My latest book review, for the website Contemporary Japanese Literature, is of Keigo Higashino’s problematic mystery novel, Under the Midnight Sun. Click the cover to read my critique.
Into The Silence
Avishai Cohen trumpet
Bill McHenry tenor saxophone
Yonathan Avishai piano
Eric Revis double-bass
Nasheet Waits drums
Recorded July 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: February 12, 2016
Following his appearance as sideman on Mark Turner’s Lathe of Heaven, Avishai Cohen makes his leader debut for ECM Records. Bearing dedication to his late father, Into The Silence teams the trumpeter with a fantastic band of his own that includes tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Nasheet Waits. This effort marks the first time the band had, as such, stepped foot inside a studio, and the results hark back to the golden age of ECM in both texture and mood. From its spacious arranging and freely realized originals to its classical roots (the solo piano music of Rachmaninoff was a conscious inspiration) and cross-pollination of styles, Cohen’s musical identity speaks at once from without and within.
Through the six-sided prism of as many tunes, Cohen shines a light as only the darkness of mourning could yield. The muted lines of “Life And Death” feel as much celebratory as elegiac. Cohen thus asserts himself as more than a voice among the voiceless, as if the album’s titular silence were not the absence of sound but a personal choice to protect one’s dreams. Here, however, we are bathed in dreamlike qualities with such melodiousness that it’s all we can do to not imagine the many fates that must have convened to produce this patient bit of magic. Avishai’s pianism is another ripe fruit in the band’s gift basket. Morphing from barest comping to bluesy climatic shifts and sparkling tails, he is a comet in an already starry sky. The end of this opener, though a postludinal afterthought, is just as substantial as what comes before it.
“Dream Like A Child” only deepens the spell craft of its predecessor. Unmuted yet just as vulnerable, Cohen undoes the ribbon of this offering to reveal a melodic ocean just aching to crash on the listener’s shore. The pianism is majestic yet aptly proportioned, mirroring the underlying respectful altitude at every turn: just when you think it has gathered enough momentum to soar, it touches its feet to the earth. Though things do cohere in more groove-oriented ways as the rhythm section builds a higher and higher wall from which Cohen and McHenry must jump, there’s no doubt that the ground will hold its foundation through Waits’s textural reinforcements.
The title track expands on ECM’s evolving ethos of ritualistic jazz, as drums and microtonal harmonies in the piano interlock with downright spiritual patience. Again, the band flirts with groove but foregoes that sweetness for a cerebral savory. These strategies become more evident with repeat listens (for this is, indeed, an album you’ll want to return to time and again). Waits is an organic force here, moving from tumbling abstractions to tight snare rolls at the flick of a wrist, his plumage fully outstretched.
Somberness, however, is never far behind, and “Quiescence” bottles its fragrance like a master perfumer. Cohen’s trumpeting is the center of a vocal solar system, shining through planets forged in thematic space dust. Lengths of days and seasonal changes are determined by the gravitational pull of nostalgia, so that by the next track, “Behind The Broken Glass,” one knows that fragmentation is a universal law. Cohen proves that, in the wake of any emotional shattering, no effort of putting the pieces back together will produce a clean reflection, for it will always bear the scars of its undoing. The breadth of his inspirations has brought him to this humble (and humbling) realization in his career, and finds empathetic amplification in his bandmates that funnels in the solo piano reprise of “Life And Death” that ends the album’s journey.
Having seen this project with a different roster at the 2016 New York City Winter Jazzfest, I can attest to the raw, living power of its music. So much so that, following that experience, this studio date feels somewhat tame by comparison. So: see them in person if you can, but revel in the wonders of this “second best” all the same, for in them is a pilot light that ECM lit nearly five decades ago, and which continues to burn pure and warm despite the winds of change.
