Leonidas Kavakos & Péter Nagy: Stravinsky/Bach (ECM New Series 1855)

Stravinsky:Bach

Stravinsky/Bach

Leonidas Kavakos violin
Péter Nagy piano
Recorded October 2002, Radio Studio DRS, Zurich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Mirrors or two sides of the same coin? This electrifying album by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy answers the question: neither. Stravinsky was indebted to Bach, as so many who put pen to staves ever will be, and explored the Baroque master’s architectures to the very end—even working, the story goes, on Bach transcriptions on his death bed. Yet the Russian iconoclast accomplished a remarkable something that set him apart. Unlike so many before him, he did not shine his light through Bach’s prism but rather shined Bach’s through his own.

Stravinsky’s crucible in this regard was at its hottest in the Duo concertant (1931/32). One of two pieces written for violinist Samuel Dushkin (this for violin and piano, the other his 1931 Violin Concerto), it was not in a format the composer favored at the time but one he nonetheless reconciled through neoclassical rigor. Oscillating between the earthly and the mythological, the piece its composer called a “musical versification” finds unity in gradually joining the two. The first and last of its five movements—the Cantilène and the Dithyrambe—bear mysterious nomenclature. The one blossoms from a pianistic blush to an overpowering charge from the bow. The other drips with lachrymose quality, suspended high above Olympus casting threads to mortal hearts down below. Between them is another dyad, this of two “Epilogues” of friction and protraction in turn. And with them is the sprightly Gigue, one of Stravinsky’s finest moments, played here with integrity.

What sets Kavakos’s playing apart is his ability to be at once fluid and sharp, a quality that lends itself well to the above but also to the below, for in the Partita No. 1 in B minor that follows we hear exactly this contradiction at play. Although two centuries separate these works, Bach’s solo violin masterpiece feels remarkably present in this rendering. Kavakos gives the almighty Allemande a stately treatment, beginning with it a series of four movements and their faster “Doubles.” The first of the latter reveals barest tuning issues in Kavakos’s instrument, but these are quickly brushed away by the Corrente, which he plays with especial care, in the process exploiting the record’s engineering at full potential. The Sarabande likewise unfolds in its dance of blade and water toward the final Tempo di Borea and its Double, by which the music reaches a cavernous interior filled with stalagmites pontific.

The program returns to Stravinsky with the 1933 Suite Italienne for violin and piano. Based on his ballet Pulcinella, it proves the glistening counterpart to the Duo concertant, the spring to its thaw. The affirmation of its introductory motives barely hints at the fiery Tarantella which is the piece’s prime turn—a ball of yarn expertly unraveled. Kavakos’s hefty double stops nourish their flames on Nagy’s pointillist sparks. The folk-like Scherzino is another highlight and sets up the Minuet and Finale with authorial flourish.

From these concentrations we return once more to Bach, whose Sonata No. 1 in G minor reveals further affinity. From the cautious first half to the dawn-like awakening of the third movement and into the forward thinking of the final Presto, it develops itself like one long proclamation—slowed here and sped up there—until it glows.

Those thinking of buying this album for ECM’s treatment of the Bach will want to check out Holloway and Kremer’s versions first. In any event, the Sonatas and Partitas will always overshadow their interpreter. For the Stravinsky? Look no further.

Ghazal: The Rain (ECM 1840)

The Rain

Ghazal
The Rain

Kayhan Kalhor kamancheh
Shujaat Husain Khan sitar, vocals
Sandeep Das tabla
Concert recording, May 28, 2001, Radio Studio DRS, Bern
Recording engineer: Andy Mettler
Recording producer: Kjell Keller
Edited, remixed, and mastered at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Kayhan Kalhor, Manfred Eicher, and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

One cannot become full without first being empty.

