On March 29, Portishead frontwoman Beth Gibbons will release her version of Henryk Górecki’s popular Symphony No. 3, with Krzysztof Penderecki conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Click the cover below to read my early review on Sequenza 21 of this praiseworthy recording.
And Then Comes The Night
Harmen Fraanje piano
Mats Eilertsen double bass
Thomas Strønen drums
Recorded May 2018, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 1, 2019
A feeling of transcendence occurs the moment Harmen Fraanje’s pianism wraps its arms around you in “22,” the introduction to bassist Mats Eilertsen’s And Then Comes The Night. And as the brushes of drummer Thomas Strønen complete the triangle, you find yourself being ushered through a portal unlike any other to a space where harmony whispers between every air molecule. That this tune—one of Eilertsen’s—also closes the album in variation is testament to the circularity of life, the very dust from which melodies arise and to which they must return.
The spontaneous creations of “Perpetum” and “Then Comes The Night” yield the most intimate moments of the session. Whether in the former’s subterranean percussion and arco bassing or the latter’s angular pianism, passion exudes from the pores of this music’s skin. This is by no stretch of the imagination a group in search of a groove or means to convey it, but rather, as in the Fraanje-penned “Albatross” and “Soften,” concerns itself with memories in the making. The piano/bass duets of “After The Rain” and “Solace” underscore the necessity of climate in their evocation of wind and stillness. In both, comfort is achieved by virtue of awareness alone. This is playing that relies on faith to shield its feet from burning sands and frozen tundra alike.
In Eilertsen’s own “Sirens” and “The Void,” mosaics dissolve into watercolor and vice versa. Each is a window into the other, flush to the touch yet visually dimorphous in contrast, and the second in particular cradles the most nocturnal of bass solos.
Although this album represents a decade of R&D in the trio’s laboratory, and follows two appearances on the Hubro label, you might just feel a genesis at play, reaching tendril after tendril from darkness into light, until galaxies are drawn together into one amorphous whole, spinning quietly if for no other reason than to hear itself sing.
Trygve Seim tenor and soprano saxophones
Eirik Hegdal soprano and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet
Thomas T Dahl guitar
Rob Waring marimba, vibraphone
Harmen Fraanje piano, Fender Rhodes
Mats Eilertsen double bass
Olavi Louhivuori drums
Recorded May 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: July 29, 2016
The result of a VossaJazz Festival commission by Trude Storheim in April of 2014, Rubicon presents bassist and longtime ECM sideman Mats Eilertsen as a leader in his own right. At its core is Eilertsen’s Skydive Trio with guitarist Thomas T Dahl and drummer Olavi Louhivuori. To that nexus he adds saxophonists Eirik Hegdal and Trygve Seim, pianist Harmen Fraanje, and vibraphonist Rob Waring for an eminently integrated atmosphere.
The album ends where others would begin: with an “Introitus” of inward proportions. This trio for bass clarinet, bass, and marimba reconfigures finality as an open door, turning the very idea of a destination in on itself until the journey becomes self-fulfilling. “Wood and Water” explores freely improvised territory with the same combination of instruments in the set’s emotional zenith.
Particular musicians lend sanctity to the unplanned. Fraanje projects his cinematic monologue “Cross the Creek,” while Dahl treads meteorically across the expanse of “BluBlue” without ever looking down. “Balky” and “Lago” highlight the reed players, building towering intimacies from base elements at one moment, while at the next slicking city streets with late-night rain.
These attentive bandmates find deepest traction when working together, for unity is the wellspring of their integrity. We find it in the opening “Canto,” a roving suite of sun and shade from which Seim and Hegdal draw out hidden voices; in “March,” which unfurls its shimmering wingspan by way of vibraphone and guitar; and in “September,” which rewrites its own grammar as it goes along. In each of these scenes, sentiments are pulled as if by horse carriage toward spontaneous horizons.
Through it all, Eilertsen is an undeniable force, bearing his lyrical ache on a pillow of total respect for creation and the opportunity to share it.
Kit Downes organs
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone (on “Modern Gods”)
Recorded November 2016 at St. John, Snape, Suffolk
Union Chapel, London
Engineer: Alex Bonney
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: January 19, 2018
Performed on three different organs across the UK, Obsidian chronicles the spatial and temporal travels of keyboardist Kit Downes. Were this album to be turned into a book, it would require a tooled leather cover and hand-sewn binding to do even partial justice to all the care gone into its narrative. Each instrument thus embodies its own backstory, the mechanisms of which become clear not only in the intimately engineered recording but also in the interactions catalyzed by Downes’s gestural storytelling.
