Nock/Stuart/Wilson/Zwartz: This World

This World brings together a new quartet of seasoned players. Recorded after a string of shows given in 2019 by Mike Nock (New Zealand, piano, who turns 80 this month), Hamish Stuart (Scotland, drums), Julien Wilson (Australia, tenor saxophone and effects) and Jonathan Zwartz (New Zealand, double bass)—all four of whom are based in Australia—the album glistens with music written especially for this studio session around a core of unmistakable experience. Said experience translates not into mountaintop pontificating for the fortunate few but rather into a grounded message that all can understand. The album’s title, like the Zwartz tune after which it is named, is therefore more than an anthem; it’s a mission statement from a group of musicians content in forgoing the flaunt in favor of the flavor.

Other examples of the bassist’s writing are “And in the Night Comes Rain” and “Home.” Where the latter comes across as being less about being home than about returning to it after a long time away, the former is a highlight of the set for its collective pause in anticipation of a storm. Instead of thunder, we get the gentle kiss of autumn as prelude to a soulful dance that goes from solid to liquid and back again.

These scenes highlight the evocative abilities of Wilson, who adds two parts blues (“Riverside”) and one part groove (“We Shall Rise Again”) to the compositional brew. As performer, the saxophonist renders a painterly wisdom that is fully integrated into its surroundings and is enhanced ever so subtly by an application of electronic effects. Whether lending sparkle and shine to “Any Heart” (a cinematic montage by Stuart in which the drummer’s vacillation between skating and dancing is equally wonderful to behold) or tempering the edges of Nock’s swinging “Old’s Cool,” he excels at unpacking vivid dreams beneath the surface of things.

The pianist, for his part, wields the most multicolored pen of them all, delivering the persistence of “The Dirge” with just as much conviction as he does the blush of “Aftermath” with gentle persuasion. Regardless of mode, he and his cohorts prove that at a time in history when division is the order of the day, four souls crafting melody together can abide by a deeper principle of love and listening.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Sun of Goldfinger: Congratulations to You

Most of the material on this record was captured at the first performance in 2010 by David Torn (guitars and electronics), Tim Berne (alto and baritone saxophones) and Ches Smith (drums and electronics). Known since then as Sun of Goldfinger, this power trio opened a sonic can of worms to be reckoned with that’s only now seeing the light of aural day.

Featuring three tracks of hefty proportion, the album opens with “Bat Tears,” in which alto, sampled in real time and cast into the active volcano that is Torn’s looping guitar, gives way to a skronky baritone, ending in a mix of drone and catharsis. Following this, “Coco Tangle” dances as if its pants were on fire (though, to be sure, this is honest music rendered in tough love). Sampling does the trick again this time around while arpeggiators and percussive accents from Smith fill in every pothole. That said, no roads herein stay smooth for too long and even the thickest tires of expectation will find themselves beautifully compromised by the terrain ahead.

Despite the fact that Sun of Goldfinger can break out the big guns when it feels so inclined, there’s a distinctly meditative heart beating at the center of it all. One hears this especially in the final and title track, where a train crossing signal-like guitar stretches over head-nodding drums before alto kicks in the door bearing gifts of awakening. The sheer depth of coherence that ensues is a balm to behold in these wounded times.

(This article, in its original form, appeared in the September 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Charlie Rauh: The Bluebell

Bluebell_Album cover

Stern Reason is to judgment come
Arrayed in all her forms of gloom:
Wilt thou my advocate be dumb?
No, radiant angel, speak and say
Why I did cast the world away;

Why I have persevered to shun
The common paths that others run;
And on a strange road journeyed on
Heedless alike of Wealth and Power—
Of Glory’s wreath and Pleasure’s flower.

These verses, which come to us by way of Emily Brontë and the history woven into her surname, light candles in a shadowy world. She and her sister Anne are the subjects of this wordless tribute, evoked through the strings of Charlie Rauh’s acoustic guitar. Recorded in the very home where he learned the instrument, The Bluebell is more than a collection of miniatures (each track averages about a minute and half) inspired by poetry. Rather, they are devotionals bound by the metaphysical leather of tribute, meditation, and emotional transference.