In the presence of Ghazal, vicarious though it may be through the medium of a single album, things drain away. There is no excuse for distraction, no reason to hear this music as anything but a portal between states of mind and body. Kayhan Kalhor plays the kamancheh, an Iranian spike fiddle with a sound like the Byzantine lyra, and with it cinches horizons in a cosmic string game. Shujaat Khan plays sitar and sings. Khan comes from a long line of raga masters and has been featured on over 60 albums, though western listeners are most likely to have encountered him via Waiting for Love, released 1998 on India Archive Music. It is his deepest recording yet and one I was lucky enough to discover after buying it at a concert given by its tabla player, Samir Chatterjee. On the subject of tabla, one must acknowledge Sandeep Das, who since debuting at the age of 15 with Ravi Shankar has become one of the greatest living proponents of the instrument and who joins Kalhor and Khan in a timeless performance. Thus, Ghazal’s three sides blend two musical traditions (North Indian and Persian) with one purpose: to send you.

Recorded live in Berne, Switzerland, The Rain is divided into three long-form improvisations on traditional motifs, averaging 18 minutes each. “Fire” opens with a blush of sitar, a splash of sun on the well-worn path of the kamancheh’s tearful song. The expectation in Khan’s singing, indistinguishably potent through throat and string, marks that path with a mapmaker’s intuition. Khan’s voice is almost startling, providing that moment of satori on which everything hinges. Vocal cues are left intact, loosing the birds of Kalhor’s flights from their cages: signals born of moments yet predestined beyond all sense of time. In contrast, the tabla arises from the very earth, its skins mineral-rough against a backdrop of unforced biorhythms.

“Dawn” is a prayer for Kalhor, who awakens, stirring like the forest in early light and coaxing buds from their stems to broaden the promise of spring. His branches survive by means of their own photosynthesis, taking what they need from below to express themselves skyward. Khan’s singing spins air into filament, a thread without a needle unraveling from that seam where sky meets settlement. Such is the pond into which the stone of “Eternity” is dropped. Its ripples manifest a dialogue between heaven (Kalhor) and earth (Khan). The presence of tabla only makes the melodies freer, absolving words from their social sins. The fulcrum of this balancing act comes in the form of a chromatic undulation in the sitar that like a mountain is grounded yet untouchable, pointing toward the gaping mouth of silence from which it was born.

One cannot become empty without first being full.

Sylvie Courvoisier: Abaton (ECM 1838/39)

Abaton

Sylvie Courvoisier
Abaton

Sylvie Courvoisier piano
Mark Feldman violin
Erik Friedlander cello
Recorded September 2002 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The ancient Greek title of Abaton denotes, abstractly, an “inaccessible place” and, practically, a space believed to have curative properties when used for ritual sleep by those deemed worthy of its seclusion. It also names the trio performing here under its auspices. Born in Switzerland, pianist Courvoisier has lived and worked in New York City since 1998. This is her only ECM appearance thus far, but with it she makes a far-reaching splash. Violinist Mark Feldman, who after a string of successful releases with the John Abercrombie Quartet explores his classical foundations through the pianist’s evocative writing, and cellist Erik Friedlander, another New Yorker whose penchant for edges finds him in comfortably eclectic tenure, accompany her. Together they have forged something so realistic that it can only be enchanting. Indeed, what began as a recording exclusively of Courvoisier’s compositions, four of which comprise the first disc, turned into a double album at the behest of producer Manfred Eicher, who encouraged the musicians to improvise another disc’s worth of material once the initial recording was complete.

SC

“Ianicum,” with which the album begins, is also its postmodern statement par excellence. Courvoisier daubs the canvas with barest ash, producing an audible equivalent of the album’s cover art, while Feldman and Friedlander draw a winter moon’s halo around her. From these introductions coalesces a mirror structure: strings on one side, keyboard on the other. Direct plucking of piano strings signals tectonic movements, a breaking of surface that flirts with indecipherability even as it speaks clear as day to our mental sanctums. Courvoisier’s internalism is echoed by pizzicati, prompting Friedlander to own the shadows of interpretive duty for a spell. Into this dynamic context wanders Feldman, who leaves a trail of breadcrumbs both familiar and newly inspired. The pianism of “Orodruin,” by contrast lights the cello’s fuses in an asymptotic dance between the macabre and material reality. Unisons somehow make it through, angelic and suspended in the glow of afterlife. The title composition is also for the trio. In it, linguistic affinities abound, dialecting over time as voices become protracted and distinct.

Courvoisier is absent for “Poco a poco,” making for a slicker, more chameleonic experience. The effect is celebratory at heart and delineates a realm where nostalgia for 20th-century chamber music blends motifs with assurance. Feldman and Friedlander are an intuitive pair in a tertiary drama.