Pat Metheny guitars
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Gary Burton vibraphone
Scott Colley double bass
Danny Gottlieb drums
Paul McCandless English horn, soprano saxophone
Klaus Graf alto saxophone
Ernst Hutter euphonium
Eberhard Weber bass (from tapes)
Michael Gibbs arranger, conductor
Ralf Schmid arranger
Rainer Tempel arranger
Libor Šíma arranger
SWR Big Band
Helge Sunde conductor
Concert organized and produced by Martin Mühleis, sagas productions
Recorded by SWR, January 2015, at Theaterhaus Stuttgart by Doris Hauser, Volker Neumann, and Boris Kellenbenz (technician)
Mixed at SWR Studio, Stuttgart, by Volker Neumann (engineer), Manfred Eicher, Eberhard Weber
Pat Metheny’s “Hommage” mixed in New York by Pete Karam
Mastering: Christoph Stickel at MSM Studios, Munich
An ECM Production in collaboration with SWR
Redaktion: Günther Huesmann
SWR Big Band Manager: Hans-Peter Zachary
U.S. release date: September 11, 2015
Bassist Eberhard Weber two-handedly defined a generation of sounds, resulting in some of the most iconic albums the ECM catalog has to offer. In recognition of his contributions to the arts of performance and recording, Weber received the Jazzpreis Baden-Württemberg lifetime achievement award on his 75th birthday, and was guest of honor at jubilee concerts held in January of 2015—proving that, despite the stroke that rendered him unable to play since 2007, Weber’s fire blazes on.
Among his illustrious torchbearers is guitarist Pat Metheny, who in a liner note for the album describes lasting indebtedness, having joined Weber on the classic Ring and Passengers (Weber also appeared on Metheny’s Watercolors). As one who has always made the most of technology to harmonious advantage, Metheny acknowledges the inspiration manifest “in the instruments that [Weber] had built to bring that sound into the air, crystallizing a sonic fingerprint that even all these years later remains as uniquely identifiable and fresh as it was on first hearing back then.” All of which makes it doubly celebration-worthy to see Metheny swimming again in ECM waters. His “Hommage” is, in fact, this disc’s centerpiece. A sprawling world unto itself, it includes its dedicatee as performer in the form of video footage of the improvising bassist projected onto a screen at stage rear, creating what the composer calls “my imagined virtual Eberhard.” The idea somewhat recalls the speech-to-melody experiments of composer Steve Reich, with whom Metheny has worked and whose influence can be felt here in certain passages throughout the half-hour-plus suite.
Germany’s SWR Big Band, backing a chain of venerable soloists, brings this and the other works on the program to a resurrected state, here supporting solos from the formidable Gary Burton (vibes), Scott Colley (bass), Danny Gottlieb (drums), and Metheny himself. The opening is everything that Weber’s music ever was and will be: verdant, atmospheric, and fully developed right out of the box. The videographic Weber is almost ghostly, but over time feels less like an avatar and more a viable player whose creativity shines with unquenchable force. Metheny navigates their virtual interactions deferentially at first before easing into fuller integration, while the band handles this transformation with grace at director Helge Sunde’s exacting touch. The latter’s consistency ensures that Burton’s soloing is both the vessel and the water keeping it afloat; that Colley’s bassing, while distinctly Weberian, also adds its own shades to the spectrum; that Gottlieb’s adornments feel like more than just that; that Metheny’s flights always have their shadow in full view; and that Weber’s archival reveries transcend the limits of space and time they’ve been allotted.
Before this, listeners are treated to a far more intimate introduction in Jan Garbarek’s “Résumé Variations.” Based on the album of the same name, this piece finds the saxophonist improvising in his cinematic, clarion way around prerecorded bass lines. The two instruments intertwine in a way that only years of collaboration could produce, as if two massive continents of time were coming together in the least destructive abduction imaginable.
