Danish String Quartet: Adès / Nørgård / Abrahamsen (ECM New Series 2453)


Danish String Quartet
Adès / Nørgård / Abrahamsen

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded May 2015, Reitstadel Neumarkt in der Operpfalz
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: May 6, 2016

Although violinist Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri Quartet may have coined the term Indivisible by Fourto title his chamber music memoir, it would be just as fitting on the cover of the Danish String Quartet’s extraordinary ECM debut. The feeling of coherence achieved herein sheds new light on a longstanding genre in a program of gradual corporeality.

Harmonics and pizzicati constitute the building blocks of Arcadiana (1994) by British composer Thomas Adès. Violist Asbjørn Nørgaard forms the spine of its nascent stirrings, providing flexion and support to every change of comportment. Brief as they are, suspensions drop hints of their own volition, each a crumb of self-reflection. The fourth, entitled “Et… (tango mortale),” is the most jagged of these, while the tender sixth, “O Albion,” takes us into swaddling darkness. Gathering them requires initiations both declamatory and soothing, and reveals an underlying psychological realism. This is music that seeks, even as it is found.

The Quartetto Breve (1952) of Per Nørgård finds cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin planting feet, thereby lending traction to the Danish composer’s robust sensitivity. Like a headlong rush slowed to the tempo of dissection, the opening Lento frames scenic changes with curatorial spirit. This fiercely diurnal piece reveals its truth, however, in the final Allegro risoluto: a space where playfulness ephemerally abounds yet feels indelible. Resolution is not a farewell, but a welcoming of change. Affirmation, angularity, and trembling prevail.

Violinists Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland are the arms and hands of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s fascinating 10 Preludes (1973). Their opening lob casts us into a lake of voices. Abrahamsen possesses an uncanny ability to attune listeners to a heartbeat that cannot be heard from the outside, and emphasizes as much through his distinctly percussive palette. There’s much to discover in this color wheel of vignettes, at once flowing and interruptive. The eighth is especially wondrous and calms us for the final dance, by which indications of hieroglyphic proportion animate themselves in anticipation of the future.

In spite of the apparent influences (Nørgård drawing from the well of Bartók) and pedagogical relationships (Abrahamsen being the former’s pupil) documented in the album’s booklet, the music suggests its own associations by the power of an innate desire to be known. Let our ears, then, be the vessels worthy of their drink.

Anouar Brahem: Blue Maqams (ECM 2580)

2580 X

Anouar Brahem
Blue Maqams

Anouar Brahem oud
Dave Holland double bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Django Bates piano
Recorded May 2017 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Nate Odden
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: October 13, 2017

If you’ve ever awoken from a dream with enchanting music on the brain, only to have it fade as the day wears on, Anouar Brahem’s Blue Maqamsmay just recapture the feeling of preserving it. The album is at once a return to form and a new direction for the Tunisian oudist, reuniting him with bassist Dave Holland (cf. 1998’s Thimar) and recording for the first time with drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates.

The introductory oud of “Opening Day,” solo but never alone, is a voice of pale light out of darkness, a careful witness of things just visible enough to understand. Holland listens from the periphery before locking step. DeJohnette feathers the edges, while Bates offers his gentle inclusions with the felicity of a poet. Thus complete, the quartet’s sound embarks as one body, lucid and self-aware.

Patience is the blood of Blue Maqams, as proven in “La Nuit.” Arpeggios from the keyboard are the nerves to Brahem’s soft impulses as deep notes flow duskily beneath. Only after six and a half minutes do bass and drums make their anchorage known, a formula replicated in “The Recovered Road to Al-Sham.” Such meticulously rooted stems produce ample flowers, and none so supple as the title track. Here Brahem and DeJohnette engage dialectically before a snaking theme works its way into the ventricles. Brahem’s cadenza—a thread of mournfulness in an otherwise peaceful weave—is the album’s conscience.

Bates delights in the duet “La Passante,” a tender segue into “Bom Dia Rio.” The latter is, along with “Bahia,” the smoothest joint of the set. A seamless ride through ocean waves and playful nights, it builds passion out of thin air and contrasts with “Persepolis’s Mirage,” in which we encounter something convoluted, emotional, emigrational. “Unexpected Outcome” closes the door by opening another. A steady rhythm section gives Brahem and Bates plenty of room to glide as the bandleader’s voice carries winged messages. Everything funnels into a final shimmer, making for one of the most stunning assemblages to ever graze its hands across ECM waters.