Two versions of the title track, one drawn from the veins of each sister, are as genetically distinct as they are seamless. Not only do we feel the stem, leaves, and petals of this bulbous hyacinth, but are more importantly lured by its fragrance. Indeed, scent abounds in the source texts, which Rauh inhales as inspiration and exhales through the compact wonders of “Watch Through The Darkest Hours Of Night” with nary an errant note.

Whether channeling doubts of biblical proportion in “Though Weak Yet Longing To Believe” or donning the protection of divine assurance in “Faith Shines Equal Arming Me From Fear,” the sentiments at hand show that such armor, known only to the God in whose name it is worn, is hidden from view, girded as it is about the soul. And so, if the feelings of uncertainty we encounter in “Careless Gifts Are Seldom Prized” are indicative of anything, it is that wisdom is made manifest in holy illumination. And as reflections of time in “We Were Not Once So Few” spread horizontally into the vertical regard of “With Purpose Pure And High,” we find ourselves alone yet unafraid. Only in that state of openness can we accept “A Little And A Lone Green Lane” as a reminder that our flesh is but the garment of pilgrims passing through.

And yet, the bluebell still stands, head bowed as if in prayer, holding on to its hymn of persistence. Thus, these melodies stare poignantly into the eyes of decay and smile as if to say, “It’s easy to hear music in the poetry. Let us never forget to hear poetry in the music.”

Gato Libre: Koneko

Koneko

The eighth album by Gato Libre, since 2015 a trio consisting of trumpeter Natsuki Tamura (who turns 69 this month), Yasuko Kaneko on trombone and Satoko Fujii on accordion, is a minimal and delightful context for the patient charm of Tamura’s compositions. By turns mysterious and whimsical, improvisational elements bring out the rapport of the trio, one built on deep listening, while prewritten material exploits their ability to hone in on what is most essential.

In that respect, the album’s title (Japanese for “kitten”) gives some insight into the blend of mystique and playfulness one experiences in these eight feline-themed scenes. Each track, in fact, is named for a different kind of cat. On the one hand, we encounter programmatic gems like “Ieneko” (domesticated cat) and “Bakaneko” (silly cat), both of which sport a range of textures and emotions while exhibiting Tamura’s painterly brilliance, as well as the avant-gardism of his formative years. On the other hand, we join the “Noraneko” (stray cat) and the “Yamaneko” (wild cat) on their nocturnal adventures, rendered in exquisite detail by Fujii’s starlight, Kaneko’s slinking motions and Tamura’s restless energy. Together, they wander through favorite haunts in search of sustenance in the spirit of survival. The latter tune feels like a folk song developing in slow motion and finds Kaneko in a particularly soulful mode.

Each musician, but especially Tamura, is content coloring both inside and outside the lines, allowing quiet atmospheres to unravel as they will until the closing “Kanbanneko.” The term refers to a cat that hangs out in a store (often seen sleeping in the window) and is well known by regular customers. Like its namesake, the music seems to insist on being left alone in a corner as the hustle and bustle of commerce hums in the background. And because the recording is only subtly processed, allowing for instruments’ natural reverberations to shine through, we can be sure that every meow is heard.

(This review originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Marcin Wasilewski Trio/Joe Lovano: Arctic Riff (ECM 2678)

2678

Marcin Wasilewski Trio
Joe Lovano
Arctic Riff

Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double bass
Michal Miskiewicz drums
Recorded August 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 26, 2020

Too much time, it seems, has passed since pianist Marcin Wasilewski and his trio with bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz graced the studio for our privileged scrutiny, and as soon as “Glimmer Of Hope” tickles the ear drum, we are reuniting with old friends. A glimmer is exactly what we encounter in Wasilewski’s pianism, which opens this tender vision with a play of light and shadow such as only he can render. In turning these movements into song, he opens a new portal through which to step on our way toward musical discovery. But then a new companion in Joe Lovano joins the shoulder-link of arms to block any who would even dream of passing across the double line of expectation. And so we trail behind, absorbing the language of their traversal. Three more selections by the bandleader, including the flowy sojourning of “Fading Sorrow” (a yielding stage for Kurkiewicz’s soloing) and the sparkler-to-fireworks groove of “L’Amour Fou,” along with Lovano’s “On The Other Side,” complete the in-group compositional picture. The latter tune unfurls a veritable tapestry from the tenorist’s bell and pictures the synergy of ears and fingers required to pull off this collaboration. Carla Bley’s “Vashkar” gets two treatments thereby. In keeping with its ever-deepening roots, and nourished by five decades of interpretation, the quartet taps into its historical embeddedness.

