Gary Peacock Trio: Tangents (ECM 2533)


Gary Peacock Trio

Marc Copland piano
Gary Peacock bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded May 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 25, 2017

Following the 2015 debut, Now This, Gary Peacock helms his trio with pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron once again into pristine waters. As if by force of metaphor, the trio indeed coheres like a finely made vessel in the set’s opener, “Contact.” The first of five Peacock originals, it opens with the bassist by his not-soon-to-be-lonesome, a voice with something to say. As Copland’s postmodern lyricism and Baron’s scintillating cymbals step into frame, we find ourselves moving from doorway to outside world. Throughout Peacock’s other compositions, whether in the evocative “December Greenwings” or the narrative title track, his bassing rises and falls as a city breeze while Copland fills in the footsteps of every pedestrian footprint below. And in the enthrallments of “Tempei Tempo” and “Rumblin’” he blossoms into jagged grooves that only reinforce their adhesive qualities with every rhythmic turn.

For this session, Baron pens the rightfully bubbling “Cauldron,” a sonic stew that goes down one hearty morsel at a time. His detail-rich drumming proves to be an intuitive foil for Copland’s chord voicings, as well as for Peacock’s ebullience. “In And Out” is another Baron creation that finds the drummer in lithe duet with Peacock. Copland contributes his own “Talkin’ Blues,” which by its sharp turns and fancy footwork glides over a uniquely joyous terrain.

The trio’s resplendent takes on nocturnal standards like Alex North’s “Spartacus” and Miles Davis’s “Blue In Green” show us only what masters can do with the masters when recorded by the masters, while between them breathes the freely improvised “Empty Forest.” This gentle yet no-less-formidable beast of a tune hangs its stars from every tree to replenish a foliage withered by time.

Remarkable about Tangentsis how equally each player contributes to the overall sound. One could write its roster on a wheel, spin it at any moment, and find enjoyment by focusing on whatever name it lands on. Everyone is as much a listener as a crafter of that which is heard, a chaser of the same muse whose love of communication is as indelible as the sentiments conveyed here.

Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet: December Avenue (ECM 2532)


December Avenue

Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet
December Avenue

Tomasz Stanko trumpet
David Virelles piano
Reuben Rogers double bass
Gerald Cleaver drums
Recorded June 2018, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 31, 2017

Now the windows, blinded by the glare of the empty square, had fallen asleep. The balconies declared their emptiness to heaven; the open doorways smelt of coolness and wine.
–Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

Tomasz Stanko’s twelfth album for ECM as leader, released just shy of sixteen months before his death in 2018, is both a lean into the future and a languid dip in the past. In the former regard, one can expect a darker side of jazz to reveal its face at many turns herein. From the opening “Cloud” to the closing “Young Girl in Flower,” the Polish trumpeter and his New York Quartet don’t so much render a single circle as an ever-growing coil of them, each transitioning through iridescent colors of retrospection. In pianist David Virelles, bassist, Reuben Rogers, and drummer Gerald Cleaver he finds climatic support that opens the firmament to let in vaporous songs of resuscitation. Each is strangely thrilling, despite Stanko’s overcast writing.

Virelles keeps the barometric pressure balanced, setting the tone of “Blue Cloud” and “Bright Moon” with patience before an overflow of emotion takes place. Rogers and Cleaver add masterful waves of recall beneath Stanko’s storytelling vibe, in which the bandleader uses gestures and feelings to convey his characters’ deepest moral decisions. Like “Ballad for Bruno Schulz” and its distant cousin, “The Street of Crocodiles,” each breathes us mid-sentence into a literary world. The latter tune’s cinematic cool, in combination with Rogers’s arco drunkenness and Stanko’s back-alley flutters, is a pinnacle.

Not all is doom and gloom, however, as we’re treated to some scattered uprisings of emotion. Although still drawn from the shadows, “Burning Hot” and “Yankiels Lid” excavate the night with tools of fire, while the groovier title track feels like a lost take from Stanko’s previous effort, Wisława.