On the other side of Metheny’s juggernaut is a string of artfully pruned evergreens. “Touch” evokes the golden age of Yellow Fields. Featuring solos by Burton and Ernst Hutter on euphonium, and arranged by Ralf Schmid, this timeless jewel floats on a bed of vibraphone, moving in breezy fashion across its landscapes with the redolence of an old film magically restored. Its reach is matched by “Maurizius,” here arranged by Michael Gibbs and breathing with all the power, and more, of the original. Sharing solo duties with Burton is Paul McCandless, who carries his soprano saxophone to distant shores in this quintessential turn from Later That Evening. The same soloists carry over into an arrangement of “Tübingen” by Rainer Tempel, whose sense of flow meshes sympathetically with Weber’s. McCandless and Burton weave a carpet of textures through a stirring and complex sound that is equal parts somberness and joy.
Two reimagined songs from Pendulum close out the program: “Notes After An Evening” and, available as an exclusive bonus track via digital download, “Street Scenes.” Both are masterfully arranged by Libor Šíma, who gives them a certain heft. Burton and McCandless reappear, with alto saxophonist Klaus Graf adding his nocturnal lines to “Notes.” McCandless’s English horn, by contrast, burns like the sun in “Scenes,” balancing out cooler blasts from the band at large with energetic forecasting.
Given that Weber will never play again, one can’t help but find something bittersweet about these performances, built as they are on a legacy that, while nominally retired, lives on, their poignancy like a pair of lips pursed to a candle flame—yet which, instead of puffing it out, contributes to its glow.
Be sure to check out the DVD of these performances, available from Jazzhaus, which I have reviewed here.
Since the release of Within The Depths Of A Darkened Forest in 2002, vocalist Erin Welton and multi-instrumentalist Scott Ferrell have been conjuring some of the most ethereal spells in the history of the craft. As Autumn’s Grey Solace, they hang notes from immense rafters, each a stage light that knows exactly where, and at what level of intensity, to illuminate the listener’s soul. Over the years, the duo has charted a trajectory of pivot-points, emerging from that ancestral forest into the brighter futures of 2006’s Shades Of Grey and 2008’s Ablaze. In 2011, at the height of their association with Projekt Records, Welton and Ferrell transitioned into Eifelian, which Ferrell tells me marked the beginning of a change in the band that crystallized in Divinian the following year and in Monajjfyllen thereafter. While the earlier albums constituted self-contained worlds, the latter two feel like a new skeleton fleshed by their self-released latest, Windumæra.
Exploring the music of AGS is like awakening yourself to beauties you never knew slumbered inside you. At the center of this galaxy is a gathering of light by which is obliterated your darkest fears. It’s a visceral, celestial body that thrives on language, melody, and the generative force of which we all partake in being born. Such metaphors are more than the hyperbole of this longtime listener, reflected as they are in the band’s approach to songwriting. It’s easy, for example, to detect a Cocteau Twins influence in their sound, and see the ways in which the duo has nurtured it to bear hybrid fruits. But less obvious inspirations lurk beyond it. “We are also influenced by some of the popular music of a period of time from the late sixties to the late eighties,” says Ferrell. “There was a time when pleasant sounding music was actually popular, unlike the last couple of decades.” We might take this to mean either that AGS is returning to some nostalgic origin story or enhancing a neglected musical turn in humble service of a new one. Whichever way we choose to interpret their sound, its purpose is clearly to connect, not alienate.
And so, while it would be easy to see Windumæra as a highly original clarification of the Cocteau Twins ethos, it draws just as much from music that has yet to be written, of which we are granted prophetic glimpses. The album’s name connotes “echoing” in Anglo-Saxon, a language featuring heavily in the song titles. “It’s a dead language,” says Ferrell of the Anglo-Saxon choice, “poetic and intriguing.” Dead though it may be, it lives vividly throughout Windumæra.
As Welton’s voice shines through the title song’s channels like sun through mist-kissed foliage, it navigates by an internal moonlight for which it requires only the star of Ferrell’s sensitive arrangement to glow. Ardent fans and newcomers alike will appreciate the height of Welton’s voice in relation to the patchwork of guitars below. She is an overseer, an eagle from whose mouth falls water and flora for an arid world. As in the album’s final benediction, the hymenopteran “Ymbe,” she evokes wings and honeyed consciousness.
