John Holloway: Der Türken Anmarsch – Biber/Muffat (ECM New Series 1837)

 

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber
Georg Muffat
Der Türken Anmarsch

John Holloway violin
Aloysia Assenbaum organ
Lars Ulrik Mortensen harpsichord
Recorded July 2002 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Many of the musicians we know and adore come to us only through recorded media. They step into a studio, bear their souls into a digital void, and send the results out into a world of ears. These blessed creators may seem immortal to us, for even when their bodies are gone they continue living through the art they have gifted to humanity. Such thoughts weighed on my mind when I first listened to Der Türken Anmarsch, for in addition to signing off a fourteen-year project by baroque violinist John Holloway to engage the fascinations of composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704), it was the last recording to feature Holloway’s wife, organist Aloysia Assenbaum, who along with harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen fashioned the most distinctive continuo in Baroque music.

My first Biber encounter came via Monica Hugget’s phenomenal Birds, Beasts and Battles recording on Channel Classics. I was immediately enlivened by its bold strokes and programmatic flair. Yet for this program, Holloway and company offer us five sonatas by the Bohemian-Austrian master in a more devotional vein, along with another by contemporary Georg Muffat (1653-1704). The former’s Sonata “Victori der Christen” in A minor sets the spiritual tone, through which shines the depth and complexity of his faith. Its ebb-and-flow energies enchant from the first. Here, as throughout, the rich continuo hovers like an energy waiting to be unleashed in the overflow of trills that spills from the violin’s gut strings. The remaining four Biber sonatas are culled from his 1681 Sonatae Violino solo. The opening birdcalls of the Sonata I in A major take full advantage of the scordatura so favored by the composer. Rocking a fulcrum of speed and lethargy, it explores modes at once Monteverdian and ahead of their time. The D-dorian Sonata II showcases Holloway’s dynamic range, as in an early passage for which his playing blends so well with the organ that a ghostly, clarinet-like overtone is created. The Sonata V in E minor has by far the most attention-grabbing introduction of the set. Like its cousins, it alternates between slow and fast, never staying in one mode for too long and thereby emphasizing merits of both. Biber’s melodic lines are always so flexible. They circle, splitting themselves into leaders and followers, ascending and descending as they do in the A-major Sonata VIII, which scales a hilly landscape into the roiling plains of Muffat’s Sonata Violino solo in D major. Its stunning melodies sound at first familiar, only to carry the secrets of places lost to us. It is both the end of its own cycle and of the album as a whole, a masterpiece truly on par with Biber’s unflagging virtuosity and inventive embodiments.

Holloway deftly mixes styles and tones, at times getting a rustic sound out of his D string while soaring effervescently on the E. Yet what ultimately makes him such a consummate performer is that, unlike some, who despite their great talents tend to embellish to the point of distraction, he brings something raw and unfettered to his studied approach, which is only intensified through the somehow gentle ferocity of his style. When we hear someone like Holloway we can truly appreciate the amount of embellishment already encoded into the music of this richly productive era. And when Assenbaum unfurls the final carpet as faders escort the music on its way from the chamber, we can take comfort in knowing that through such vital recordings as this the art of her and others like her will live in our hearts and minds so long as music is loved.

Sidsel Endresen: So I Write (ECM 1408)

 

Sidsel Endresen
So I Write

Sidsel Endresen vocal
Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, fluegelhorn, percussion
Django Bates piano
Jon Christensen percussion
Recorded June 1990 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sidsel Endresen’s So I Write was the first ECM jazz vocal album I ever bought. While that in and of itself would have been enough to make it special, the music housed within its windswept sleeve made it unquantifiably more so. Just holding it in my hand above the used CD bin from which I’d fished it, I could already feel its shaded vistas spreading through me.

The title track is also the album’s first, and one could hardly dream of a more affecting introduction to this Norwegian chanteuse’s inner life. It is a sound-world in which the word is its own creator, one that utters itself into being in the floating pall of its residual meanings. Accompanied by the staggering palette of drummer Jon Christensen and the punctilious spirals of pianist Django Bates, Endresen travels far and wide along extemporaneous landscapes. “This Is The Movie” bolds and underlines the cinematic qualities of her breathy poetry, flitting through stills like sadness through transient life and tenderly exploring the complementary nature of love. In “Dreamland” she exchanges light for dark, turning a lullaby into a personal mantra in the process. The ever-lyrical horns of Nils Petter Molvær, who comments on every stirring from a respectful distance, bleed into “Words,” which spins from his plaintive salutation a letter of unbridled subtlety. Here we find ourselves embraced by the dangers of dreams and the depths of their promises. This leads us to explore in “Mirror Images” the boundaries of the image as the boundaries between flesh and self.

