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Here Be Dragons
Oded Tzur tenor saxophone
Nitai Hershkovits piano
Petros Klampanis double bass
Johnathan Blake drums
Recorded June 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 14, 2020
Born in Tel Aviv and based in New York, tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur could not have found a more suitable home than ECM for his gentle brand of jazz. His uniquely tonal approach to the instrument, channeled through a rare melodic purity, make for a powerful combination. Heavily schooled in Indian classical music, he treats each tune as a raga in and of itself, and uses likeminded structures in distinctly jazz-oriented parallels to unleash the inner life of every motif. Ensuring that nothing goes to waste are his trusted crew of pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Johnathan Blake.
After a tender yet angular introduction, “To Hold Your Hand” ushers in a dimly lit performance that relies more on the contour of sound than on the sound of contour. Tzur lends an ear to both internal and external travels, and gives the listener over to possibilities of metaphysical experience. His saxophone, despite being rooted in the body, seems without one, taking on instead the skin of a cosmic animal stealth-walking through constellations—bending but never breaking the shapes we’ve come to interpret.
The emotional beauty of Tzur’s playing reaches its zenith in “20 Years,” which marks the period of time since his father’s death. As Tzur notes in the CD booklet, “I could feel that my father was somehow present in the room, and it was as if I was having a conversation with him.” In this respect, he converses not only with the dead but also with the living. Blake’s brushwork is exquisite in the trio section. Klampanis and Hershkovits intertwine as equal partners while Tzur drops into Child’s Pose for a spell. By the time he resurfaces, his solo is so attuned that every inhalation and exhalation is matched to the contractions and expansions of its surroundings.
The band shifts with barely a forethought between three solo “Miniatures.” The first, played by Hershkovits, is a balance of sparkle and shadow. The second, by Klampanis, is contemplative and touched by grace. The third, from the bandleader, sings like a flute carved from an ancient tree. This leads us to the masterstroke of “The Dream.” Despite being upbeat, a certain embrace of shadow prevents it from being a dance. Hershkovits is particularly ebullient and gives voice to love, while Blake adds a traction so tactile it makes one want to hold on to it. Just as the preceding tunes give robustness to gentility, so does this one give airiness to strength, as embodied in the continuous energy linking every note from Tzur’s lips. At last, we touch down in a surprising landing strip called “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Made famous by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, it brims with nostalgia. Though undoubtedly familiar, it takes on a life of its own, divorced from popular association and remarried to the listener in real-time ceremony.
It is worth noting that the album’s title refers to HIC SVNT DRACONES, a Latin phrase that once marked uncharted territory on medieval maps. Tzur has indeed set out on a voyage into dangerous waters, understanding the risks of never seeing that which is confirmed only in myth. Such spirit is evoked with gentility in the eponymous track that opens the set, working its way into the center of our humbled attention. Even when the waves pick up, bringing with them hints of the unknown, Tzur relies on his bandmates to keep the sails hoisted and the deck free of debris, so that only they and their integrity may set foot upon shifting sands at landfall.
Thomas Zehetmair Baroque violin
Recorded August 2016, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Hannelore Guittet
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 15, 2019
The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, inked by Johann Sebastian Bach under the trim title of Sei Solo (pseudo-Italian for “Six Solos”), are often lumped among his “secular” instrumental works, albeit as the crowning achievement of their kind. Yet they are every bit as spiritual as his cantatas and just as glorious in their ability to activate metaphysical particles in the listener. That said, they are more than illustratively hagiographic, for they are their own acts of transcendence.
We know little of the genesis of the Sei Solo, though Bach was accomplished enough as a violinist that he would have possessed requisite understanding of the instrument’s inner life to write them. And where some violinists—wittingly or not—take to obscuring the bodywork required of the interpreter, Thomas Zehetmair broke new ground in this regard with his recording for Telefunken in 1983. Said recording came to me by way of Teldec’s 1992 reissue (which I purchased on CD after wearing out my vinyl copy) and has been my benchmark ever since. Only later, once I saw that Zehetmair was being featured on an increasing number of ECM productions, including accounts of the solo works of Eugène Ysaÿe and Niccolò Paganini, and especially in light of ECM’s other takes on the Sei Solo by John Holloway and Gidon Kremer, I hoped he might one day think to revisit Bach’s masterworks. Imagine my elation when I saw the press release for this recording in my inbox. It was eminently worth the wait.