That said, the floating arpeggios and leading lines of “Kings,” our first leg of this journey, actualize their images not by pen but by palette knife, treading across canvas as if it were a horizontal path turned upward in defiance of gravity. Despite this perspectival flip, however, the music feels weighted by the contrary motions of its performer, who balances forces of suggestion with spontaneous deference. One imagines a boy running over hills in search of any other destiny than the one chosen for him, yet leaving an audible path so that even the blind might find him should he ever get lost. Such feelings of liberation are only intensified in a multilayered rendition of the folksong “Black Is The Colour.”
Not all in this world of hardened lava, however, is spoken in earthly tones. In “Rings Of Saturn,” Downes awakens the pipes like an intergalactic shō, and from their arousal turns outer space into inner reality, while in “Flying Foxes” he reroutes wordless carriages of animality into every unfolding theme, as in the avian hymnody of “The Gift” (written by father Paul Downes).
“Seeing Things” practices what it preaches through a more pointillist doctrine. Its marginalia gild a scripture explored more deeply in “Modern Gods.” Here the saxophone of Tom Challenger inhales from the organ even as it exhales something back into it. With a fleeting sense of form, it scales from shadow into burning triumph.
“The Bone Gambler,” as the program’s most evocative, couldn’t be more appropriately titled. With sincerity of pitch and mood, it wraps its arms around a room so beautifully timeworn that one could almost expect Tom Waits to walk in at any moment and start rasping his soul. Through the window of that same room, we gaze out upon the waters of “Ruth’s Song For The Sea” and “Last Leviathan,” elegies both. With a sincerity that can only have resulted from years of hammering on an anvil of love, these finely wrought talismans warn of continental vagaries, offering in their place a chance to sail away in boats of our own fleshly making.
Obsidian is the musical equivalent of following behind Lucy Pevensie as she escapes her war-torn world through the wardrobe to find refuge awaiting her snow-cushioned step. Let this be your doorway into something equally salvific.
What was said
Tord Gustavsen piano, electronics, synth bass
Simin Tander voice
Jarle Vespestad drums
Recorded April 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 29, 2016
After leaving behind the phosphorescent crumbs of his era-defining trio recordings, Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen returns to ECM’s forest path alongside drummer Jarle Vespestad and holding a fresher lantern lit by German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander. Gustavsen expands his palette, adding electronics and synth bass to the mix, while Tander renders her voice with lyrical and improvisational force. Taking the hymns of Gustavsen’s childhood as foundation, he and Tander enlisted the help of Afghan poet B. Hamsaaya to translate them into Pashto before balancing them with Rumi in the freer English translations of Coleman Barks. The verbal archive of Rumi-inspired American writer Kenneth Rexroth was also mined for jewels to be set in the yielding silver of the present arrangements. On that latter note, Rexroth’s “I Refuse” comes across as the album’s spiritual culmination, standing firm against the tide of history even as it imbibes itself on forgotten knowledge. Tander’s rendering thereof illustrates a life cycle of its own worth: from the pupa of suggestion to the chrysalis of accountability and finally a winged emergence of liberation.
Like fog resolving into a discernible landscape, the verses chosen for this program strip away layers of hardship to reveal the light of hope buried within. This is especially true of the Rumi selections. In “Your Grief,” Gustavsen’s melody unwraps the Sufi poet’s observational acumen as a lover would a seam of clothing, revealing not a physical but a spiritual body in which beats a heart of ephemeral loss. “What Was Said To The Rose” is a another sonic blush of whispered thoughts and corporeal singing, while “The Source Of Now” employs gentle brushwork—both literally in Vespestad’s playing and metaphorically in the sentiments—and all of it connected by an aquatic singing style.
That the Norwegian hymns feel as integrated as they do is testament not only to the musicians but also to a shared continuity. “I See You” is thus more than an ode to our heavenly Mother and Father, but a locket of understanding that houses Tander’s voice as an earthly relic. Her subtle adlibbing is as tangible as stained glass, and equally mosaiced. The piano intro of “A Castle In Heaven” evokes that other spiritual stalwart of ECM—G. I. Gurdjieff—by clearing away ancient paths of virtue. Starting with the vigil-like awareness of “Journey Of Life” and finishing in the shaded alcove of “Sweet Melting Afterglow,” a veritable church of sound opens its pews to any and all who would bend a knee between them.