Each of the 19 improvisations that follow is a vignette of eclectic power. Confronted with titles such as “Icaria” (of which there are three versions) and “Clio” (Greek muse of history), one can’t help but read mythological impulses behind these ad hoc constructions. Words and images fall short of their affective spectrum, dancing among the shadows across the wall of Plato’s allegorical cave. These figures haunt themselves, stepping into their own dreams as if through water.

As fascinating as the trio’s full-on interactivity can be (cf. “Archaos”), it is in the program’s solo portions where brilliance truly crystallizes. Feldman draws the most mournful bow through “Imke’s,” a candle flame in sound that holds on to wick like life itself and draws melody from oxygen. Friedlander is not far behind in “Turoine” and “Ava’s,” walking a tightrope between regret and resolve. Yet it is Courvoisier, tracing an arc from “The Scar of Lotte” through the organic preparations of “Brobdingnag” and lastly to “Narnia,” who houses the album’s spirit with most of its wing fibers intact. Her notes become indistinguishable from the snowflakes beyond the wardrobe, reminding us that quietude sits on the throne of this castle.

The relationship between these two halves—the predetermined and indeterminate—is hardly conversational. It instead forms a palindrome of intention, meeting in the silent middle between disc changes: the album’s very own abaton, waiting to make divided listeners whole again.

Marcin Wasilewski Trio: January (ECM 2019)

January

Marcin Wasilewski Trio
January

Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double-bass
Michal Miskiewicz drums
Recorded February 2007, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist Marcin Wasilewski is a seeker of themes. As nominal leader of one of the most assured trios in recent jazz history, he throws together a variety of sources, moods, and songs into one pot, stirring until every ingredient takes on something of the rest. Bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz are therefore no mere sidemen. Their flavors permeate every morsel of this sonic stew, the group’s sophomore disc for ECM. With well over a decade of steady experience going into this record, it would be harder not to enjoy the synergy at play.

As per usual, the set list is grab bag of delights. Wasilewski leads off “The First Touch,” one of four original tunes, on a tender foot. The rhythm section here marks time by beats irregular and less discernible: kisses of raindrops before the album’s quiet storm. The title track, another penned by the pianist, is as somber as its season and finds Miskiewicz in a decorative mode. Balancing these are “The Cat” and “The Young and Cinema,” both decidedly hipper affairs replete with flourish and sparkle. Drums and bass crosstalk beautifully in both, the latter miked in such a way as to capture every inflection with immediate clarity.

Brightening the music’s silver screen pulse is Ennio Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso,” of which the pianism is so delicate that it nearly floats away of its own volition. Gentle, yes, but patterned by the razor edge of nostalgia. Such blurring between image and sound is paramount at ECM, and fans of the label will encounter much to admire between two cuts suggested by producer Manfred Eicher. The trio’s loving attention to detail is especially poignant in “Vignette,” which casts a backward glance to Gary Peacock’s seminal yet often-neglected Tales Of Another. The bassing here is magnetic, independent yet resolving by a gradual return to fold. By contrast, jocularity abounds in Carla Bley’s “King Korn,” which gets a treatment to be reckoned with. There is, further, a poignant nod to Tomasz Stanko—with whom the trio first gained international notoriety—by way of “Balladyna,” an enduring swirl of leaves fallen from the tree of Stanko’s label debut.

The group’s tradition of pop do-overs continues with Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls,” bringing to light the album’s most soaring passage and providing an aerial view of the trio’s melodic landscape. All of this ties together in “New York 2007.” This improvised blip completes the fulsome radar sweep by which this album navigates. January belongs on any jazz lover’s shelf right next to Changing Places as yet another groundbreaking statement of trio-ism from ECM. Its sounds are hollow-boned and ready to fly.

Ayako Shirasaki: Some Other Time

Some Other Time

Ayako Shirasaki brings world-class jazz down to earth on Some Other Time. For this, her fifth album, the Japan-born and New York-based pianist is joined by bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Quincy Davis. That Shirasaki cut her teeth on the bebop greats—Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Bud Powell, to name but a few—should come as no surprise. Neither should the fact that, in her defining twenties, the beauties of Bill Evans, Art Tatum, and Kenny Barron (her mentor at the Manhattan School of Music) would be just as influential in defining her current sound, a perfect admixture of both.

