Third Reel: s/t (ECM 2314)

Third Reel

Third Reel

Nicolas Masson tenor saxophone, clarinet
Roberto Pianca guitar
Emanuele Maniscalco drums
Recorded February 2012 Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Mixed by Lara Persia and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Third Reel is reedman Nicolas Masson, guitarist Roberto Pianca, and drummer Emanuele Maniscalco. On its surface, their collaboration yields something of a throwback to ECM’s heavier hitters, such as Krakatau. Closer inspection, however, reveals a highly nuanced solar system with intimate knowledge of its own orbits, eclipses, and asteroid belts. The heart of both album and band are the free improvisations peppered throughout the set list. Though selective and brief, they range from elastic twangs to a pollinated solo from Maniscalco, who further unleashes the brushes in a duet with Masson on tenor.


In general, there’s no generality to be had. Atmospheric signatures can be as tender as Jimmy Giuffre (cf. Masson’s clarinet in “Miserere”) or as headlong as going over Niagara in a barrel (“Furious Seasons”). In this respect, titles seem retrospective. Like a Polaroid photograph, by the time their images catch up, the moments they describe have already gone to that nameless land of the past. Only through the magic of the recorded message do their realities seem to occur for the first time.

Some would seem to be more explicit with their references. “Bley,” for one, is a ligament of butterfly-kissed cymbal and bare, melodic gestures, which like the improvisations of its eponymous pianist seeks the lyrical in unexpected places. But then there is “Sparrow,” its dark balladry evoking Paul Bley even more, particularly his early quartet recordings for ECM with John Surman, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian. The elliptical string games of the nouns (“Orbits” and “Spectrum”) are decidedly verbal, while the verbs (“Freeze” and “Fasten”) are as tangible as ash. They are the flame in the ice, a heart attack of musical proportions. And in the moodier “Eleventh Winter Tale,” brilliance becomes its own animal, stalking the methodical terrain of “Neuer Mond” with a distant prey in its eyes.

In the wake of this listening experience, one might deduce Third Reel’s name to be synonymous with a third dimension, Pianca being the x axis, Masson the y, and Maniscalco the z. Together they plot every audible point in space as if it were a droplet of water on a spider’s web after a storm, only to thrum its anchors until those droplets come raining down in a shower of sparks.

(To hear samples of Third Reel, click here.)

Lucian Ban/Mat Maneri: Transylvanian Concert (ECM 2313)

2313 X

Lucian Ban
Mat Maneri
Transylvanian Concert

Lucian Ban piano
Mat Maneri viola
Concert recording June 5, 2011 at Culture Palace, Targu Mures, Transylvania
Recorded by Tibor Kacso
Mastered by Christoph Stickel and Steve Lake
Produced by Lucian Ban and Steve Lake

Pianist Lucian Ban, making his ECM debut, joins veteran violist Mat Maneri in an impromptu duo concert. That much is obvious. What transpires between them is less so, elusive almost to the detriment of verbal capture. Much of the program was written by Ban with Maneri in mind after the two had played together in an ensemble context. Yet the way they unpack each tune into a beautiful mess of clothing and accoutrements, you’d think everything was played without preparation. (The freely improvised “Darn,” on the other hand, comes spilling out like a through-composed gnarl of roots and impulses.) Whatever the underlying structure, one thing is for sure: this is a dialogue of such intimate magnitude that it feels like a volcanic eruption in reverse.

Ban Maneri

Ban’s thematic titles are reflective of both his Romanian origins and life in New York City. “Not That Kind Of Blues” is smitten with the streets. It opens in a dimly lit room, the pianism resonant yet forthcoming. Maneri’s ergonomic bowing reveals a cartographic exactitude in its tuning, his instrument is no mere machine but a voice. From these nebulous beginnings emerges a stark figure whose urban life has just begun. It wavers, vulnerable, yet is attuned to the surroundings, as if it had known them in the womb. If such abstract analogies tell us anything, it’s that the duo is no longer that. It’s a choir of strings and hammers simmering below the potential to scream.