The mood takes a noticeable turn in the more abstract “Spring,” which separates its eponymous season as if it were a theater curtain, throwing the spotlight of an empty house on to a character whose life moves an idea of retribution through chaos. “Truth” carries this idea further into a purely rhythmic language before the human voice lays its biases on the water’s surface and casts the thrills of illusion into the emotional deep end, where we are met by “Horses In Rain.” Endresen fashions from this image a babbling where metaphor speaks for all, and where Bates’s thematic reflections close the door on this enigmatic date as would a mother exit her child’s room once the bedtime story has worked its magic.

So I Write is a musical gem and the perfect companion to any Norma Winstone album on your shelf. If these are only half the stories told, then we can take great comfort in writing our own remainder.

Shankar: Pancha Nadai Pallavi (ECM 1407)

 

Shankar
Pancha Nadai Pallavi

Shankar double violin, vocals
Zakir Hussain tabla
Vikku Vinayakram ghatam
Caroline talam, sruthi
Recorded July 1989 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Shankar’s last album for ECM may just be his finest. Pancha Nadai Pallavi shows the violinist at his creative peak and weaves an unforgettable atmosphere. From the solemn cover photograph to the flawless production, it is a perfect package and a fitting label swan song for an association stretching full circle back to the comparable masterpiece that is 1981’s Who’s To Know.

Shankar’s playing, however you look at it, is a language of the utmost depth and beauty. His voice is smoky, arising from those strings like an echo of the inner spirit that animates his craft. This traditional raga features three cycles, the first two of which—the Ragam and the Tanam—foreground the improvisational skills of the soloist, while the concluding Pallavi emphasizes the rhythmic contributions of the percussionists in dialogue. Although Carnatic purists may be put off by Shankar’s modern touches, the music soars in ways that far outsoar its criticism.

Shankar’s sound is a constant balance of skyward uplift and subterranean excavation. From the thrums and strums of his 10-string violin’s lowest utterances to his harmonic-peaked runs, he scales full ladders of octaves in but single exhalations of his creative breath. And although the violin parts are multi-tracked, they shine like facets of the same crystal. His lines hold on to a core tone. No matter how far they waver from it, they are like rivers that both flow out from and back to their sources. In the process they provide a rhythmic drive in the absence of the percussion waiting in the wings—such that once the voices of Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram do make themselves known, it feels as if they’ve always been there, moving but never audible until now. The dynamics of this expansion alone are enough to dazzle, but with Shankar’s burrowing melodies their effects become inescapable. Moving from passages of blinding speed to lyrical laments at a mere stroke, they glow in a spectrum of colors. On that note, we must not neglect Shankar ally Caroline Morgan, whose drones and timekeeping unfold their inner depths in those brief moments of rest. Her humility rings like the voice of the firmament, stilling us in anticipation of the flights to come and baying into the beautiful call and response that leaves us spellbound at the raga’s finish.

Pancha is, along with the aforementioned Who’s To Know, by far Shankar’s best work on record. It is also an album that most cleanly showcases the capabilities of his custom instrument. One feels its lows in the rib cage, its highs in the farthest reaches of our minds. Through it Shankar sustains a purity of tone, a moral and spiritual center around which he swings the caduceus of his melodies with eyes closed and arms open. He looks into the stars and sees the strings between them not as constellations but as musical notations. And in these he paints the picture of a god-given gift that has left an indelible mark of greatness.