This being her first trio album in eight years, Shirasaki brings a wealth of maturation into the studio. “In that time my life has greatly changed by having two kids,” she tells me during a recent interview. “I’m not only a musician anymore but also a mother, wife, and teacher.” Shirasaki further acknowledges her children as having an effect on her playing: “I think that in dealing with small children everything has to be clear, natural, and easy for them to understand. These elements have changed my music a little bit. I have also become more openhearted since becoming a mother.”It’s an unenviable identity to inhabit in a male-dominated profession, but hearing her phenomenal rendition of “Oleo,” such labels cease to matter. This Sonny Rollins gem floats effortlessly from her fingertips with the punch of Chick Corea and the underlying elegance of Marc Copland.

Shirasaki is a cat with nine lives who imbues her playing with nods to various stages of jazz history. That said, she makes no pretentions about theme:“It’s funny, I never had any intension to make this album into a particular direction. I just followed my heart, and still the album developed a certain character.” And while some of that character comes from nods to the American Songbook, notably in the nostalgic hipness of “Long Ago and Far Away” (Jerome Kern) and her solo take on Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” (a mission statement if there ever was one), Shirasaki brings more than a rainbow’s worth of colors to this gallery of moods by way of her interpretive prowess. Whether in the vivid, classic sound of “April in Paris” (Vernon Duke) or the bluesy urbanity of “My Man’s Gone” (George Gershwin), a certain optimism persists, although perhaps nowhere more so than in “Hope.” This Lars Jansson tune proves just how positive jazz can become in the pianist’s hands. Shirasaki: “Music has an aspect to heal people’s heart when they’re down or stressed for any reason. Jazz has such power in energetic and beautiful ways to impart positive messages.”If we hear anything in this revelry, it is the confidence in Shirasaki’s step; a confidence born of love.

These are, of course, songs without words, and as such get to the heart of every melody without distraction. Such conviction comes from Shirasaki’s rigorous classical training, which through the prism of the piano trio format lends special focus. “I love playing solo,” Shirasaki notes, “as I can control all the sound, harmony, bass, and rhythms from beginning to end, but it can be lonely. The trio brings out individual colors and tasks. Interaction between the three brings the music to another level. I think the piano trio is a very strong unit for being ‘minimal.’”

Ayako

Such are the hallmarks, too, of her own tunes. “Sunrise” connotes the luminosity of her craft to exponential degree. Its invigorations emote with a welcoming spirit, fitting like well-worn shoes. The improvising here may not be fierce, and is even a bit saccharine, but nevertheless balances touch and go with assurance. Corea again lurks in the staggered harmonies and independent hands of “3 Steps Forward,” throughout which the superb rhythm section is plush and omnipresent, of which the phrasing speaks to tasteful attunement all around. “Peace of Mind” is another optimistic slice of forward-thinking jazz. Sparkling highs in the right hand contrast beautifully with thumping bass, the latter of which has a remarkable solo, delicate yet forthright.

As an avid enka (Japanese popular folk) and traditional Japanese music listener, I was delighted to encounter on this album such spirited takes on Saburō Kitajima’s “Yosaku” and the children’s song “Antagata dokosa.” When asked about her inclusion of these particular tunes, Shirasaki discusses her experiences performing in Japan as one motivation. “Another reason is that simply I like to play these songs. ‘Antagata dokosa’ came up since I used this song for my music class for kids and found that its odd metering carried over into jazz in a unique way.For ‘Yosaku,’ I just like the bluesy feeling of its chord progression (re-harmonized from the original version). It was quite a joy to find that ‘Yosaku’ could transform into jazz!” Both tracks show the trio at its swinging best and bring to life the freshness of Shirasaki’s thinking.

Like the title track by Leonard Bernstein, the album as a whole has a sense of breathing about it, as if it were being sung through the body rather than through an instrument. The affective commitment required to achieve this dynamic amounts to no small task, but Shirasaki and her trio make it sound natural as can be. In her own words: “I always want to play better than yesterday.” Let us hope, then, that there will be many other times to come.