Now playing on period instruments that, by sheer coincidence, date from Bach’s birth and death years of 1685 and 1750 (along with two bows from around 1720) and recording in the priory of St. Gerold, a location known well by ECM aficionados as a favorite of the Hilliard Ensemble, Zehetmair brings more than thirty years of bonus experience to these personal interpretations.
Zehetmair’s use of gut strings, combined with the immediacy of playing without a shoulder rest, is palpable. As before, he eschews demonstrative pitfalls, lets endings exhale, and understands the architecture inherent to each movement, but this time brings the wisdom of life itself to bear on music that is, too, life itself. His ornamentation has grown in both detail and control—drawing from within rather than adding from without—and emphasizes the importance of reflective surfaces to give light meaning.
The Sonata No. 1 in G minor moves across his strings with the grandest of gestures, as if in that very sweep he describes the fullness of an entire village with all the histories, triumphs, and tragedies it has seen. Standing in the center of that village is a church where Bach himself can be seen praying for a world that is increasingly turning its ears away from the beauty it was designed to preserve. The initial effect is so inwardly focused that when extroversions like the Allegro emerge, they do so with light in their grasp. Zehetmair’s pacing is as magnificent as it is organic, swimming with the currents of time as a fish fearing neither hook nor net. His dynamics are also noteworthy, holding back with artful righteousness. Even in the briefer Siciliana, he ensures that every note has its say among a congregation of voices lifted high. Even the urgency conveyed in the final Presto is tempered by faith. Its balance of legato and rhythmic scraping is crepuscular.
The Allemanda that opens the Partita No. 1 in B minor is one of the most heroic passages of the entire collection (and, incidentally, where Zehetmair began the first recording). It is rendered here like an erratic brush painting. In moving through its narrative, cycling back to its repeat mark as if to confirm a memory before leaving it behind, Zehetmair allows previously glossed-over double stops to resonate a touch longer, speaking in a voice that can only resonate through hair and string. He plays the Double with such grace as to be its own hymn; the Corrente likewise. The Sarabande and its own double are hauntingly exquisite, as is the Tempo di Borea, which dances its way through the heart as if it were a springboard into doctrinal truth.
As Stanley Ritchie writes in his book on interpretations of the Sei Solo: “There is no such thing as ‘unaccompanied’ Bach.” This statement, I imagine, refers not only to the fact that the violinist must have an intuitive command of multiple strings and arpeggios (the connections of which bleed richly into one another in St. Gerold’s acoustics), but also to the music’s own self-referentiality. The Grave that begins the Sonata No. 2 in A minor, for instance, is certainly a ghost of the Allemanda that began the preceding Partita, and sets up the Fuga as if it were a closing statement from a pulpit. But then the tenderness of the Andante weaves its threads like a shroud for a glorified body and prepares to receive the sacrament of the final Allegro. Played at an initially conservative tempo, it escalates—as the flesh is wont to do—in abandonment of a rhythmic ideal, shifting from one phase to the next as if each were born of its own tempo.
The Allemanda of the Partita No. 2 in D minor breaks the chain of its cousins and forms a more rounded and contemplative sonic sculpture. Jumping over to the Giga, we encounter another wonder of the arpeggio in its ability to converse with itself. All of which brings us to the mighty Ciaccona. Despite taking on a life of its own as a self-contained performance piece, it is best heard in context. Zehetmair’s bowing comes across with sentience, as if compelled to communicate by something far more powerful than words: namely, melody. So, too, must we read carefully the Adagio opening the Sonata No. 3 in C major that follows as a continuation of that restless fatigue, and the organ-like Fuga that follows it as the beginning of a revival taken to fullness of joy in the concluding Allegro assai. What the exuberant Preludio of the Partita No. 3 in E major lacks in duration it makes up for in Zehetmair’s purity of interpretation. His mixture of the royal and the rustic is uniquely his own, as is true also of the Gavotte. And because the two Menuets feel like such snapshots out of time, the final Bourrée and Gigue are surely recreations of the past.