Rather than tunes, these deserve to be called places. Not only because titles such as “Harlem Bliss” and “Monastery” make reference to them, but also because they develop between vertices of infrastructure. Between Maneri’s lilting lyricism, selective double stops, and the true-to-jazz spirit that pervades every scrape of his bow and Ban’s florid yet never overbearing solos, both performers pick and choose their utterances with liturgical care. They move like ones unfazed by judgment. Even the latter tune’s groovier bodies cannot obscure the variegated heart that sings within. Maneri’s pizzicato puncta secure the canvas for an arcane raga, which by the camera lucida of Ban’s keyboarding is rendered renderable.

Before Ban’s “Two Hymns” in memory of his grandmother, Maria Voda, close the curtain with their protracted nod to earthly things, Maneri’s “Retina” (a reflective piece that contradictorily enough works its meditations behind closed eyes, it seems) and his solo treatment of the spiritual song “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” pay deference to very act of creation by crooning at the feet of it. We might, then, see this as Maneri’s own in memoriam to his late father Joe, whose playful spirit finds entry point into the foreground at such moments of abandon.

The musicians sound as if they are being moved by guidance of an unseen hand, a ghostly presence to make a trio of the act. Such a haunting begs description, but is immune to such. In the end, there’s little to say about the musical event documented on Transylvanian Concert, because it already says so much in a language without equivalent.

(To hear samples of Transylvanian Concert, click here.)

Victor Kissine: Between Two Waves (ECM New Series 2312)

Between Two Waves

Victor Kissine
Between Two Waves

Andrius Žlabys piano
Daniil Grishin viola
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė violoncello
Andrei Pushkarev percussion
Gidon Kremer violin
Kremerata Baltica
Roman Kofman
Recorded July 2011 at Lockenhaus Festival
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
An ECM Production

Ears stretch sensitive sails,
dilated eyes lose fire,
over the silence swims
the night-birds’ soundless choir.
–Osip Mandelstam, “Stone”

After appearing in the shadows as arranger of Schubert’s G-major quartet in a reference recording by the Kremerata Baltica, and later in the company of Tchaikovsky, Russian-born and Belgium-based composer Victor Kissine at last gets the full ECM treatment in a program that spans his transition from chamber music to larger-scale pieces. In the latter vein we have the title composition for piano and string orchestra, composed in 2006 and revised in 2008. Built on the chorale Es ist genug of Bach’s Cantata BWV 60, it professes an interest in the spaces between notes on a score, if not also in their limpid pools of darkness, wherein swirl galaxies of further music. Here we find Kissine rekindling his association with the Kremerata Baltica, along with pianist Andrius Žlabys, whose initial dustings give materiality to the light of the piece’s opening breaths. The strings, too, carry their own torch, to which clings the truth-bringing qualities of emptiness. The relationship between the two is therefore neither that of dialogue nor of debate. It is, rather, an expression of two lesions on the same skin, separated by enough distance to be unseen from any single vantage point but close enough to be felt by wandering hands. The result is a troubling piece—which is not to say that it is difficult but merely a disturbance of waters, a node of silence in such a state of motion that it seems still. Kissine is thus that rare composer who, like Alexander Knaifel, is so attentive to negative space that it becomes positive. The profundity of this process cannot be overstated.


The Duo (after Osip Mandelstam) of 1998/2011 pairs violist Daniil Grishin and cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė in one of the most exquisite classical pieces ever recorded for ECM. What begins in the barest breath turns to a grammatical innovation: instruments speaking before they open their mouths. The effect is such that, even when the bows call from more orthodox hilltops, they are switching tongues with the self-awareness of seasoned translators. Glissandi act like an insect’s feelers searching the air for pheromones. Overlapping gestures speak to a shared core among the instruments—a life force of shapeless, autumnal color. Catharses are few and far between, falling instead under the spell of exhalation.