If these are the album’s bricks, then its mortar is mixed in freely improvised material. The nine-minute “Cadenza” is the most cohesive of the bunch, metaphysically speaking. Its balance of gentility and strength is downright beautiful, as is the linear unfolding of “Arco.” Where one moment might breed shimmering near-stillness and the next a fibrillation of darkness, neither mood dominates. Instead, the musicians follow where they are led without struggle. One hears it just as vividly in the nocturnal slink of “Stray Cat Walk” as in the restless leg syndrome of “A Glimpse.”

2678_Wasilewski Lovano_PF1

What really distinguishes this record, however, is the apparent gap between the trio’s interlocking poetry and Lovano’s hard-won prose. What at first may seem to be a disjunction actually opens up a space that can only be filled by the listener. By inserting ourselves into the equation, the proof becomes clear: our presence has been desired from inception to execution, our variable the final piece. And with that completion, we emerge on the other side of the equals side having carried the one of experience.

Scofield/Stewart/Swallow: Swallow Tales (ECM 2679)

Swallow Tales

John Scofield guitar
Steve Swallow bass
Bill Stewart drums
Recorded March 2019, The James L. Dolan Recording Studio at NYU Steinhardt, NY
Engineer: Tyler McDiarmid
Cover photo: Max Franosch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 12, 2020

Over 40 years of friendship and collaboration exist between guitarist John Scofield and his mentor, bassist Steve Swallow. But everything that happens here is in and of the moment. Playing the room with drummer Bill Stewart, they slowly unwrap one candy after another in the form of Swallow’s own timeless compositions. About them, Scofield says in this album’s press release: “They’re grounded in reality with cadences that make sense. They’re never just intellectual exercises, and they’re so melodic. They’re all songs, rather than ‘pieces.’ They could all be sung.” And sing the trio does in its own wordless way, drawing out less obvious nuances from familiar melodies and vice versa.

Between the laid-back groove of “She Was Young” and the slicker lockstep of “Radio,” an understated allure wiggles its way into the heart and nods to every beat. Along the way, each musician lays out a personal reflection of his métier. Scofield abounds in contrasts, bringing a hardened edge to the shadows of a ballad like “Away” just as comfortably as he dances light-footedly across the terrains of “Falling.” The latter is also a showcase for Swallow’s unerring sense of purpose and Baroque approach to syncopation, as is “Hullo Bolinas,” in which his soloing embraces retrospective charm.

Scofield Trio

But while the guitarist and bassist are true masters of their craft, it’s Stewart who holds my attention most throughout this swiftly realized session (the result of only four hours in the recording studio). The drummer’s glittering cymbals and rustic snare strike just the right balance, catching every detail of “Portsmouth Figurations” and extending its effect before it fades, luxuriating in a decaf version of “Awful Coffee” (a normally peppier tune), and bringing freshness to “Eiderdown” (the first tune Swallow ever wrote). But his grandest slam is in the opening breaks and leaping denouement of “In F”—a performance only decades of experience could yield.

And while each track comes preloaded with its own history (“She Was Young” being originally sung by Sheila Jordan on 1980’s Home and “Portsmouth Figurations” dating back to 1967’s Duster by Gary Burton), they make new history here in the present arrangement. And here we are, sitting on what feels like the wrong side of the fence, trying to make things right by holding on to that which shines a light on the inside. Thankfully, music like this hands us a match, already lit and waiting for our attention to lend it a fuse.

Oded Tzur: Here Be Dragons (ECM 2676)

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Oded Tzur
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
Cover photo: Jean-Guy Lathuilière
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: Sei Solo (ECM New Series 2551/52)

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Thomas Zehetmair
Sei Solo

Thomas Zehetmair Baroque violin
Recorded August 2016, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Hannelore Guittet
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
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.