For me, at least, the bar has been set even higher by the one who placed it there to begin with. In so doing, Zehetmair has left us with a document unlike any other. The transformation he has undergone in a matter of decades—the same to which we are granted access over the span of two CDs—puts me in mind of Verses 1-7 from Psalm 102:
Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come unto thee. Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily. For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth. My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin. I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.
So, too, does the lone instrument gaze upon the world from its vantage point, waiting for grace to show itself. But one also knows that goodness is never far behind wherever evil treads, and that divine protection is ours for the taking because it is offered freely against enemies whose melodies reign dissonant and unsweet. Bach gives one such set of armor, and here it has been tempered to mirror shine.
The Suspended Harp of Babel
Jaan-Eik Tulve conductor
Marco Ambrosini, Angela Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Anna-Liisa Eller kannel
Recorded April 2018, Transfiguration Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Margo Kõlar
Recording supervision: Helena Tulve
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 8, 2020
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) is the latest member to be welcomed into ECM’s congregation of Estonian composers, and on this album we encounter a program of his choral music. Though a teacher by trade, Kreek spent decades transcribing nearly 1300 folk songs, three quarters of which he arranged for choir. These settings comprised a choral touchstone in Estonia and inspired such composers as Veljo Tormis and Tõnu Kõrvits in their own creative pursuits. Interpreted by Vox Clamantis and guided by director Jaan-Eik Tulve, these pieces constitute a worthy introduction for listeners outside Estonia to a composer who dedicated his life to the revitalization of local cultures. Joining these voices are Marco and Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa) and Anna-Liisa Eller (kannel), whose preludes, postludes, and intertextual commentaries render just enough connective tissue to channel our attention into the meaning of every word we hear.
The tender clarity of Kreek’s style lends itself authentically to the album’s many folk hymns, thus establishing a sacred baseline for all else that surrounds. Structures vary from the dancelike Mu süda, ärka üles (Awake, my heart) to the supplicating Kui suur on meie vaesus (Whilst great is our poverty), from the flowing Kes Jumalat nii laseb teha (He, who lets God prevail) to the prophetic Ma tulen taevast ülevelt (From heaven above to earth I come), in which the nyckelharpa shines through verses like the light of Bethlehem’s star. To my ears, however, the most powerful of these is Jakobi unenägu (Jacob’s dream), an Estonian runic song from Kanepi parish that moves through visions of crucifixion and lamentations of persecution by way of two solo voices: one singing, the other chanting in prayer. Such division mirrors the battle of flesh and spirit that every believer knows all too well. It also transitions into the Psalmnody of Kreek’s Õhtune jumalateenistus (Orthodox Vespers), from which two blessings are offered. His combined treatments of Psalms 135 and 136 show both his ability to restructure texts with humility of consideration and to compose by inspiration.
Beyond the Vespers, other Psalms emanate from his scores with supernatural purpose. The album’s title can be pieced together between the lilting hallelujahs of Paabeli jõgede kaldail (By the rivers of Babylon), thus hinting at God’s infinite nature through its picturing of the ephemeral. Another wonder to be cherished herein is Issand, ma hüüan Su poole (Lord, I cry unto Thee), a deep dive into Psalm 141 that enhances the folly of David’s doubting heart. As through the ache of Kiida, mu hing, Issandat (Bless the Lord, my soul) and the women’s voices of Päeval ei pea päikene (The sun shall not smite thee), images are born with an apparent age: a universe without precedent destined to prove the existence of eternity.
After the lively yet reflective Viimane tants (The last dance) from the Ambrosinis, we end with another Estonian hymn, Oh Jeesus, sinu valu (O Jesus, Thy pain), along with the song Dame, vostre doulz viaire by Guillaume de Machaut of 14th-century France. While the latter may seem an unexpected suffix in theory, in practice it is seamless. Moving backward, as if to remind us that time has neither beginning nor end, it pictures death, burial, and resurrection by the most fundamental element of them all: breath.
