Julia Hülsmann Trio: Imprint (ECM 2177)


Julia Hülsmann Trio

Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double-bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2010 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Peer Espen Ursfjord
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For its sophomore ECM outing, the Julia Hülsmann Trio looks deeper into the mirror. The eponymous pianist dovetails with bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling for a set of 12 introspective, but never indifferent, tunes. Hülsmann’s past experience with vocalists shows in her composing, as well as in the restraint (engendered by producer Manfred Eicher’s presence) to let lines sing in the absence of extraneous color. Her “Rond point” introduces the lush sound-world before us with a pianism that is gently insistent and provides a soothing sky for some early bass flights. The forested tenderness thereof primes us for the powerful considerations of “Grand Canyon,” which features some of Köbberling’s finest drumming early on in the set. Yet just when we think we’ve found our hook, the attractive spin between Hülsmann and Muellbauer hooks us back. Hülsmann’s stony chords etch a river’s path through eons of thematic searching, settling on an almost prayerful style. Such gives-and-takes characterize a session brimming with sense and unanimity (though nowhere more so than in “Juni”). Even the playful dissonances of “A Light Left On,” coming together and apart like shadows in drawn window shades, feel plush with logic in the wake of their unexpected ending. And while Hülsmann’s blossoms of creativity are bright in “Lulu’s Paradise,” a veritable children’s illustration come to life, it is her Thelonious Monk tribute, “Who’s Next,” that expresses her intuition for thematic mazes to the utmost: the start is also the finish. Another highlight from her pen is “(Go And Open) The Door.” Glowing like embers in a fireplace whose name is youth, it whispers hints of “Frère Jacques” over the music’s surface. With an undeniably oceanic energy, it crashes over shoreline rocks, leaving Muellbauer’s loveliest solo of the set in full lighthouse view before transitioning seamlessly into another from Hülsmann, who stokes the band’s locomotive furnace to heightened momentum. Even at such relative peaks of focus, the trio maintains such depth of control that the full landscape never once fades from view.

(Photo by Volker Beushausen)

Whether or not because of his history with the instrument, Eicher has culled an especially skillful roster of bassists over the years, to which we can emphatically add Muellbauer. While I hesitate to pick a star out of such a democratically arranged date, it is he who shines with the most varicolored light. Aside from the fluid soloing referenced above, he contributes two originals, of which “Ritual” is the album’s smoothest. It is a masterful track on all counts, and one that would fit hand-to-glove into any Bobo Stenson Trio record. Hülsmann’s gorgeous grounding and engagingly jagged paths make this the standout of the album. Köbberling also offers two of his own, contrasting the heartfelt “Storm In A Teacup” with the porous renderings of “Zahlen bitte,” filled gap for gap by Hülsmann’s unerring ear.

The set is rounded out by an Austrian-German show tune entitled “Kauf dir einen bunten Luftballon.” This 1940s ditty piles on the nostalgia tenfold, wafting through the years like mist after rain. Its abbreviated denouement speaks to the ephemeral nature of life—a subtle and perhaps intended theme, as the song was a favorite of Hülsmann’s late mother. The crystalline recording, courtesy of engineer Peer Espen Ursfjord (whose attention to detail also gives Purcor is breathy edge), allows everything from the brush of dampers on strings to the shifting of the very air to resonate with purpose.

One can interpret the title of Imprint in a variety of ways, but I choose to see it in the psychological sense, whereby living organisms are shaped and influenced by their environment and interactions with others: a fitting analogy for the fulfillment of the piano trio as an emblematic combination of the genre, and for the label that has boiled it down to a science.

(To hear samples of Imprint, click here.)

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