Lyrically speaking, AGS has always balanced the prosaic and the poetic, but here strengthens that contrast, and thereby its invitation to indulge in the nuances of circumstance. In this respect, and beyond those connections listed above, I would venture to say the duo shares far more in common with the troubadours of the European Renaissance, plying their sonic trade across a continent that, while familiar, nevertheless pulls us into unimaginable new oceans.
Hence my confusion over AGS being so often misperceived as a “gothic” outfit, when in fact they seem as far a cry as one can get from the connotations of morbidity such a term implies. For me, their music has always been a positively life-affirming search for beauty. Ferrell agrees: “We don’t associate our music with evil at all. Our mission is to create something beautiful and to console ourselves and others with music.” And if anything, consolation is at the very heart of Windumæra. We hear it in the pulsing bass line of “Sláhhyll,” which finds Welton delivering personal wisdoms as if they were materia in need of an alchemist. The synth-guitar arpeggios of “Belle” take shape just as clearly, if only more architecturally, as if inside a clock tower whose every strike purges us of a traumatic memory. Even the more subterranean tunes like “Asundran” open themselves as books in hopes of being read. As ever, Welton displays an uncanny ability to rise above her surroundings with acuity, turning hardship into ecstasy and filament.
This feeling of willful metamorphosis is perhaps the album’s central message. When I ask Ferrell about it, he says, “I like for each listener to interpret it in their own way but I would say this album has themes of freedom, expression, energy, and beauty.” With sometimes so little to hold on to in this expanse, I also wonder whether they compose their songs based on direct experiences, as part of a fantasy world, or both. Ferrell’s answer: “When I compose music, it’s way out there in a fantasy world. Erin’s vocals tend to be a combination of experiences and imagination.” Within this triangulation, it’s all the listener can do to draw a reliable map, because one wants to take into account every blade of grass and pebble. The healing energies of “Swíþfram” extend that triangle into a prism.
Because this album so deeply rewards the subjective mind, I uphold “Axa” as its pinnacle. It is a touch of vapor, a walk over rainbow bridges from solitude into communion with nature. Named after a river and meant to evoke its flowing currents, the song came together in the studio as it was being written. In contrast to “Hærfestwæta,” the autumnal associations of which recall the band’s name, it turns the ice of a painful experience into the liquid of transcending it.
Every moment of this music stems a place of genuine love, gratitude, and respect, a reflection of the souls that have found each other in this populous world to sing. The personal cocoon spun around the music is what makes it such a privilege to know. We might gaze at photos or watch videos, but until we close our eyes to the practical human concerns of their creation, these songs will not truly speak to us. They are to be embraced on their own terms, as if each were a finite entity in an infinite continuum. All of this shows in the gratitude from which they arise.
Windumæra finds AGS at the cusp of something deeper and more significant than anything the band has ever forged. It has superseded skin, flesh, and bone and placed a fingertip on the rhythms of a less tangible heart. Still, Ferrell sees yet another change on the horizon: “I think it’s the final album of the style we’ve been exploring on the last few albums and we’ll be drifting into new territory in the future.” Wherever that territory may be waiting, it has been a sublime comfort to listen to AGS’s evolution, and to know that there is still an era’s worth of moon nocturnal to be drunk in potions of expectation.
(For more information on this and other Autumn’s Grey Solace albums, please visit the band’s website here.)
At the summit of a prosperous career on stage and, following a decades-long stint with ECM Records, German bassist Eberhard Weber suffered a stroke and has not played since 2007. In October of 2015 (a year in which he also received the Landesjazzpreis Baden-Württemberg, a lifetime achievement award), jubilee concerts were held at the Theaterhaus in Weber’s hometown of Stuttgart to honor his 75th birthday and contributions to jazz.