Even the album’s instrumental turns feel syntactical. Both the tender duo of Gustavsen and Vespestad that is “The Way You Play My Heart” and the playful awakening of “Rull” realize that speech is nothing without music, and vice versa. And so, what was said is also what was sung, pushed like air through lungs, throat, and mouth to turn the very ether into writing paper and our ears into eyes reading every word as if it were our last.
“Unifony” is a word invented to describe the audible tesseract forged by producer Minco Eggersman, engineer Theodoor Borger, and trumpeter Mathias Eick. Watering electroacoustic seeds, and from those nurturing an incidental crop, they drift between graspable melodies, ambient sound designs, and cinematic embryos. Indeed, each of their debut album’s 12 tracks is a film for which only the inner ear can serve as projector screen.
If asked to assign an overall shape to this project, one would be hard-pressed to come up with anything better than a sphere. Such is the coherence and three-dimensionality one encounters. From the first blush of “Glow,” we find each vibrational frequency churning within the confines of its own dreams as the only way of transcending them. Eick’s tone is wrapped in a human touch as only a singer’s might be, and by its gentle force of suggestion indicates the forward motion of seeking and finding something we didn’t even realize we were looking for. Here, as throughout, rhythms are never applied from without but instead emerge from within, each an unpredictable treasure, sacred and wrapped in shadow.
That same feeling of travel persists throughout “Found” and “Ghostly,” wherein narrative impulses of what’s discoverable through the body trade molecules with the spatial evocations of “Drive” and “Rock” as if the only promise worth keeping is that made by a receding horizon. “Ascend” balances the horizontal axis with a vertical one, threading an arpeggio of plucked strings through a braid of trumpet, piano, and circulations of the heart.
Yet nowhere do we understand the nature of things so clearly as in “Blur.” As individual as every soul that inhales it, this music renders space like an open-ended video game, charting maps in real time through ghost towns and ruins of lost civilizations in search of places where voices might still reside.
In that sense, Unifony is all about kindship—not only between the musicians and producers whose lives have intersected in these achingly beautiful nebulae, but also between listeners thousands of miles away, so that the mere push of a virtual PLAY button is all it takes to breathe the same air. As the name of the final track—“Tangible”—suggests, we are left with something transportable, a relic from the future through which we are given a choice: to continue wallowing in self-absorption or shed our egos in search of timeless unity. Let us all opt for the latter.
Unifony is available for purchase on Bandcamp here.
Avec le temps
Giovanni Guidi piano
Francesco Bearzatti tenor saxophone
Roberto Cecchetto guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
João Lobo drums
Recorded November 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mixed July 2018 by Manfred Eicher, Giovanni Guidi, and Gérard de Haro (engineer)
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 22, 2019
ECM has always been a label of surprises. Every now and then, however, it reaches beyond the unexpected into something eternal. Such is the feeling of Giovanni Guidi’s Avec le temps, an album so meticulous in its attention to detail, form, and formlessness that it feels inevitable. It’s one of those dates that reveals new layers with every iteration, and in doing so proves those layers to have been always with us.
The title track is a chanson by Monaco-born Léo Ferré. As the only of the set not written by Guidi, it reflects the bandleader’s equal passions for lyricism and spontaneous invention while introducing a core trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer João Lobo. Stripped of its poetry yet replaced with a wordless other, it travels like a caterpillar born to sing this one song before it chrysalizes into something winged.
“15th of August” introduces the full quintet with which the session is concerned, treating tenor saxophonist Francesco Bearzatti and guitarist Roberto Cecchetto as necessary organs in a maturing body. As such, their spirit of unity finds clearest expression in the relatively straightforward “No Taxi.” That said, the untethered “Johnny the Liar” and “Postludium and a Kiss” are no strangers to continuity of purpose. Throughout the latter piece, Bearzatti lurks in the creaking of an emotional door before soaring as a guardian bird overhead to gather melodic rainfall in his bell.
Morgan, as can be expected, is just so present. He daubs only where paint is needed, applying memorable arco strokes in “Caino.” This tune is moreover a prime showcase for Guidi’s boundless imagination, cascading in the final stretch with all the beauty and pain of a world drowning in divided color schemes.