Three free improvisations fill in the gaps, each with Rogers as its fulcrum in largely duo settings. Sharing the air with Stanko in “Conclusion” and with Virelles in “Sound Space,” the bassist understands that any dream can be turned real by the flick of destiny’s wrist. Thankfully, one of those flicks loosed this album through the ether and into our receiving ears.

Sungjae Son: Near East Quartet (ECM 2568)

2568 X

Sungjae Son
Near East Quartet

Sungjae Son tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Suwuk Chung guitar
Yulhee Kim vocal, percussion
Soojin Suh drums
Sori Choi traditional Korean percussion on “Baram”
Recorded December 2016, Stradeum Studio, Seoul
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mixed by Nicolas Baillard, Manfred Eicher, and Sun Chung at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: August 31, 2018

Saxophonist/composer/bandleader Sungjae Son and his Near East Quartet splash into ECM territory with this phenomenal debut. Joined by guitarist Suwuk Chung, singer-percussionist Yulhee Kim, and drummer Soojin Suh, he charts new paths along old maps, bringing traditional Korean music, or gugak, into the stratosphere of improvisation. It’s a unique concept not explored on the label since Then Comes the White Tiger, but with a freshness all its own. The concept is in the name, which came at the suggestion of Chung. In the guitarist’s words: “We’re all born and raised in an Eastern country, but our identity is very much Westernized. Not by choice of our own, but of the world that made us. So we can’t really say our music is from the ‘East.’ Rather, it feels like we’re standing somewhere near it.” This push and pull of identity politics is expressly felt in the set’s two Korean folk songs. Where “Mot” zooms in like a cinematic close-up on a young woman picking lotus seeds, the seafaring “Pa:do” evokes the undulation of waves, both literal and figurative. Son’s bass clarinet in the former moves full dark over desolate landscape while Suh’s drums in the latter illuminate details where few others would find purchase. The ability of both to embody what they articulate is marvellous.

In response to the question of combining traditional Korean music and jazz, Son tells me by email that for him jazz “is all about different cultures meeting together from the start. It’s only natural for me to bring something from my own cultural background into jazz that I love. East and West share the beauty of sound and the beauty of silence. As for what makes Korean traditional music distinct, I can only say that it embraces empty space instead of filling it in.” And embrace it they certainly do in “Ewha.” This opening track is a portal of welcome into a sound-world that’s equally physical and immaterial. Its mood is so initiatory that it’s all one can do to close one’s eyes against the glare of its forthrightness. It shares body heat as a way of shedding the skin of expectation for something uniquely honest.

(Photo credit: An Woong Chul)

Just as the modern elements emphasize their ancient counterparts, so do the ancient shed light on the modern. In that respect, however, Son has little to say with regard to the Korean jazz scene: “My quartet doesn’t sit squarely in the Korean jazz scene, which is small enough as it is and has no place for outsiders like us. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve made due by creating our own scene.” Listening to tracks like “Baram,” for which Sori Choi joins on traditional percussion, it’s impossible to disagree. The first in a handful drawn from the orally transmitted Pansori epics, it’s told from the viewpoint of a lover wishing for word from the one who has left her behind, yet whose dedication results in a fatal beating when she refuses a local magistrate. Her only hope is to reunite with her true love in another life. Kim sings with audacity and emotional integrity, embraced by a cosmic pond of guitar and lured by the percussion’s death knells. As also with the urgency of “Galggabuda” and patient intensity of “Jinyang,” each word feels like a sonorous wound. That said, Son attributes no special thematic significance to the chosen texts. “The language itself,” he says, “has its own color and rhythm that brings a different atmosphere to the music. There’s no point in understanding the meaning of the lyrics in my music.” To be sure, we can just as easily feel its pulse as if it were our own without translation.