Valentin Silvestrov: Silent Songs (ECM New Series 1898/99)

 

Valentin Silvestrov
Silent Songs

Sergey Yakovenko baritone
Ilya Scheps piano
Valentin Silvestrov piano
Recorded 1986 in Moscow
Engineer: Piotr Kondrashin
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Down through shivering fog, the moon now
Makes its way across the night,
Soaking melancholy meadows
In a melancholy light.
–from “Winter Journey” by Alexander Pushkin (trans. A. Z. Foreman)

When producer Manfred Eicher decided to make the Stille Lieder of Valentin Silvestrov available on ECM, he accomplished one of the most unprecedented rescue efforts from Russian label Melodiya’s peerless archive. The title, I have it on good word, is more accurately rendered as “Quiet Songs,” and indeed they are startlingly present in their subtlety and depth of thematic power. Silvestrov’s score demands that the trained baritone sing at the threshold of his capacity, enabling a strained, vulnerable quality to what might normally be a commanding eloquence. Yet in that vulnerability the singer spreads wings that perhaps have remained folded since childhood, arresting the heart via a new level of narrative intimacy. The piano, played to gossamer effect by Ilya Scheps, floats Sergey Yakovenko’s emphatic wonders on a current of ink and time. These melodies look deep into the core of every poem (though the music is so evocative one needn’t even refer to the translations), and find in themselves the means to flourish in a space stilled by anticipation.

These are mournful songs of lost love, unstoppable nostalgia, and (sometimes satiric) exile, and from their nearly two-hour expanse one is hard-pressed to choose favorites. Yet in the interest of exposition I can hardly ignore the heartfelt intensities—in both composition and performance—of Silvestrov’s Pushkin settings, in particular “Winter Journey” and the elegiac “Verses Composed At Night At A Time Of Insomnia.” Like footprints in snow, they are deep and prone to disappearance. By contrast, two Lermentov settings—“When The Cornfield, Yellowing, Stirs” and “Mountain Summits”—stretch Yakovenko to the cycle’s highest registers, overflowing therefrom with honest innocence. In these one senses the same diffuse gaze as Yesenin’s “Autumn Song,” which aside from being one of the most heart-stopping of the set also lifts us above the landscapes through which we otherwise trudge in desperation.

The crowning highlight in this regard, however, is Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which twists the mind into a simulacrum of its own cognition. Having sung this piece myself, my feelings toward it are admittedly skewed, though I will venture to say that if it doesn’t move you then nothing in these lieder will. “La Belle” is also representative of Scheps’s sensitivity, which renders the keys as might the wind rustle whispers from leaves. It is just present enough to carry along the voice without overpowering it, allowing its contours the grace of self-definition. Similarly, Shevchenko’s “Farewell, O World, O Earth” inspires some of Silvestrov’s most inspired songcraft, which he would revisit in his Requiem for Larissa.

The program ends with Four Songs after Osip Mandelstam (noteworthy is “Schubert On Water”), with the composer at piano. This quartet is significant not only for being a premier recording, but also for being a rare vocal postludium that, perhaps more succinctly than anything in the Silvestrov oeuvre, encapsulates Silvestrov’s post facto aesthetic with dignity and deference.

The writing throughout worms its way into the mind and nests itself where it cannot be reached by waking memory. Rather, it finds slumber in hopes of our own, seeking in the texts a source of fated sound. This is music that stops the heart and starts the mind. An incalculably important recording, at last given the permanence it deserves.

Without a doubt one of the top ten New Series albums of all time.

Aparis: s/t (ECM 1404)

 

Aparis

Markus Stockhausen trumpets, fluegelhorn
Simon Stockhausen synthesizers, saxophone
Jo Thönes acoustic and electronic drums
Recorded August 1989 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The time has come that you shall remember who you are.
Forever have you been and shall eternally be.
You have come to feel the joy of creation,
to see its beauty and infinitely love all there is.
For all is thyself.
Each moment you create yourself and a thousand worlds around.
Your being is bliss, perfection, and light.
Rejoice, my friend, rejoice!

Aparis was an ephemeral band comprised of trumpeter Markus Stockhausen, his brother Simon (a sound artist and composer), and percussionist Jo Thönes. Although Markus does, of course, bring his characteristic sweep to nearly every stretch he plays, it is Simon whose contributions shine brightest in this atmospheric set of six. In them one may locate a range of influences, spanning the ECM spectrum from Pat Metheny (“Rejoice”) and Terje Rypdal (“Aparis”) to Oregon (“Carnaval”) and a smattering of Jon Hassell here and there for good measure. That being said, the results are fresh and original and bob with a decidedly aquatic sense of temporal space.