“Ti Stimo” highlights guitarist Roberto Cecchetto ability to lay down a melody that resounds even when not being played, while “Tomasz” (written in memory of trumpeter and ECM stalwart Tomasz Stanko) concludes in earnest farewell. One of the most exquisite creations to grace these years in recent memory, it prays in circles until it cuts a hole in the ground large enough to fall through in search of those who have left us.
Despite the album’s title—which translates in English to “It may take time”—it takes no time at all to catch on to the beauty of what’s going on here. This will surely go down as one of the ECM’s finest of the decade. Timely and timeless.
Alexei Lubimov tangent piano
Recorded July 2008, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekapel Elzenveld, Antwerpen
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Recording supervision: Guido Gorna
An ECM Production
Release date: August 25, 2017
For this landmark record of music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), pianist Alexei Lubimov has assembled a rich conspectus. More than that, he has delved into the history of the classical keyboard and its precursors, coming up for glorious air with the rarely heard tangent piano as his tool of choice. As one of a handful of options available at the younger Bach’s fingertips, it comes alive in this unusual combination of scores and performances. The title of the program, Tangere, means “to touch,” and embodies Lubimov’s ideal as interpreter, if not also Bach’s as composer.
As noted by New York Times critic Cleveland Johnson, the tangent piano recalls the Middle Eastern santur, and indeed operates by a kindred principle of hammer and string. Like András Schiff’s ECM New Series recording of Franz Schubert on a Viennese fortepiano, its rewards far outweigh the time it may take to accustom oneself to its timbre.
Between 1779 and 1787, C.P.E. Bach produced six collections of fantasies, sonatas, and rondos “für Kenner und Liebhaber” (for connoisseurs and dilettantes), and it is from all but the second and fourth of these that Lubimov has plucked the juiciest fruits. The Freye Fantasie (Wq 67) that opens the program is also its longest, taking listeners through 11 minutes of time travel. In addition to its mature composing and foreshadowing of the even greater piano literature waiting in the coming century, it showcases the instrument’s gamut of colors, moods, and textures. The same characterization holds true for the Sonate II (Wq 57) that follows, sandwiching between its charming outer layers an inner oasis.
Selections from the Clavierstücke verschiedener Art (Keyboard pieces of various kinds) of 1765 and Musikalisches Vielerley (Musical miscellaney) of 1770 flesh out the middle ground with shorter bursts of creative exposition. Among these pieces are the delightful solfeggi, which pack the punch of extra-strength medicine capsules.
In this context, the Sonate VI (Wq55) comes across as downright cinematic for its use of space, movement, and framing. Its central Andante is so hauntingly suited to the tangent piano that it feels born from within its strings. All of which renders the concluding Fantasie II (Wq 59/6) a vessel for any virtuosity that preceded it.
Wadada Leo Smith trumpet
Bill Frisell guitar
Andrew Cyrille drums
Recorded July 2017 at Reservoir Studios, New York
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: November 2, 2018
When drummer Andrew Cyrille broke tension with The Declaration of Musical Independence in 2016, the universe seemed to beg for more. And so, with producer Sun Chung at the helm, he stepped into the studio again, this time retaining guitarist Bill Frisell and adding only trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith to the mix. Then again, “mix” is far from the appropriate word here, as the trio unifies under the influence of processes far beyond the stirring of some proverbial pot would imply.
Among the many excitations of Lebroba is the fact that it marks the first occasion for Frisell and Smith to record together. “Worried Woman” almost makes one lament this fact, as the two are clearly suited for each other, especially when bonded by Cyrille’s chemical reactions. This opening tune, written by the guitarist, is architected as preface to Smith’s four-part tribute to Alice Coltrane. Taking her spiritual presence as inspiration, and prompting the musicians via both graphic scores and standard notation, he leads as comfortably as he recedes, pushing terrain beneath him as an earthly treadmill. Frisell and Cyrille, meanwhile, deepen their cosmic relationship without the merest flicker of predetermination, opting instead for a freer correspondence within boundaries before breaking down the set to drums alone: a master class in psychosomatic response.
The bandleader’s title track, a fractured blues for the 21st century, reveals its treasures just enough to sense their shine yet without letting on the nature of their constitution. As in his “Pretty Beauty,” which ends things as they began, it erases as many words as it writes across a palimpsest of self-awareness. Between them is the spontaneously created “TGD,” which sounds for all like the autopsy of a laser gun performed by someone who’s taught the procedure a thousand times before. Its forensic qualities are superseded only by an overwhelming delicacy of intuition, which now more than ever touches the ears with unerring relevance.