This feeling of human connection is only enhanced by producer Sun Chung, whose gentle hand is felt by its very absence. “He never tried to guide us or anything,” recalls Son. “He just believed in our music. We recorded new songs that no one has heard before. Even we didn’t know what was going to happen. But during the recording, I felt like he already knew exactly what needed to happen. At one point I asked him, ‘Sun, why don’t you say something?’ To which he responded, ‘I’m not here to speak. I’m here to support whatever it is you want to do.” Although such freedom of expression is palpable throughout, it’s especially evident in “Garam” and “Ebyul.” Like currents flowing between islands, they make long distances seem surmountable by mere strum of guitar, brush of drum, or whisper of reed. Each is a dream turned inside out until we can step through it in reality, breathing in words as sacrifice and exhaling melody as reward.

When I ask Son what he hopes listeners will experience in this album, his answer is as straightforward as the music it describes: “Somethin’ else.”

Thomas Demenga: J. S. Bach – Suiten für Violoncello (ECM New Series 2530/31)

Demenga Bach

Thomas Demenga
J. S. Bach: Suiten für Violoncello

Thomas Demenga violoncello
Recorded February 2014, Hans Huber-Saal, Basel
Engineer: Laurentius Bonitz
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 27, 2017

The Cello Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, like his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, are touchstones for listeners and performers alike. In the latter sense, Thomas Demenga approaches them through an ECM lens for the second time here. Having first fragmented his traversal between 1986 and 2002 through a series of pairings with contemporary works, thereby suggesting exciting new relationships, here he uncovers intra- rather than interrelationships, moving from fundament to firmament and back again with mind and hands sculpted by experience into something unmissable.

Where some interpretations might seek to add something new, Demenga’s embrace something old, always there but too often crucified on the scoreboard of modernism. Here we encounter a return to form, if not also a form of return, in the deepest interest of music that springs eternal from Creator to creator. Referred to in Thomas Meyer’s liner essay as “every cellist’s gospel,” the Cello Suites do more than encourage rereading; they demand it. Having played these masterpieces for more than 50 years, Demenga understands that no one is ever “done” with them and that we’re all born and expire in its swaddling echoes.

In the First Suite, he carries an antique sensibility from first inhale of Prélude to last exhale of Gigue, working shadows into familiar nooks and crannies as if they constituted a physical substance. That same feeling of breath, more than metaphorical, whispers, rasps, and soliloquizes through the Second Suite’s philosophical journey. Its Prélude liquifies the heart and feeds it to another in a cycle of life that cannot be qualified by any other means than the gut strings and baroque bow with which Demenga has chosen to articulate every stroke. The Courante is strangely beautiful in its jagged denouement, while the Sarabande that follows it speaks with haunting urgency and the concluding Gigue with three-dimensional tactility.

The lithe stirrings of the Third Suite’s Prélude and Allemande form a dyad of such emotional integrity as to occupy a realm all their own. As in the famous Bourrée I & II, he dives inward for pearls of wisdom, unpolished and offered in their own shells, glorious specimens of nature whose perfection communicates in the language of imperfection. Demenga’s trills and glissandi are as surprising as they are organic, and flow of their own volition.

Says Demenga of Bach, “His music is detached from personal feelings and dramas or other events to which many composers give expression in their music. That is why his music is so pure and why it possesses, we might say, something divine.” In interest of that expression, this performance is made all the more solitary for its attention to dance-informed structures. This is especially evident in the program’s second half, which through the prism of the Fourth Suite shines a light striated with as much solemnity as exuberance. From the throaty Prélude unspools a narrative of timeless impulses. In the Allemande and Courante that follow, one can feel the soul of a viola da gamba squeezing through the strings, as if the latter were portals of mastery to which our ears must seem as eyes hungry for vistas beyond the known. And in the footwork of the final Gigue, the press of flesh into soil is vivid and alive.

From that sunlit scene Bach pivots into the twilight of the Fifth Suite. Here the modesty of its inception tangles in moral debate with its fleshly Courante—made all the more carnal for Demenga’s intuitive bowing—before finding solace in the blushing Gigue.