Kremer joins his orchestra, along with percussionist Andrei Pushkarev, for the 2007 Barcarola. A self-styled “concerto in watercolor,” it is all the more intimate for being so full and seeks no answer but its own questioning. Footprints along string paths dissipate like liquid mercury on an uneven surface. Violin trills describe the dances of those whose bone structures bend and break in tensile patterns. And yet, despite a wide dynamic range, the drama is neither theatrical nor cinematic, but literary. It jumps like the eye across a page in anticipation of what happens next but finds itself being pulled back until the ending draws a circle of self-realization. And there you stand.

Andersen/Vinaccia/Smith: Mira (ECM 2307)



Arild Andersen double bass, electronics
Paolo Vinaccia drums
Tommy Smith tenor saxophone, shakuhachi
Recorded December 2012 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Bassist Arild Andersen, saxophonist Tommy Smith, and drummer Paolo Vinaccia are a rare trio not only in instrumentation, but also in the three-dimensionality of their interactions. Their debut album, Live At Belleville was a masterstroke of prowess and finesse, and introduced a band of such integrity that its messages were impossible to misunderstand. Now cloaked in the mystery of the recording studio—behind the doors of which magic is spun, spliced, and re-spun—these veteran collaborators deflect any expectations of sunlight in favor of a crepuscular palette.

Andersen Trio

Andersen again claims a majority of writing credits. Each tune is a different crater in the dark side of his moon. From first (“Bygone”) to last (“Stevtone”), his themes enable the framing and anchorage of a world far bigger than the sum of its parts. The former swings with a nocturnal air. It is a song in a windowless room, where moonlight remains but a dream and the crosshatching of people and cars below seems as far away as the stars above. Smith is the melodic body, while Andersen and Vinaccia stretch like shadows in streetlights. The latter track eases into its electronic drone by way of Smith’s inventive colorations, which seem to pull at invisible threads with mounting curiosity and inquisitiveness. Through a glacial exchange of places, Andersen takes the helm, following Vinaccia’s barest cymbals like a compass.

“Reparate” makes further use of Andersen’s electronics in much the same manner as his earlier Hyperborean. Over this distinctive blur of voices, Andersen explores the sensitivity behind his muscle. As if introducing a documentary that is about nothing but its own becoming, Smith picks up the thread and pulls it in leaps of intuition from sharp to rounded. Likewise balanced are the denser constructions of “Rossetti,” “Le Saleya,” and “Eight and More.” Whether hitching a rope between thematic vessel and port or soloing over Vinaccia’s rolling thunder, Andersen opens the eye of every needle, so that the drummer might find a way through. The mutual understanding here us as clear as the tune “Blussy” is smoky. Smith adds a slick edge to it all, but with a genuine roughness that gives eye-squinting traction to every turn.

Smith contributes “Kangiten,” a soaring and meditative shakuhachi solo which, despite its brevity, introduces an overtly spiritual band to the album’s spectrum (the title is a Japanese term for the elephant-headed Ganesh of the Hindu pantheon). Smith plays the bamboo flute again on “Raijin” (also Japanese, meaning “god of thunder”) in a ritualistic duet with Vinaccia that recalls Guo Yue and Joji Hirota’s kindred collaborations. Andersen’s title track returns us to the combination of strength and style that is his forte, his tone so full that background feels as present as foreground. Even the trio’s take on Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” forges new alloy through the same admixture.

I wouldn’t hesitate to call Mira a profound leap forward for this trio, were it not for the simple fact of its falling inward. Not only is it a master class in harmony; it is an instructive example of self-assessment in the life of a musician whose best work may be yet to come.

(To hear samples of Mira, click here.)

