My latest article for All About Jazz is an extensive report on the 2018 Winter Jazzfest, which included a handful of ECM-associated musicians, such as David Virelles, Aaron Parks, and Sylvie Courvoisier. Click the photo below to read on.
As some of my readers may be aware, I’ve been photographing semi-professionally for a few years. Only recently, however, have I begun to photograph musicians. Below is a slideshow of recent images. Hope you enjoy them.
On 11 January 2018, singer Alicia Hall Moran took to the Bank of America Winter Village Rink in New York City as part of the 2018 Prototype Festival to stage her latest vocal experience. Breaking Ice examines the mythology behind what came to be known as the “Battle of the Carmens,” when skaters Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas coincidentally chose Bizet’s Carmen as the music for their long routines at the 1988 Winter Olympics. For this 20-minute piece, offered under cover of burnished clouds and surrounded by the skeletal trees of Bryant Park, Moran was joined on the ice by Kaoru Watanabe on taiko drum and Maria Grand on saxophone, along with skaters Elisa Angeli and Jordan Cowan. Drawing upon her own experience as a figure skater, Moran turned the rink into a personal concert space. With microphone in one hand and blood-red bouquet of roses in the other, she was compass, vessel, and map in one.
Songs from her new album (see my full review for All About Jazz here), including the poignant original “Not Today” and a “Habañera” mash-up of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” threaded by passages of improvisation and vocalese, delivered a mood and message that was distinctly Moran’s own. But that was only the surface.
Here’s what was going on underneath.
First, one must consider the space itself as an extension of its sonic foci. Before a single note flew, Moran made the rink her own by marking off its center, almost ritually, with a circle of orange and green traffic cones. Although suggestive of Christmas, if only by association with the enormous tree behind, they were first and foremost a sign and signal of self-containment. This was her circle, and the act of laying it out reminded us of all-too-rare a thing in this historical moment. At a time when politics (and the words that constitute their violence) have become so fragmented that it’s all we can do to keep from getting slivers, Moran showed us that the orthography of change will be written not on walls but across open borders. Still, despite the porosity of her circle, in communion with the drums she was bound by no other rules but her own.
Even as the circle was an invitation, it was also a warning, symbolically drawn as much to keep herself protected as others from invading. In this reversal of colonial power play, she threw her voice like a net—to see not what she could catch but how much she could filter out. This was the heart of each moment: to see and feel the audience breathing through all those things that let us through. Just as the wind found no purchase in the branches above her, so did she pass without contact through the tangle of flesh and blades that was her gypsy forest.
Before she strapped on her skates, ice was already speaking. The Bryant Park fountain had frozen to a crisp, its flow ephemerally memorialized as a drip to ponderous to visualize as movement. Not unlike Moran’s songcraft, which in any context slows the march of time so that we may examine its soldiers in much the same way, that which is frozen is open to the possibilities of interpretation.
The rink, too, was its own reflective surface, distorting the cityscape before a single note was sung: a heart of urban ventricles and an aorta honed in glass unfolded across a flat plane.
By the end, Moran had sent us back into the cold with a morsel of warmth, and in so doing showed us that the power of a song lies not only in what goes into it but also where it is unleashed. A song is nothing to ignore, but something to be reckoned with and, from the open hands of her delivery, proves that a language of one must be a language of all.
Amine & Hamza are an oud and kanun duo from Tunisia. Their album Fertile Paradoxes is the subject of my latest review for RootsWorld online magazine. Fans of Anouar Brahem: do not pass this one up. Brahem himself calls the new album “a spell-binding repertoire of new compositions full of emotions. We are taken on a delicious trip of intoxicating rhythms and subtle, yet powerful melodies. Far from being run-down clichés, we are struck by its strength of suggestion and the modernity of its arrangements. There is a strong sense of being on a voyage of surprising passages and undiscovered timbres. Fertile Paradoxes owns the evident and natural qualities which are the hallmarks of an authentically inspired work. A beautiful success!”
Click the cover below to read my full review and hear sample tracks.
Ben Monder electric guitar, electric baritone guitar, Fender Bass VI
Pete Rende synthesizer
Andrew Cyrille drums
Paul Motian drums
“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Triffids,” and “Dinosaur Skies” recorded October 2010 at Sear Sound
Engineer: James A. Farber
“Tendrils,” “Tumid Cenobite,” “Gamma Crucis,” “Zythum,” and “Hematophagy” recorded December 2013 at Brooklyn Recording
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mixing Engineer: Rick Kwan
Produced by Sun Chung
U.S. release date: October 30, 2015
For his ECM leader debut, New York guitarist Ben Monder brings his improvisational destinations to fruition with respect for every musical step in reaching them. The album’s circle is opened and closed by two solo arcs: “Tendrils” and “Dinosaur Skies.” Where the former comes out of the woodwork as if after a long and melodic hibernation, the latter is a dragon’s breath turned into music.
Constellations fill the spectrum between as Monder sings through a variety of guitars and tunings. “Gamma Crucis” and “Zythum” triangulate with Pete Rende on synthesizer and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Both pieces are geological surveys of highest order. Monder and Rende release so much likeminded stardust, it’s all they can do to clarify that they’re two nebulae working independently of time. Cyrille’s tracery is the dark matter between them, a dimension in which concrete rhythms have no gravity.
Guitarist and drummer make art as duo on “Hematophagy” and “Tumid Cenobite.” In the absence of electronics, their language feels closer to home, each his own weather front blending into collaboration. Although the landscape below them is desolate, it wavers with memories of rivers and greenery. Monder’s stirrings are like those of a creature in the leaves of Cyrille’s reforesting. With each sunrise, they dissolve dust into breathable air.