This leaves the Sixth Suite to stand as its own Book of Revelation, a scriptural culmination of all that came before it, a fulfillment of prophesies as old as they are indisputable, and which spread the good news of salvation not through words but actions.

As the opening movements—not least of all in the dizzying Prélude—suggest, we must find our own way into this music not by way of deciphering but in the knowledge of receiving a gift in and of faith. And if the finality of its Gigue is any indication, we must treat farewell as the opening of a deeper relationship with life itself, personified in every tremble of the waiting ear and reciprocated whenever we need to be reminded of purpose.

John Abercrombie Quartet: Up and Coming (ECM 2528)

Up and Coming

John Abercrombie Quartet
Up and Coming

John Abercrombie guitar
Marc Copland piano
Drew Gress double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded April/May 2016 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistants: Thom Beemer and Nate Odden
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

The quartet of guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron, last featured on 2013’s 39 Steps, returns for the final ECM album to be released before the bandleader’s death. As if we ever needed a reminder of why his art was more than its own musical country but a continent unto itself, this gorgeous swan song fulfills that duty and then some.

Each facet of Up and Coming pays tribute to Abercrombie’s meteoric development as a musician, and by the brushwork of his bandmates renders a group portrait quite unlike any other in the business. On “Joy,” we’re introduced to their symbiosis in spades. As wind currents of guitar and piano flow over each another, they trace a cymbal-kissed shore and its trail of bass footprints. If joy abounds here in name, so does it also in spirit on “Flipside,” of which an understated brilliance showcases the quartet at its straightforward best.

If “Sunday School” is a lesson in grace and doctrinal congruity, wherein Abercrombie shines with a quiet light and sparks a particularly introspective solo from Gress, the title track is a more secular campaign led by the guitarist’s liquid-mercury call to arms. In likeminded spirit, Copland contributes two tunes written for this session. Where “Tears” rows a classically inflected river that finds Abercrombie and Gress wielding the most delicate of improvisational oars, “Silver Circle” elicits a funk-infused passion.

Channeling Bill Evans in their rendition of the Miles Davis standard “Nardis,” the band begins without rhythm, floating in reverie before landing into sunlit fields. And there we find Abercrombie cartwheeling away in “Jumbles.” Here, as until now, Baron’s splashing cymbals are the leitmotif of a palpable scene.

It goes without saying that this album’s title is most ironic, given that such playing can only be forged by those who’ve been around the block more than a few times. From beat one to none, Up and Coming is a fitting end to an unparalleled legacy—one, I sincerely hope, of more in the wings of ECM’s archives.

(Photo credit: Bart Babinski)

Tarkovsky Quartet: Nuit blanche (ECM 2524)

Nuit blanche

Tarkovsky Quartet
Nuit blanche

François Couturier piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
Jean-Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Recorded April 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 7, 2017

When opening our eyes, do our minds turn to thoughts of waking? Nuit blanche, the latest from pianist François Couturier’s ever-deepening Tarkovsky Quartet, answers this question with a possibility of dreams. It’s clear not only in the tracks variously titled “Rêve,” “Dream,” and “Traum,” but also in the blurring of corporeal borders such linguistic costume changes imply. In those pieces, each fitting into a larger improvisational puzzle, we get lost just to be found.

In so much of the connective tissue that holds together these vital organs, this quartet’s ethos blossoms vividly. A gentle urgency in the title track’s cello, singing at merest touch of Anja Lechner’s bow and tempered by the cross-hatching of Jean-Louis Matinier’s accordion, provides ample preparation for the soprano saxophone of Jean-Marc Larché to unfold its wings one feather at a time. As if to drain that metaphor of its itineracy, tracks like “Soleil sous la pluie” and “Fantasia” evoke a feeling of suspension. Taps of bow on strings and of knuckles on hollow body play out a dialogue of mechanical sins and immaterial salvations, each detail a poem without words. The latter piece’s transcendence recalls the levitation scene in The Sacrifice, and by that association adds a touch of spirit to vessels of the flesh, turning in on itself until the two are indistinguishable in glory.