Jack DeJohnette: Special Edition (ECM 2296-99)

Special Edition

This treasure trove among treasure troves from the Old & New Masters series is the definitive archive of Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition. The Chicago-born drummer, notes Bradley Bambarger in the set’s informative booklet, has appeared on more ECM albums than any other session musician. But it’s as a leader that his most enduring marks were made, and we can be sure that this re-release will both revive positive associations in anyone who remembers the albums on vinyl and inspire pristine ones for the digital newcomer. Like the project’s leader, Special Edition was about the joy of energy and the energy of joy, spreading love and music in overlapping measure.

Special Edition

Special Edition (ECM 1152)

Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, melodica
David Murray tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Arthur Blythe alto saxophone
Peter Warren bass, cello
Recorded March 1979 at Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Jack DeJohnette

There could hardly be a more apt title for the inaugural effort of Jack DeJohnette’s most influential project. As in his formidable collaborations with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, DeJohnette kneaded enough preservatives into this album to keep it as fresh as the day it was baked. Special Edition also served as a launching pad for reedmen David Murray and Arthur Blythe, both onetime members of the World Saxophone Quartet and poster children for the post-bop generation. Their edgy expositions nest seamlessly into the present company. “One For Eric” kicks off the set with a swinging bang as alto sax and bass clarinet inhabit the right and left channels, bass and drums dancing between them with the Neo-Classical ebullience for which the track’s namesake, Mr. Dolphy, was so well known. Jumping from one visceral solo to another (Murray on a notable roll here), the group traces the fine edge between groove and abstraction with the skill of Philippe Petit on a wire. This tasty appetizer prepares us for the largest course in “Zoot Suite,” an instant classic that has since become a touchstone of DeJohnette’s repertoire. A masterful weave of raw horn vamps and somber asides, it is equal parts jubilee and dirge. Peter Warren keeps the beat throughout and makes sure his bandmates never hibernate for too long. “Journey To The Twin Planet” applies heavy mystique to this musical visage, grinding across the skin like the detuned bass at its foundation. DeJohnette introduces a dazzling free-for-all that works its way into mind and body with equal alacrity. The album rounds out with two Coltrane covers. “Central Park West” is a beautiful ode strung along by arco bass and detailed by liquid reeds, while “India” opens pianistically and runs through a stellar turn from Blythe before settling into a smooth rejoinder.

Were I to classify this album, I would unhesitatingly file it under “Zombie Jazz,” for it walks like the living dead, enchanting us with its embodied blend of natural and unnatural movements. There is something hard won about this music that makes it all the more engaging. Agitation has rarely sounded so fantastic.

Tin Can Alley

Tin Can Alley (ECM 1189)

Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, organ, congas, timpani, vocal
Chico Freeman tenor saxophone, flute, bass clarinet
John Purcell alto and baritone saxophones, flute
Peter Warren bass, cello
Recorded live at Studio Bauer, Ludwigsburg, September 1980
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“One, two, you know what to do.”

Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition came up with another winner in this second ECM joint. Most of the blood of Tin Can Alley flows through the work of reedmen Chico Freeman (on tenor sax and bass clarinet) and John Purcell (on alto and baritone). Their voices—one rich with soul, the other provocative—define the title track. With the machine-gunned obbligato of DeJohnette and Warren covering their backs, they unhinge themselves. An epic baritone solo from Purcell drops the heaviest weight on the scale. These dialogues continue down the ramp of “Riff Raff,” even as Warren drops a heavy dose or two of his own. DeJohnette keeps tabs on every shift, all the way to his lusty swing in “I Know,” where a simulated crowd embraces his unbounded vocals. He also has a solo track, “The Gri Gri Man,” a veritable smoothie of congas, cymbals, toms, and organ. The occasional boom of timpani adds chunkiness to the texture.

Our journey through Tin Can Alley would be far from complete without “Pastel Rhapsody.” Another dialogue, this time between flutes, blends into a piano solo, which in its quiet manner paints the darkness with a meteor shower. From this sprouts a brassy stem, unfurling leaves and petals to the tune of something beyond our ken. Downright cosmic, and one of the most direct-to-heart ballads of the entire ECM catalog.

