Nicolas Masson tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet
Colin Vallon piano
Patrice Moret double bass
Lionel Friedli drums
Recorded April 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 16, 2018
If the blood ties between jazz and beauty were ever in doubt, one would need only spin Travelers to restore faith in that very principle. Swiss reed player Nicolas Masson’s quartet is more than a plush setting for nine original compositions; it’s a veritable life in miniature with its own triumphs and stumbles. One could hardly imagine a more stunning outfit to don while walking down these hallowed halls. Along with pianist Colin Vallon, a formidable bandleader in his own right, Masson joins bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Lionel Friedli for a journey that is equal parts introversion and extroversion. This isn’t some ad hoc studio creation, however. It’s a band 12 years strong. I asked Masson via email what it meant for him to submit such a mature quartet to the engineering scalpel:
“We had already released an album named Thirty Six Ghosts in 2009 on Clean Feed Records but our music had changed quite a lot since and it felt like the right time to document the band at this moment of its evolution. The fact that we have such a long history together helped us get straight to the point in the studio.”
And how, I wondered, did the band come together?
“I was working at the time with my first band, featuring Russ Johnson on trumpet, Eivind Opsvik on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. I wanted to have a band in Switzerland as well (I had just moved back from New York) and was also exploring different styles of music which required a different sound. So I started the band with Patrice Moret, Lionel Friedli, and a guitar player that was soon to be replaced by Colin Vallon on Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. To me they were the best musicians available in the country for the music I had in mind, and they still are! But more than that—and most important in the end—is our connection on a human level. I feel like we grew up as a band at the same time as we grew up as human beings, and we became that unit. It’s as if the musical concept was replaced over time by the band itself.”
This band-as-bond aesthetic is easily perceptible in the set’s opener, “Gagarine.” In its constantly shifting air currents, the saxophone feels like an extension of itself, sustained by song. This feeling is magnified in “Fuchsia,” wherein synesthetic pleasures unfold with a welcoming combination of precision and freedom. Vallon is a wonder here, his every note the reflection of Masson’s shimmering moonlight.
If descriptions of this music lend themselves so effortlessly to visual analogues, that is perhaps because Masson is also an accomplished photographer. One of his images, in fact, adorns the cover of this album, in addition to a handful of other ECM sleeves.
“Photography always occupied a very important place in my life, a passion surpassed only by music. At one point, I never went to a concert without my camera. It helped me understand music on a different level, through a different prism. At first I wasn’t really familiar with the musicians I was photographing: Randy Weston, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Archie Shepp, Dewey Redman, The World Saxophone Quartet, John Zorn, Tim Berne, Miles Davis (yes!)…and it helped me get intimate with the making of the music. I was observing each of their movements, each eye contact, each interaction happening through my lens, while I was intensely listening. Then I felt I needed to make a choice between music and photography, so at 19 years old I boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway in Moscow and spent almost six months in Asia, taking as many images as possible. These long months away from music were fantastic, but I missed my saxophone too much, so I took a flight from Singapore to Geneva, grabbed my horn, and left for New York City! Over time music and photography became inseparable from each other. I need photography to feed my musical imagination and my musical experiences to guide my eye when I’m away from my instrument. Sometimes I like to think that I hear images and see sounds. Now regarding ECM, it also makes total sense to me since so much care is given to the visual side of any of their productions. It has to be a complete experience.”
Said completeness is made possible by Masson’s attentive bandmates, each of whom brings polishes his own facet of a holistic jewel, and for whom he has written compositions with particular souls in mind. There’s the painterly journey of “The Deep,” which dedicatee Friedli renders a beautiful struggle against the passage of time, and “Wood,” for Moret. The latter’s abstract yet rooted turns are indicative of the bassist’s oceanic sensibilities. Vallon, for his part, is a color mixer and blender whose palette exceeds the bounds of its own habitation, especially in the title track, a masterful duet with its composer. Each of these trusted friends nurtures Masson’s themes as seeds of unexpected growth. The saxophonist himself digs into deepest emotional reserves on “Philae,” a touchstone for its superbly articulated tenor, piecing together a landscape of monochromatic integrity.
To my ears, this music is deeply connected to memory. Masson agrees:
“I do rely on memories to find inspiration: visual, aural, olfactive, light, shapes, past experiences, sensations of places I’ve been to, people I’ve known, and so forth. I’m not exactly sure why, but it’s true that when I write music, most of the time a reminiscence is at the root. Maybe that’s common with people who have lived through indelible experiences early on in their lives.”
In these respects, both “Almost Forty” and “Blurred” seem to play with the idea of recollection and its way of filling in the gaps when reality cannot quite fully be captured. The first of these is a tender ballad that pushes the blood flow of Friedli’s cymbals through Moret’s thick arteries as the life force behind Vallon’s transformation of the keyboard into canvas, while the second finds the clarinet paving the way for a softer landing.
Such clarity of storytelling makes ECM an ideal home for this band, as in the nocturnal shading of “Jura.” It’s a solemn yet trustworthy way to end the day, kissing the present moment goodbye to welcome slumber. Says Masson of working with producer Manfred Eicher in this context:
“It’s such a privilege to let someone so uniquely gifted and experienced tell us if we’re going in the right direction or if we should try to expose things differently. It feels like working with one of the greatest filmmakers. You bring the story, the dialogues, and the actors, and he takes you on location, brings the cameramen, the lights, the right lenses and cameras, and offers his vision to help you realize your project. He keeps you on the right track and isn’t afraid to tell you when you’ve overplayed something. I feel very fortunate to have had the privilege to work with him, I am certainly looking forward to next occasion.”
And so are we, on the other side of the screen.