Whether in more direct references such as “Dakus,” inspired by Tōru Takemitsu’s Nostalghia (itself written in memory of the director), or the distinct nostalgias of “Urga,” every ruined landscape we encounter here is, as in the wasted Zone of Stalker, a blanket of broken futures over a memory too joyous to contain. Couturier’s unaccompanied “Daydream” and “Nightdream” are likewise liminal, at once floating and sinking in a stream of imagined silence. Between them is “Cum dederit delectis suis somnum,” plucked from Antonio Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus and passed like a torch from bow to reed with all the sanctity it demands.

If, as Andrei Tarkovsky himself once said, “the sounds of this world are so beautiful in themselves that if only we could listen to them properly, cinema would have no need for music at all,” we might also say that the music of this quartet named for the Russian auteur, if watched properly, would have no need for imagery at all. Then again, one can’t help but treat it as a projection screen for internal scenes, each more personal than the last. And so, ending as we began, with the eyes as fulcrums between dreaming and waking, never knowing where to draw a line between the two yet confident that no level of imagination can do justice to what they see, we walk into sunset, knowing that all we need to make it a sunrise is stand on our heads.

Benedikt Jahnel Trio: The Invariant (ECM 2523)

The Invariant

Benedikt Jahnel Trio
The Invariant

Benedikt Jahnel piano
Antonio Miguel double bass
Owen Howard drums
Recorded March 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

Five years after their 2012 ECM debut, pianist Benedikt Jahnel, bassist Antonio Miguel, and drummer Owen Howard return to form while also expanding the parameters of what’s possible within it. A clue, perhaps, into this calling-card title—The Invariant—through which implications of constancy are playfully cross-hatched by their own unraveling. It’s all there in the pianism that opens “Further Consequences,” laying the stones for a spiraling staircase into the heart. Here, in this innermost sanctum, is where the torch of interpretation is passed from performers to listeners. The urgency of Miguel’s bassing is softened by the entrance of Howard’s brushes, which by their gentle persuasion soften the temperature into cooler streams of consciousness.

All of this lays a grand carpet for the introverted groove of “The Circuit,” in which the trio swings gently enough that one barely senses its passage through crowded city streets. It’s a transfiguration of time through space, and of space into time itself, a psychological wormhole between modes of creation. But regardless of whether the atmosphere at the other end is the funkier “Part Of The Game” or the fragmentary “Interpolation One,” the deeply arranged “Mirrors” or the balladic “En Passant,” Jahnel and company separate rope into filament at every turn. They also leave themselves open to suggestion, as in the case of “For The Encore.” Originally intended to close out the set, producer Manfred Eicher felt its steady triangulation of pulse, free-floating midsection, and bass soliloquy worthy of earlier placement.

The boldest circle here, however, is “Mono Lake,” of which an insistent beat and diecast melody hold the surrounding muscles together as a ligament. Like the album in the fullness of its being, it flirts with infinity in a collective song so resolutely out of body that words struggle to catch its shadow.

Quercus: Nightfall (ECM 2522)



June Tabor voice
Iain Ballamy tenor and soprano saxophones
Huw Warren piano
Recorded December 2015 at Cooper Hall, Frome
Engineer: Mike Mower
Mixed at The Soundhouse Studios, London
Engineer: Gerry O’Riordan
Produced by Iain Ballamy and Huw Warren
Release date: April 28, 2017

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
–Edward Thomas

Four years after a 2013 debut on ECM, the trio known as Quercus deepen their mission in this follow-up gospel. Unlike singers whose tone may be described as silken, sultry, or smoky, June Tabor treats her voice as would a metallurgist an alloy. Together with saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren, she yields new admixtures at every turn, each more elemental than the last.