The nearly 17-minute title track is by far the most effective. It begins in a cavern of icicles amid looming shadows as Markus’s lone voice oozes from the stone like an afterlife. With the addition of bass and drum lines, steady yet ever ambient, that trumpet jumps through even airier hoops in flanged clothing. A sequencer resolves from the mists, soprano sax in tow. As if to confirm Rypdal’s possible involvement, a synth electric guitar rises toward the end. Next is “Poseidon,” which after an opening state of frenetic group activity launches into a synth-driven ride, a preamble to the expansive territories painted by Markus in the colors of night. “Rejoice” links back to the album’s opening strains, discovering along its winding roads that the journey is already the destination. Distorted recitations over a bed of sonic nails curl themselves into a protective ball and roll into the sun with all the surety of a dreamer awakened, leaving “Peach” to cry with lyrical finality, careening across the horizon with a focused song and impressions of a clear day.

Aparis is not without its missteps (the synth-heaviness of “High Ride,” for example, detracts from its punch), but overall its impressions seeps through you smoothly and at the speed of life. Like the flames on the album’s cover, they bleed from a scar in the air, hanging souls like ethereal laundry. Together, they are a marriage of creationism and evolution in sound.

John Surman: Adventure Playground (ECM 1463)

 

John Surman
Adventure Playground

John Surman baritone and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock bass
Tony Oxley drums
Recorded September 1991 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

John Surman’s Adventure Playground is an appendix to Paul Bley’s previous quartet efforts, only now we find them in the company of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Tony Oxley. And while the session does drip with the same brooding viscosity one would come to expect, the added colors of Oxley enhance the music’s inner states with endless novelty. Take, for instance, the anthemic frenzy he builds in his sole compositional contribution, “Just For Now,” by which he holds smelling salts under the nose of the listener’s attention. And again in Surman’s “Quadraphonic Question,” a lumbering yet somehow airy thing to which the rules of interpretation can only bow in appreciation of their own dismantling, his talents are especially brilliant, describing a host of people and places in bursts of expansive inquiries while managing to give those delicate soprano lines all the room they need to weep.

Not to be outdone, Surman rustles up a fine set of tunes from his own wellspring. Between the utterly gorgeous strains of “As If We Knew” and the nocturnal visions of “Twisted Roots” there is plenty to return to for future listening, while the baritone of “Duet For One” wanders up a long and teetering ladder until it can see above the clouds and, with a hand over the eyes, pinpoint a new destination on the horizon.

The unfathomable smoothness of that baritone is also a defining voice in “Figfoot,” the first of three tunes from Bley, who casts his own two cents with Oxley into an off-kilter bass line. Its rhythmic way thus shown, the music seems regard us with slogging humor. This is a dark swing of a piece with a characteristic tarnish, weathered like the patina of a familiar instrument. Bley hones his focus in “Twice Said Once,” yet another veil of intense and careful spontaneity through which the opaque visions of Surman’s bass clarinet leave us primed for the bluesy slice of gorgeousness that is “Seven.”

Peacock’s “Only Yesterday” may be the album’s plaintive opener, but it feels just as much like its conclusion. From a pianistic shower and tender reeds, it channels a flowing rivulet stained by the pigment of an unknown land. Peacock and Oxley dance somewhere upstream, bringing to their frolic an abiding sense of melancholy. In this percolating world of dreams and mythologies one finds an ever-visible thread running through it all. From this filament one can gather neither beginning nor end, but only the points one may grasp and allow it to lead one where it may. As with the album as a whole, it is a fully formed sphere even before the first note is played, waiting only for the light of our ears to reveal its more surprising topographies.

Agnes Buen Garnås/Jan Garbarek: Rosensfole – Medieval Songs from Norway (ECM 1402)

 

Agnes Buen Garnås
Jan Garbarek
Rosensfole: Medieval Songs from Norway

Agnes Buen Garnås vocal
Jan Garbarek synthesizers, percussion instruments, soprano and tenor saxophones
Recorded Autumn 1988 at Bel Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Ingar Helgesen and Ulf Holland
Produced by Jan Garbarek and Manfred Eicher

One can hardly overstate the innovativeness of saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Having started as a strong arm of free jazz impressionism, Garbarek quickly turned to the future by mining the past, regaling the world of recorded music with an historical dimension. The crowning achievement of these efforts remains Rosensfole, for which we put the spotlight on folk singer Agnes Buen Garnås in lush settings of synthesizer, percussion, and tenor and soprano saxophones. These two complementary forces touch their cool torches to a tincture of medieval songs from their native Norway, making for an album that could exist nowhere but on ECM, a label ever at the forefront of vivacious interpretations of antiquities with the languages of the here and now.