As with each of DeJohnette’s Special Editions, the cover photo is emblematic of the band’s free spirit, making music for the sake of its rewards. So if you happen to find yourself in this alley, they would much rather you stick around and feel what they’re doing than simply drop a dollar and move on.

Inflation Blues

Inflation Blues (ECM 1244)

John Purcell alto and baritone saxophones, flutes, alto clarinet
Rufus Reid bass, electric Bass
Chico Freeman bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones
Baikida Carroll trumpet
Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, vocals
Recorded September 1982 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For its third ECM outing, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition incorporates the robust sound of Baikida Carroll, who lends his trumpet to four out of five tunes, all composed by our gracious frontman. “Starburst” drops us from the sky into Freeman’s didgeridoo-like bass clarinet of Freeman as Rufus Reid stretches his bass like a tectonic rubber band through a steady drum riff. Intriguing crosshatching of tenor (Freeman) and alto (Purcell) saxes makes for a lively combination. Purcell also provides excellent baritone traction in the album’s closer, “Slowdown,” which capitalizes on its promise only in the last stretch and ends in noteless clarinet breath. An infectious twang-and-slide pattern locks us into its groove from the start. “The Islands” is an amalgamation of influences and impressions, the glare of sun and sands healed through the surgery of improvisation. Its abstract couplings of winds and horns lead to a delicate but enraptured drum solo. The title track gives us more of what we might have expected from the last: a smooth Reggae flavor. DeJohnette provides the requisite staccato of a clavinet while singing this timely lament:

A dollar’s worth about thirty cents
You’re working your behind off and you still can’t pay the rent
The more money you make, the more Uncle Sam takes
And the unions still cry for more dues
Poor people stay poor; they’re defenseless and sore
They cry out of frustration against a sad situation
Breeds hunger and strife, and a miserable life
And you know the politicians aren’t even bruised
But they won’t find the solutions to win this confusion
That’s why I sing these inflation blues

Tenor and alto add diffusive commentary to the repeat before playing us out bittersweetly. The absence of trumpet is keenly felt in the ornamental “Ebony,” which lands us in the album’s plushest diversions. Freeman’s gorgeous soprano provides the first solo over DeJohnette’s rims and piano. A rubato structure molds each melodic cell like a bead on a wire, Purcell and Reid turning out a fine solo apiece before closing in the fluted and jaunty fade.

The cover is another classic one and expresses the band’s humility and commitment to its roots. Like the single dollar bill being dropped into Carroll’s hat, the least compensation we can offer is our undivided attention to this consistently engaging set of down-to-earth music. Then again, if the last album taught us anything, our least isn’t worthy enough.

Album Album

Album Album (ECM 1280)

John Purcell alto and soprano saxophones
David Murray tenor saxophone
Howard Johnson tuba, saxophone
Rufus Reid bass
Jack DeJohnette drums, keyboards
Recorded June 1984 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Jack DeJohnette

An exercise in exuberance in memory of his late mother, Album Album opens with one of DeJohnette’s most sophisticated compositions ever committed to disc: “Ahmad The Terrible.” With an engaging klezmer-like joie de vivre and fantastic sopranism from Purcell, it delights from start to finish. The first of five originals, it leaps from the speakers like a body in motion. As if that weren’t jubilant enough, “Festival” stirs up a crowd’s worth of enthusiasm, made all the more inspiring through spirited drumming. “New Orleans Strut” makes tongue-in-cheek use of drum machine as DeJohnette plays a synth lead (his pianism in the opener is also worth noting). Over this bubbly layer the punchy stylings of both reedmen work their way from the groove in most visible fashion. Such is the case in “Third World Anthem,” another sophisticated peak. Playful whoops from horns add a strong emotional undercurrent toward the elegant, staccato finish. “Zoot Suite” makes a welcome cameo, cut in half from its first appearance on Special Edition. Here it is delicate, but with no loss of groove to show for it. The one compositional outlier is “Monk’s Mood,” in which horns and bass dance cheek-to-cheek as if in an old Hollywood black-and-white. It also engenders the album’s only blatant lapse into unrequited joy through the baritone of Howard Johnson.