High crests among the program’s traditional selections include two songs collected by Somerset folklorist Ruth L. Tongue (1898-1981). “On Berrow Sands” and “The Shepherd And His Dog” showcase Warren’s exquisite pianism, the former with such oceanic clarity that one can almost smell the ghosts of dead sailors taking flight among the seagulls as Tabor recreates their sacrifices. In “Once I Loved You Dear (The Irish Girl),” she mines the ore of words, handing it to us without polishing away the dirt of its forgotten slumber. As stolen love takes flight into darker realities, Tabor gouges out superficial wounds and fills them with the bronze of self-reflection.

All of these are branches to the roots of “Auld Lang Syne,” which opens the album in a cradling of words. Tabor steps out of time, pulling aside the curtain of night just a sliver to let the past bleed through. Ballamy illustrates that transition beautifully, adding deeper evocations of trauma through his tenor in “The Manchester Angel” and maternal love in “The Cuckoo.” He also contributes his own composition, “Emmeline,” in a circling duet with Warren, echoing the form taken in Warren’s own “Christchurch.” Both fit naturally into their surroundings, as does the jazz standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” an evergreen dipped in silver. And whether turning West Side Story’s anthemic “Somewhere” into something mysterious or making Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” uniquely her own, Tabor communicates so vividly as to render every stalk of wheat, every stone and animal bone in the fields beyond. Such music, then, is never about inclusion but extension of a tradition whose torch glows only in the human heart. An intimate and special experience that could have been created by no other.

Dénes Várjon: De la nuit (ECM New Series 2521)

De la nuit.jpg

Dénes Várjon
De la nuit

Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded April 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 31, 2018

He searched under the bed, around the fireplace,
in the chest: but he found no one.
And he could not understand how the spirit had crept in—
and how he had escaped again.
–E.T.A. Hoffmann, Night Pieces

Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, who last regaled ECM listeners on 2012’s Precipitando, returns with another program of three culturally disparate composers united by the immaterial. Although the blood running through the veins of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) may be genetically dissimilar, in each we find arbitrations of music that, according to the booklet essay by Jürg Stenzl, “far transcended the confines of their time.” The untethered quality of these compositions, each chosen with utmost attention to detail, by virtue of their literary angles interlock in organic conversation. And in rendering them, ECM has found an unparalleled interpreter.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op. 12 of 1837 are comprised of transfixing poetry. In these “character pieces,” linked explicitly to the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jean Paul, Schumann eschews sonata form in favor of an emotional mosaic that abides by its own logic. Its foundations support a lighthouse for listeners lost at sea. From the dramatic (Aufschwung and In der Nacht) and tenderly inquisitive (Warum?) to the mythic (Fabel) and dreamlike (Traumes Wirren), Schumann shines his light through one incredible prism after another until, coming to rest after the robust Ende vom Lied, Várjon, too, breathes the sigh of a journeyman closing his eyes with success.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (1908), inspired by a prose-poetry collection of the same name by Aloysius Bertrand, spins those latter impulses into a web of vivid imagery. The lambent Ondine evokes the water sprite of the same name, whose attempts at seduction follow fountain-like trajectories before rejection sends her reeling into the background. Le Gibet (Gallows) is meant to illustrate the body of a hanged man. Morbid yet beautiful, its suspensions take on new meaning. Scarbo returns to folklore in its depiction of the eponymous dwarf, said to haunt nightmares. The sensation of running desperately through a forest of which every tree is a hand tearing at our clothes makes this one of the most astonishing renditions I’ve ever heard of this piece.

The title of Bartók’sSzabadban(1926) means “Out of Doors,” and provides respite in the pastoral truths of its canvas. Some of its many influences include folk songs in the darkly percussive first movement and the harpsichord music of Couperin in the third. Throughout, a sense of comfort is always one step removed, locked in step with the march of a history that has all but left these jewels behind. Like the final movement, each scene is totally committed to its own unfolding, until we’re ready to work it back into shape as a promise to return.