This DVD of that same event features the SWR Big Band conducted in turns by Helge Sunde and Michael Gibbs, along with guests Jan Garbarek (saxophone), Gary Burton (vibraphone), Paul McCandless (reeds) and, returning to the fold, Pat Metheny (guitar). The latter’s “Hommage” is the centerpiece—a sprawling 30-minute composition built around archival video footage of Weber from the 1980s. More than any other musician on the roster, Metheny bottles the Weber-ian spirit like the lightning that it is.
In contrast to the sprightly figure on screen, the first image of the concert is of an aged Weber hobbling to his seat of honor by aid of a cane. Following this, his “Résumé” finds Garbarek improvising over a more recent audio recording. It’s a fitting way to start, given that Weber was such a fixture of Garbarek’s quartet. Much of what follows reflects almost somberly on a touching career. Arrangements by Ralf Schmid and Rainer Tempel of classic tunes from Weber’s golden age are showcases for Burton and McCandless while those by Gibbs rejuvenate “Maurizius” (from the 1982 album Later that Evening) and Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe.” But it’s the jovial energies of Libor Šíma, who reimagines “Street Scenes” and “Notes After An Evening” (both from 1993’s Pendulum), which win the day.
In the liner notes for Hommage à Eberhard Weber, the 2016 ECM album culled from this same event, Metheny waxes indebtedly about Weber’s “sonic fingerprint that even all these years later remains as uniquely identifiable and fresh as it was on first hearing back then.” As this landmark performance shows, Weber continues to innovate, even without strings at his fingertips.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)
Coming up on four decades as composer and performer, New York’s Downtown deacon Elliott Sharp is at a creative peak. Tranzience documents four semi-recent chamber pieces, the earliest being Approaching the Arches of Corti (1997). Scored for four soprano saxophones (the New Thread Quartet of Geoffrey Landman, Kristen McKeon, Erin Rogers and Zach Herchen) and making use of Steve Lacy’s “leg-mute” technique, it sounds at times like a congregation of geese, at others a pipe organ running out of air, and leans nicely into 2008’s Homage Leroy Jenkins. Alongside clarinetist Joshua Rubin and pianist Jenny Lin, violinist Rachel Golub evokes the scrapes and squeals of the legendary dedicatee, whom Sharp counts, along with the larger AACM family, among his early influences. Venus & Jupiter (2012) features the ensemble Either/Or conducted by Richard Carrick and Sharp himself on electroacoustic guitar. Around a pulsing piano, this largely improvised masterwork spins a drone of strings, brass, winds and percussion drawing even more explicitly from the AACM well. The 2013 title composition features the JACK Quartet (Chris Otto, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello), who recently brought their talents to bear on The Boreal (Starkland, 2015). Where that recording employed bows strung with ball-bearing chains, here the musicians use so-called “tube bows” fashioned from aluminum in addition to the standard hair. The music is consistently inventive across its 28-minute duration and inhabits a sound world that can only be described as nanotechnological.
To this solar system, Rub Out The Word may seem like a distant satellite, but its heart shares the same blood. Here Sharp (on guitar and electronics) joins actor Steve Buscemi (of Reservoir Dogs and Fargo fame) to celebrate the writings of Beat Generation guru William S. Burroughs in one of the most delicious spoken word recordings to come out in recent memory. Not only for Burroughs, who managed to make even the most abstract streams of consciousness feel coherent, but also for Buscemi’s adenoidal charm and Sharp’s accompaniment, which, like the words, evokes a viral network that responds to, even as it anticipates, hidden messages in the texts. Said texts are quintessential Burroughs, threading needles of incontrovertible (if sometimes perverse) cynicism through a social cloth he understood in ways few others of his generation did. “The use of cut-up is a key,” narrates Buscemi and one can’t help but feel that he and Sharp embody this very aesthetic in their collaboration. What follows is a string of meditations on writing, obsession, evil, bureaucracy, war, morality, human interactions and the occasional nod to silence thrown in for good measure. This is no naked lunch, but a fully clothed dinner after which dessert is served raw and dripping. And while it may not appeal to straightahead jazz heads, anyone who has enjoyed Sharp’s fantastic voyage (no small task with a discography of over 300 albums) for any length of time is sure to be enthralled.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)
In addition to my music reviewing, translating, and academic activities, I am excited to be a part of a new indie gaming company called Fight or Flight Games. We are currently developing an innovative MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) for mobile devices called Breaklands. Our team was fortunate enough to participate this summer in Life Changing Labs, an entrepreneurial incuboator program at Cornell University, where much of the groundwork was laid, and out of which we emerged with a People’s Choice Award in recognition of our achievements so far.