The verve of DeJohnette and his bandmates keeps us anchored amid a flurry of glorious activity and, alongside Reid’s tight bassing, allows little time for sadness. Here is a space in which mourning must wear a smile, where the self is always secondary to those one loves.

Inflation Blues
(Photo credit: Karen Schoonmaker)

This is primetime creation with late-night attitude, fantasies turned realities by musicians who care about everything they touch through their refusal of false appearances. By looking into this mirror, we might just see more of ourselves than we know, because the freedom of DeJohnette’s networks far predates the social ones in which we are now so deeply mired. Herein lies a lesson in art: those who laugh only at others know too little, those who laugh only at themselves know too much, and those who laugh along with others know all they need to know. There’s too much badness in the world to ignore the possibilities found in what’s left behind. In this regard, few releases stress the virtue of reissuing as much as this one. A special edition indeed.

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variationen – Schiff (ECM New Series 2294/95)



András Schiff Bechstein piano, Franz Brodmann fortepiano
Recorded July and December 2012 at Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn (Brodmann fortepiano) and Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano (Bechstein)
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn (Brodmann) and Urs Bachmann (Bechstein)
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As a performer, pianist András Schiff gifted his own magnum opus when he traversed Ludwig van Beethoven’s entire cycle of 32 piano sonatas for ECM’s New Series. Now he turns to the same composer’s own magnum opus (120, to be exact): the formidable Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli. The Diabelli Variations, as they are more popularly known, have since taken on a status unsurpassed in post-Bach keyboard literature. At the time (1819) he was working on the variations, his Missa solemnis was also taking shape, though the Diabelli project would prove to be no less large in scope. Beethoven was one of 50 composers to be commissioned for a variation on Diabelli’s apparently paltry waltz (the legendary assertion of Beethoven’s dislike of it is questionable and, at any rate, irrelevant), and the only among them to expand the task to such fruitful proportions. His fearless imagination works wonders with the bait dangled before him, to the extent where he not only steals it unscathed but also hooks the dangler in the process.


Humor, invention, and fragmentation: these are the hallmarks of Schiff’s Diabelli. Or should one say, Diabellis, for indeed the pianist offers two readings of the work on polar instruments. The first flows from a 1921 Bechstein grand, by which the music’s kaleidoscopic qualities come into sharp focus. Under Schiff’s control, it’s obvious that each variation carries something of the last one forward—from revelry to stubbornness to whimsy. Schiff handles these changes with consummate fluency, and with a spirit of continuity that massages every kink out of the material at hand(s). The occasional caduceus of trills is enlivening and along with the collection’s most brilliant moments reveals new details. Some are smoother, more legato, others more oriented toward punctuation, but the range of invention makes of the Diabelli a Beethoven primer and shows a craftsman enjoying himself so much that he must share it with the world.

Hearing these same vignettes on a Franz Brodmann fortepiano from Beethoven’s time is akin to witnessing history come to life. Like an old film reel, it has the quality of an era into which we have never stepped but from which we have proceeded to unravel, making of its relics whatever we can along the way. There is a more immediate charge to them, something urgent and vibrant, if not also vital.

