Strønen/Tanaka/Lea: Bayou (ECM 2633)

Thomas Strønen
Ayumi Tanaka
Marthe Lea
Bayou

Marthe Lea clarinet, voice, percussion
Ayumi Tanaka piano
Thomas Strønen drums, percussion
Recorded August 2018, Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Cover photo: Caterina Di Perri
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 9, 2021

From Thomas Strønen’s Time Is A Blind Guide emerges the drummer/bandleader alongside pianist Ayumi Tanaka, delineating a fresh triangle with clarinetist/vocalist/percussionist Marthe Lea. Though metaphysically grounded in free explorations of musical moments, Bayou has a rhizomatic quality that blends apparent influences ranging from Claude Debussy to Jimmy Giuffre. These genetic strands and more feel cohesive in their new body, intertwining in search of (and in fleeting possession of) wonder.

After immersing myself in this album’s details, I arranged a video chat with Strønen to explore its genesis and inner lives. I first asked him about the relationship between this trio and Time Is A Blind Guide. His response:

“It’s everything and nothing, in a way. I think the similarities are quite obvious in that I like working on space and all the things that are not said. But this trio is totally improvised, while Time Is A Blind Guide is my play garden. I see my role in it more as a composer than as a drummer. I know where the music is heading. The main idea of the trio was to explore ground rather than perform, without the pressure to be or turn into anything. By accident, we got asked to play somewhere. I recorded that concert on one microphone and played it for Manfred. He said it sounded very fresh and insisted that we bring it to the studio. We recorded for three hours in the morning. We had lunch, then started mixing. It was very relaxed. It was also the first time I recorded totally improvised for ECM and we were excited to see whether we could bring about the same interplay we had experienced during rehearsals.”

Having two different versions of the title track speaks to this multifaceted approach, through which one face reveals new features when illuminated differently. Yielding a Norwegian folk tune, it parallels the whisper of Strønen’s brushes with the raindrops of piano, bringing forth a touchless space in which breath becomes the language of primary communication. The song emerges on its own wings but hovers within sight like a hummingbird in dream-like slow motion—watching, waiting, and listening.

Strønen parallels this impression:

“Music is integral to their lives. I think you can hear that in the way they play. It’s not just skills or training but an extremely strong will to create an atmosphere and interplay that’s larger than all of us. We’re different musicians but we have the same attitude toward playing music, despite our distinct roles in a band. Ayumi and I are more delicate, but we never know what Marthe will pull out next. For example, this record was the first time she sung in the context of this trio. She is a free bird who stirs things up and makes them alive.”

“Pasha” skims wider waters, alighting at last on shore. The surface tension of the pond becomes the page for a delicate grammar, the arrangement of which etches its poetry where ink cannot remain. “Water was always with us,” says Strønen, who knew the trio and its music would be aquatic in nature. Beyond that, however, nothing was planned.

Lea’s clarinet in “Duryea” lends insight into the inner workings of flight as it navigates the tangle of forest brush it calls home. To that daylit scene “Nahla” and “Varsha” are the night—a tender submersion of cellular mapmaking for the impending dawn. The creaking of tired trees bracing themselves for winter melds with subtle changes in temperature and air current.

One aspect that makes this music so special is its lack of allegiance to dialogue. It renders different parts of a shared scene while finding sameness through difference. It has no other protagonist than the landscape itself, replete with waterways, pockets of lichen, and lives of its own. Such are the winding journeys of “Eyre” and the amphibious diary that is “Dwyn.” In these are whispers of distant climates as yet untouched by the trio’s collective dreaming. Strønen elaborates on the inner dynamics at play:

“What I like in this ensemble is that we are not necessarily talking to each other but always listening. Parallel musical ideas are going on at the same time with really big ears from all three of us. It’s a challenging way of communicating—trusting that what you do is essential to what the others do but not in a conventional way. The essence is still there whether I am present or not. Jazz is usually about leading to a special point; we are not searching for that. Ours is a more parallel way of communicating.”

Nowhere more so than in “Como” (an album highlight for its suspended qualities and understated glory), which coaxes the sun from its slumber before it dissipates the mist of “Chantara.” This is, perhaps, why Lea hums wordlessly, as no form of human meaning can capture that which refuses to be caged by semantics.

“It’s common for a record to define a band. This has the side effect of getting onto a one-way street. I can find myself wanting to recreate what we did on a record, but listening later I am happy to find out it didn’t. You play what you are.”

A profound reminder that we listen what we are as well. The bayou is a mirror and we are its reflection.

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