As the company’s campaign and social media manager, it is my duty and honor to spread the word, and so I encourage any of you gamers out there among my readers to please click the logo below to read more about our studio.
Muriel Cantoreggi viola
Geneviève Strosser viola
Jürg Dähler viola
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2010, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 6, 2015
the eye, go,
to the moist—
hurricanes, from wherever,
particle drift, the other,
know the one, we
read it in the book, it was
–Paul Celan, “Stretto”
Whether as composer, oboist, or conductor, Heinz Holliger never ceases to delight and surprise. His commitment to classical music has produced some of the most enduring documents on ECM’s New Series, including one of that imprint’s indisputable masterpieces, the Scardanelli-Zyklus. Here we have yet another turnaround, one that speaks with the open style in which Holliger has become so fluent. Featuring a host of accomplished interpreters—including the now-defunct Hilliard Ensemble—bringing to life a 21st-century cycle of works around the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut, the Machaut-Transkriptionen (2001-09) represent nearly a decade’s worth of thinking and rethinking through the past in a language of the future. Scored for an unusual combination of four voices and three violas, it weaves direct transcriptions of Machaut into Holliger’s idiosyncratic odes to the same.
This is one of those distinctively ECM projects, which, like Ricercar, unravels the avant-garde core of centuries-old music. The compact macramé, for example, that is Machaut’s hallmark is on full display in the program’s introductory Biaute qui toutes autre pere, wherein something more than ink and paper have convened to elicit vital sounds. If the feeling of this balladry is loving and sincere, even more so is Holliger’s enhancement of its rules in his own Ballade IV for three violins. More than ever before, Holliger has built his cathedral out of transparent stone, blacking out the windows, so that the sunlight might be its dominant form of expression. In this sense, Holliger is engaging with Machaut not as the target of an homage, but as the living force of an artist whose music breathes in the winds that shake his boughs. Use of untempered harmonics, transcribed note for note from the original, allows incidental commentary in this regard to seep through.
A second diptych, this time around Machaut’s Ballade XXVI: Donnez, Seigneur, transforms the gently sloping path of the original—in which countertenor David James at once renders the skin and the heart keeping it alive—into the wilder detours traced by the present recasting. And while the latter may seem more oblique in its structure, it also shares with its referent a clarity of expression. Both are neural mappings, very much alive in and beyond the confines of a single recorded performance. Even the wordless Hoquetus David of Machaut and Holliger’s responsory Triple Hoquet feel more like pieces of the same puzzle than distant cousins separated by time. Holliger gives us something of a granular synthesis of the former, an embodiment of Celan’s hurricane in the fullest sense.
A single voice retains the melody of Machaut’s Lay VII in a standalone arrangement, while guided improvisations flesh out its branches with unpredictable fruit. The Hilliards are best equipped to handle this flower without damaging a single petal. A beautiful piece that challenges not through its dissonances but through its consonances, as does its analogous In(ter)ventio a 3 und Plor- / Prol- / Or- atio for three violins, which from recitative beginnings morphs into a staggered prolation of time signatures, based on the Complainte of Machaut’s Remede de Fortune. That same piece lingers on in the final statement, in which it is combined with an “Epilogue” that unites voices and strings in quadrilateral fashion, distilled until only friction remains.
In a universe of countless musical systems, Holliger and his celestial body of work have always charted unprecedented orbits through the space-time continuum. Given the way in which he has refracted himself through Machaut, the sublimity of their intersection is clear, for both have stumbled on the fragility of human contact, tracing its origins just shy of rupture.