There’s no dearth of fine Diabellis to satisfy the appetites of the curious. For total command, one will want to compare Alfred Brendel or Sviatoslav Richter; for something fresher, Paul Lewis or Rudolf Serkin; and for both, Artur Schnabel (who also plays on a Bechstein) or Stephen Kovacevich. Fewer versions exist on fortepiano, most notably by Andreas Staier. But the chance to hear one of each from the same artist on the same record is unprecedented. In addition to Schiff’s enthralling performances, his interpretation has the benefit of the composer’s previously unknown original scores at hand. These provide valuable cues absent from previous interpretations and set a new benchmark for future ones. “Schiff does not just perform the music,” observes Paul Griffiths in the album’s booklet, “he performs the music performing itself,” and in the listening we add another layer of performance that rewards us with gold.

And on the topic of rewards, this album has more in store. By way of the Bechstein we have Beethoven’s final sonata, the Opus 111, which Schiff revisits with remarkable elasticity. Even more so than his last account for ECM, it combines fluidity and rigidity as if they were one and the same—at once a reflection of Beethoven’s writing and of Schiff’s ability to evoke (invoke?) it. The piano is crisp under his fingertips in the first movement, pliant in the massive second (a statement for all time if there ever was one), and bends under a deluge of melodic tensions toward a sweeping finale, throwing parting handfuls of ash and fairy dust.

Not to be left out, the fortepiano yields a majestic Six Bagatelles. The storyboarding of Beethoven’s Opus 126 has rarely been so lucid. It is as if the music were bound into a book, its materiality as undeniable as its sonority. From rolling syncopations to quiet expanse, these pieces sit at an intersection of vertical architecture and horizontal travel. In them beats the heart of a musician who lives to paint, applying colors over and over until they become three-dimensional.

(To hear samples of Diabelli Variationen, click here.)

Gary Peacock/Marilyn Crispell: Azure (ECM 2292)



Gary Peacock double bass
Marilyn Crispell piano
Recorded January and February 2011 at Nevessa Production, Saugerties, NY
Engineer: Chris Andersen
Produced by Gary Peacock and Marilyn Crispell

Bassist Gary Peacock and pianist Marilyn Crispell shared many fruitful years of collaboration in their trio with the late drummer Paul Motian. Yet those who had only intersected with these musicians on disc might never have been aware of a Peacock-Crispell duo project on the side. Azure solves the mystery of this collaboration in a crystal clear recording as far-reaching as it is cinched by mutual respect.

Peacock and Crispell

Their original set list is the very essence of unchained melodies, spooling back from the freely improvised title track in an alluring wave of creativity. This same tune comes as a breath of light after the game of shadows that precedes it. Though perhaps more in line with what one might expect from these legendary musicians, it’s all the more special for being the outlier of the program. It is indeed a portrait of open sky, but also a memory of storms. Looking back on its life, we encounter two further adlibs: the kindred “Blue” and the repartee of “Leapfrog,” each with a distinct inner swing and playfulness of spirit.

Beyond these stretch the open plains of Peacock’s compositions, each a journey in search of another. Spanning the gamut from robust exchanges (“Lullaby”) to the dance of marionette strings in the bassist’s arco draw (“Puppets”), his is a uniquely frayed brand of whimsy. And in a brief aside called “The Lea,” which is half bass solo and half duo, he speaks in picturesque tongues. Further solitudes await in the expository “Bass Solo” and “Piano Solo.” Where one puts a bluesier angle on the album’s development, the other knots itself until it cannot be pulled apart.

Crispell’s writing puts the crisp back into her surname and practically redefines the meaning of intimacy. The closely recorded “Patterns” opens with her running fingers before Peacock joins the chase, the two of them creating a tight circle of affirmation and magnifying a watchmaker’s craft so that every cog is audible. “Goodbye” emphasizes a contrast, but also reciprocation, of illustration and ornament in a duly bittersweet tune that is the album’s highlight. And the interlocking “Waltz After David M.,” like the whole, takes Crispell to new expanses.

The musicianship documented on Azure is of experienced and fearless order. The ship of these musicians even more so. It is unsinkable, and a ticket to ride should be required for even the most negligibly curious.

(To hear samples of Azure, click here.)