant jazz improvisation, it doesn't say much about the sum of all its parts. The album works like a journey thru the band's, and mostly Anja Kowalski's, mind, and if the lady seems calm on the outside, there's much going on under her mane of hair. "Wolke" is at the same time and alternatively introvert and eccentric, delicate and powerful, pretty dense and airy, dark and colorful while it's certainly excellently performed, the instrumentation suits Anja Kowalski's idiosyncratic vocals perfectly. Two third of the songs are delivered in German, which adds to the uncompromising nature of the album, and that language never sounded that soft and intimate, heimweh being the German close equivalent of the Portuguese saudade.
Listen, share and surely spooking buy this thing there or anywhere!