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Kevin Seddiki guitar
Recorded April 2018, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Mixed by Lara Persia (engineer) and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 29, 2020
Following one of my favorite productions of this century alongside nyckelharpa virtuoso Marco Ambrosini, accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier returns with another duo, this time sharing Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI studio with guitarist Kevin Seddiki. In the past, Matinier has contributed vitally to ECM sessions with Anouar Brahem and Louis Sclavis, but in the here and now of Rivages cultivates some of his most heart-to-heart playing yet. Because this marks Seddiki’s debut for the label, however, many ears will be on him. As a student of guitarist Pablo Márquez, he brings classical precision and emotional fluidity to the program, which draws on ten years of friendship and collaboration. After refining their rapport and repertoire alike, they put together a mix of in-house compositions, improvisations, and arrangements of material they love.
Indeed, love is on tap when the flotation of “Schumannsko” opens its eyes. Its marriage of a Bulgarian folk tune to a theme by Robert Schumann establishes a tone of mutual regard and open-ended communication that sustains itself to the album’s very end. The accordion’s purchase lends itself to the guitar, which itself allows melody to flourish unimpeded by the creeping vines of expectation. Clearly, flow is the default mode for this duo. Other original material upholds such virtues with consistency, illustrating each image, thought, and word with the care of a calligrapher. “Après la pluie,” for one, begins with Matinier drawing air through the bellows without a single note, evoking a breeze after a quiet storm, while Seddiki regards every earthward droplet from its leafy perch. “Rêverie,” for another, builds a conduit between dreaming and waking or, as in “Sous l’horizon,” between childhood and adulthood. The more virtuosic “In C” treats ecstasis not as hedonic pleasure but as a form of communication between realms.
Arrangements of enduring gems, by contrast, show Matinier and Seddiki at their gentlest. Where the traditional “Greensleeves” reveals darker shades and a fresh, jazzy quality, their take on Gabriel Fauré’s “Les berceaux” is an astonishing example of how a relatively straightforward presentation can reveal something new. The same holds true of “La chanson d’Hélène.” This classic song by French film composer Philippe Sarde is transformed. Such is the power of letting things grow until they are mature enough to shine on their own. Even in the duo’s colorful improvisations, of which the retrospective “Miroirs” is a highlight, they recognize the simple yet profound fact that neither an origin nor a destination mean anything without drawing a line of travel between them.
Jon Balke piano, sound processing
Recorded December 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo, RSI Lugano
Engineers: Stefano Amerio and Laura Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 15, 2020
Not so much following in the footprints of 2007’s Book of Velocities and 2016’s Warp as pouring plaster into them, grinding the hardened results into dust, and throwing them into the winds of change, pianist Jon Balke refashions his solo space with frequencies more attuned than ever to the pulse of our zeitgeist. First inspired by the 24-hour news cycle and its emotional rollercoaster (and by the rhetorical lines used to draw boundaries between stories, who tells them, and the events they describe), the pieces of which this latest album is comprised took an even starker turn as the politics of 2019 unleashed their bipolar mind games for all to scrutinize. If nothing else, this backstory helps us understand the subjective interplay of electronics, field recordings, and instrumental treatments woven throughout. Said treatments—what Balke calls “reflections from the room”—have a self-generating quality, arising only as necessary, and even then as an echo of something implied.
The track titles, as evocative as the music, are but stepping stones to answers that supersede their questions: we can read conflict into the gnarled contours of “the first argument” and “the second argument” just as we can open ourselves to possibility in “the why” and “the how.” But for me the greatest value of these markers is an attendant opportunity to forget them. For while there’s a suitably fragmentary quality to “the self and the opposition,” all of that goes away once the sustain pedal goes down, and the fluidity between those identities warms us with promises of another entirely. But this dream is short-lived, because reality has too much to say to a world in lockdown. And in any case, “the certainties” is the least certain of them all. As its pianism moves from one cerebral island to another, a leviathan breathes just below the surface, following in wait to strike.
It’s difficult to extract and uphold certain moments over others, but I would direct the listener’s attention to “the facilitator” as an especially haunting instance of Balke’s aesthetic concerns. The piano may be foregrounded, but its ghosts are drawn from drone (most likely a manipulated cello but sounding for all like bowed piano strings). Another worthwhile focal point is “the container,” wherein electronica lie in wait—only not to pounce, but creep into awareness like a rising sun pulls itself up by curling its fingers over a mountain ridge.