Poignantly, late drummer Paul Motian joins Monder for two further duets. First is a starlit take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” It’s beautiful indeed to hear Motian’s brushes, pulled as if from beyond some mortal curtain, springing to vibrant life of their own impulse. There’s something fully alive about this music—not only because of the tune, but also because of the way it rolls off the musicians’ proverbial tongues like a psalm. Recognition is not a precondition for enjoyment, however, as Monder’s ambience forges new relationships using familiar actors. His searing explosions make steam of ocean water, leaving lost cities exposed to sunlight for the first time in eons. Then there is “Triffids,” a spontaneous blush of tenderness that eludes capture by microphone and digitization. It is, rather, a force that knows us before we may consciously seek it out in the listening. Motian’s feel for internal rhythm is profound.
Monder navigates the paths before him with confidence because he defines them as he goes along. Leaving behind uncertainty, he uses gentility as fuel for a strong spirit. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the track titles recall the histrionic wordplay of the Cocteau Twins, for with likeminded boldness he does away with consensus articulations in favor of the emotional resonances beneath.
Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet
Sokratis Sinopoulos lyra
Yann Keerim piano
Dimitris Tsekouras bass
Dimitris Emanouil drums
Recorded April 2014 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: January 15, 2016
Sokratis Sinopoulos is a master of the lyra, a bowed instrument whose lilt has polished a handful of ECM gems, including soundtracks of Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou (notably, The Weeping Meadow) and the Athens Concert of Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri. Despite its small size, the lyra is capable of painting holistic landscapes, and none so sweeping as those at Sinopoulos’s touch. After years of being a vital yet overshadowed sideman, Eight Winds finds the virtuoso making his debut as leader. Although the lyra comes preloaded with centuries of tradition, the music produced by the quartet assembled here— rounded out by pianist Yann Keerim, bassist Dimitris Tsekouras, and drummer Dimitris Emmanuel—is resolutely forward-looking. For this recording, as special in the listening as it was in the making, I sense a unity of purpose beating in the hearts of everyone involved. This is demonstrated by the album’s title alone, which charts not only the cardinal directions, but also the twin cross bisecting them. In each of the album’s 12 original tunes, the navigational freedom of those winds is palpable.
The title track opens with the bandleader’s distinctive sound. His lyra, as obvious to anyone tasked with analogizing it, has a distinctly vocal quality. Even before the jazz trio configuration in which Sinopoulos has situated himself becomes apparent, like a singer he has tasted the theme at hand and savored it to the brink of dissolution. All I can find myself thinking while absorbing the results of this collaboration in kind is that this is a first in jazz, an album that only Manfred Eicher and ECM could produce with such integrity of vision.
Much of this album moves at a pace of lives no longer lived. One strain of “Yerma” or “Lyric” is enough to reveal the folk roots feeding each improvisational leaf. Whether interacting with Keerim’s piano or Tsekouras’s bass, Sinopoulos puts his trust at the center. The melodies are so developed that they sound like ancient motifs rescued from obscurity, conjuring up images of a past you never knew was in you. In this respect, “Aegean Sea” is the most inviting tune of the set, if also for depicting an important location for its composer. Emmanuel’s hand-drumming brings it to an even earthier level.
Because the lyra is associated with dancing, tunes like “Street Dance” and “In Circles” inspire and energize. These are balanced buy “21st March” and “Forever,” which take stock of brokenness and find harmonies beneath its dissonant rubble. In both, Sinopoulos shows us just how many feathers his instrument has, while touching on the Byzantine musical interests of his formative years.
His delicacy is artfully supported by his bandmates. At no point do they drown out his whispers (a feat for which both musicians and engineer are praiseworthy). As the title track variation that ends the album, everything that precedes it is a gradient of oneness: an asymptote conquered by faith.
David Virelles understands that to make music of the future, one must delve into the past. Somewhere in the middle we find Gnosis. On his third album as leader for ECM, Virelles polishes the mirror of his Cuban roots, also as a prism of the chamber music sensibilities that informed his training under such composition teachers as Henry Threadgill. One couldn’t dream of a better assembly of musicians than the brotherhood of rhythm makers and guiding voice of poet/percussionist Román Díaz to bring these wonders to fruition. Bassist Thomas Morgan, flutist Allison Loggins-Hull and a modest string section complete the puzzle.
Each of the album’s 18 originals could be the start of another album. In this context, they work as one body. Whether in Virelles’ six solo piano pieces—including lyrical “De Ida y Vuelta I” and delicate “Dos” (arranged by Threadgill)—or in ensemble forays such as “Del Tabaco y el Azúcar” and “Tierra,” Virelles renders every dissonance an initiation into life. His pianism, especially in “Fitití Ñongo,” is ecstatic yet ponderous and speaks of an artist who understands the preciousness of time.
Morgan and Loggins-Hull are key players, balancing the pull and push of anchor and sail. Like a ship, Gnosis indeed needs water to give it purpose, even as those same oceans pose the constant threat of drowning. Virelles’ awareness of this tension sets his music apart by way of an organic postcolonial philosophy. Through it all, Díaz is the voice of land when sky is all we’ve ever known. His call and response in the ambient “Erume Kondó” is one of the profoundest things to grace these ears in a long time and speaks to what Díaz himself calls the “reciprocal language” of secrecy. According to Virelles, the album’s title “in this context refers to an ancient collective reservoir of knowledge.” Here, then, is the light of a star that died long ago but whose patterns are still perceptible, rewoven under a new name as an offering to the unborn.
(This review originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)