Such explorations had by then already manifested themselves in Garbarek’s work, but with Garnås his vision was deepened in an entirely new direction. It is also because of her that we have the current program, which reads like a catalog of her work in the field. The scope of her commitment is clearest in “Innferd,” which comes from none other than the singer’s mother. Her bright calls to power blend the word into image and both into air, filling the listener with countless narrative possibilities. (On that note, one needs hardly a translated word within reach in order to appreciate the evocativeness thereof.) The title song carries forth an especially potent vibe, which is heightened by Garbarek’s attentive percussion and synth dulcimer strains. Like many of the tracks thereafter, its spell breaks all too quickly, leaving us still and in dire need of the nourishment that comes in the 16-minute “Margjit Og Targjei Risvollo.” Here the music heaves with the weight of legend, bringing the freshness of its wounds to bear upon the unsuspecting listener with unwavering drama.

In the wake of this epic statement, “Maalfri Mi Fruve” peaks above the mounting waves in an intimate call and response. This stunner sits at the edge of a towering abyss of life (and a love of the same), segueing us into sonic flowers like “Venelite” and “Signe Lita” that morph into drum-heavy expositions of the plains. The latter, along with the droning “Grisilla,” unlocks its secrets one string at a time, floating freely and with the tinge of a lullaby—its sweetness veneered by a hint of mortality—before riding into the sunset on a steed of light and poetry. “Stolt Øli” gives us an even bolder taste of the salty air, furthering that ride through a cloud-shadowed landscape of crumbling stone castles and widening vistas, while “Lillebroer Og Storebroer” diffuses its gallop with electronic voices surrounding a blacksmith’s beat.

Garnås ends this timeless date with “Utferd,” which yodels across the skies with the surety of a shepherd folding into pasture and melts into Garbarek’s plaintive whale song. The latter’s reeds are similarly understated throughout, providing nary a leading line but thickly drawn chords and ephemeral appendages.

Although Rosensfole may not have caught on so noticeably stateside, it proved to be an eye-opener in Norway, where generations of up-and-coming jazz musicians took it as a window into the neglected corners of their craft. One can still hear its influence in the work of Steve Tibbetts and in crossover acts like Vas. A fitting companion to Trio Mediaeval’s Folk Songs, Rosensfole shows a side of Garbarek’s evocative abilities heard only on his solo albums and, more importantly, has in Garnås introduced many to a voice for the ages.

Shankar: M.R.C.S. (ECM 1403)

Shankar
M.R.C.S.

Shankar double violin
Zakir Hussain tabla
Vikku Vinayakram ghatam
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded 1987 and 1989 at Studio Bauer, Ludwigsburg and Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Martin Wieland and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Completed and mixed 1989 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Multi-instrumentalist L. Shankar’s fascinating evolution as a musician and composer took yet another intimate turn with M.R.C.S. Dedicated to Shankar’s father, V. Lakshminarayana, it also boasts master percussionists Zakir Hussain (tabla), Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam), and drummer Jon Christensen. The depths of the album’s experiences are forever aquatic, as in the opening “Adagio,” which floats Shankar’s double violin insights on a dark and winding current. Filmic and vivid, its gauche stretches a fine canvas for the pigments that follow. “All I Care” marries the rhythmic edge of “March” (an interlude from Christensen) with Shankar’s cosmic pizzicato and gossamer comet trails, the latter reaching glorious improvisational heights that can only end in fadeout, lest their perpetuity be harmed. The music travels away from us, ever tuneful, into the tabla-infused “Reasons.” Here, Hussain trail-marks a scurrying snare, backing more winged artistry from the leader. The lilting, homespun feeling of “Back Again” unravels from a deceptively simple line a heartfelt wash, as does “Al’s Hallucinations,” in which the melodiousness of Hussain’s tabla enhances the music’s playful melancholy. After the waltz-like and romantic “Sally,” Hussain and Vinayakram carry us on the back of a “White Buffalo” into the sparkle of “Ocean Waves.” For this final breath, Shankar adds a veneer of piano over his reverberant orchestrations, thereby ending this journey where it began: in and of the tide.

Shankar’s sense of melody is endearing and luminous, familiar from the first. Like a great klezmer clarinetist, he weaves a song that is at once mournful and exuberant.

Proof yet again that “fusion” is a misnomer. This is simply wonderful music that need be nothing else.