The album ends with three “afterthoughts,” ranging from watery percussion and internal string plucking to hints of technology without imposition. The last is an alarm for birds to fly away and for trees to uproot themselves in search of a new planet where their symbiosis may thrive. This leaves only broken human beings—their hearts unfurled like children’s play mats and beset with toy cars, weathered streets, and enmeshed topographies—to wander their halls of mirrors, wondering when they took the first wrong turn.
Benjamin Moussay piano
Recorded January/August 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 29, 2020
After multiple appearances as sideman for Louis Sclavis, the timely Characters on a Wall most recent among them, pianist Benjamin Moussay for quietly dominates the marquee of an ECM album cover. In this program of original solo material, he shows himself to be a genuinely focused player who values not only melodies but also the spaces in which they breathe. What began as more fully fledged compositions have grown more open-ended over time, whittled away to whispering motifs and suggestive chords.
Our introduction to Moussay’s sound percolates through the boulders of “127.” Inspired by 127 Hours, the 2010 biopic about Aron Ralston’s harrowing escape from Bluejohn Canyon, it comes to us fully formed. It so happens the theme of rock climbing is a personal one, as Moussay is himself an avid outdoorsman. His cyclical notecraft evokes not the danger of the backstory but rather the hallucinatory state in which Ralston found hope to persevere. Thankfully, neither certain death nor a severed arm are necessary to enter that mental state through the vision presented here: a glimpse of hope at a point in history when our own survival feels more precarious than ever. Related topographies dot the album, from the all-too-real anxiety of “Don’t Look Down” to the cold stillness of “Monte Perdido.” The latter is entirely improvised, as is “Théa,” a spirited ode to his daughter.
The indeterminate weaves of “L’Oiseau d’Or” (which works a hymnal recipe from nostalgic ingredients) and “Chasseur de Plumes” (written for a cat fond of chasing birds) sit comfortably between the picturesque beauties of “Villefranque” (transcribed from his improvisation at a friend’s house in the eponymous commune) and “Sotto Voce” (my favorite for its expressive directness). If any of this feels cinematic in the listening, it’s not by accident, at least in the case of three tracks written as accompaniment for Jean Renoir’s 1926 Nana. Within this generally darker spectrum, the band of “Horses” stands out for its progression from the familiar to the unknown. The title track, too, belongs on a screen as much as on a record. Like the land formation after which it is named, we know it to be ancient and part of a story beyond measure. Thus, it gives us a bigger view of what lies beyond the horizon, and how the songs of a brighter future might sound when we catch up to them at last, ragged and thirsting for their nourishment.
Free improvisation can be many things: challenging, abrasive and meandering among them. This spontaneous act of creation between Frances-Marie Uitti (cello) and Elliott Sharp (Dell’Arte Anouman acoustic guitar and soprano saxophone) is none of those things. Rather, it’s welcoming, cartographic and focused. Sharp has always had a tactile approach to the guitar, one that emphasizes skin and organs alike and which embraces natural resonance as a portal to understanding the mathematical certainty of decay. The same could be said of Uitti, who digs into her cello as if it were a plot of land and pulls up every root around which she can curl her fingers.
In “Avior,” the relationship between these two signatures is so complementary that one almost feels a new strand of archaeology at play. Not in the sense of tearing up sacred land for the bastion of science, but of letting the past speak for itself. Thus, when Sharp sheds the guitar for a soprano saxophone in “Ainitak” and “Algieba,” he invites an earthen language to rise to the surface. In tandem, Uitti renders her instrument a giant ear to capture those utterances before they fade.
Given that in the past Uitti has been mislabeled a mere provider of drones, this reviewer challenges any listener to discover anything but complex shades of meaning in her sound. In that respect, both musicians are translators of energies that could otherwise go unacknowledged. Sometimes, as in “Mizar,” Uitti brightens the foreground while at other times, as in “Mintaka” and “Arcturus,” Sharp wraps us in the garland of a minstrel’s weathered muse. And while it is tempting to label their music as cathartic, in these times of distance one can’t help but read it as a form of proximity.
As organic as it gets.
(This review originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
As of today, I have reviewed every compilation album put out by ECM, including the “Works” and :rarum series. You can check them all out here. Thank you all for reading, as always. Stay tuned for a few more special reviews and other ECM-related surprises.