Live from Norway: Reporting from Nutshell and Nattjazz 2018

Traveling and listening share common strategies of description. A metaphor of choice was suggested in Voss, Norway, where this correspondent found himself enjoying dinner and a concert in the garden of Vossa Jazz Festival director Trude Storheim. Even more than the fine company, the local paragliders soaring overhead illustrated what I was hearing. Their gravity-defying navigation of thermals mimicked the circular breathing of saxophonist André Roligheten, who, with fellow reedplayer Jørgen Mathisen, bassist Rune Nergard and drummer Axel Skalstad, cut against the grain of our sunlit surroundings with passages of brooding, enchanting abandon while their improvisatory arcs held visual analogue in the sky that framed them. Known collectively as Rune Your Day, they did anything but, instead completing a larger atmospheric puzzle, of which they were the corner pieces.

Rune Your Day
(Jørgen Mathisen and Rune Nergard of Rune Your Day)

This was one among a handful of concerts under the auspices of Nutshell, a series of showcases presented to an international delegation over the course of four days. It all began the previous afternoon in the port city of Bergen, where a constellation of soloists led by drummer and singer/songwriter Siv Øyunn Kjenstad cut through jetlag fog with the starlight of “Take Me Back” and “For a Moment,” the latter commissioned for the 150th anniversary of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and built around motifs of that play’s incidental music by Edvard Grieg.

(Siv Øyunn Kjenstad of Øyunn)

We were then whisked away the following morning to the lakeside community of Voss. Our first showcase came courtesy of the whimsical collective known as Bounce Alarm. Under the beams of the Finnesloftet, a church hall built in 1295, they primed expansive harmonies across the slick canvas of “Swing and Sweat.”

Christian Cuadra
(Christian Cuadra of Bounce Alarm)

Written by tenor saxophonist Elisabeth Lid Trøen and featuring a phenomenal solo by alto saxophonist Christian Cuadra, it was an ideal prelude to a solo concert given later that afternoon by drummer Erland Dahlen, who, under Voss Church’s angelic iconography, linked an unbroken chain of electronically augmented beat science.

Erland Dahlen
(Erland Dahlen)

Following the above-mentioned garden party, we headed for Grieg’s former home of Troldhaugen to be treated by the Dag Arnesen Trio. Alongside bassist Ole Marius Sandberg and drummer Ivar Thormodsæter, the eminently regarded pianist balanced technique and self-expression throughout tunes inspired by rural themes, life experiences and Grieg himself. Arnesen’s grounded playing tilled the soil for his sidemen’s sowings, peaking in an arrangement of the Norwegian folk song “Bonden i bryllupsgarden” (The Peasant at the Wedding Farm).

Dag Arnesen
(Dag Arnesen)

Showcases continued back in Bergen proper. Demonstrations of novel instruments were at the forefront, including a performance by “airsticks” inventor Alon Ilsar’s real-time manipulations of cellist Amalie Stalheim and another by Terje Isungset on a percussion instrument made entirely of ice.

Amalie Stalheim
(Amalie Stalheim)

Before that we encountered the quartet of Roligheten, who achieved dreamy confluence in dialogue with violinist Adrian Løseth Waade. The benchmark thereof was “Telemark Tango,” out of which was churned a robust solo from bassist Jon Rune Strøm.

Roligheten 4
(André Roligheten and Jon Rune Strøm of the Roligheten 4)

Pianist Håvard Wiik’s trio with bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen also delighted; in such whispering odes to memory as “Tudor Style” and the dissonant groove of “Neidbau,” he flirted with completion through a frenetic taxonomy of sound.

Håvard Wiik
(Håvard Wiik)

Saxophonist Hanna Paulsberg brought further enchantment with her Concept outfit, welcoming guest trumpeter Magnus Broo for a smoother ride that culminated in the haunting “Scent of Soil.”

Hanna Paulsberg
(Hanna Paulsberg)

For our last two nights in Bergen, we migrated into the city’s massive Nattjazz festival and its eclectic mix of influences and influencers alike. My sampling of its concurrent performances began and ended with vocal-heavy offerings. The neo-soul beauties of Charlotte Dos Santos struck the deepest romantic chords in “Take It Slow,” her lyrical embodiment of which revealed a love not only of music but also love itself.

Charlotte Dos Santos
(Charlotte Dos Santos)

At the other end awaited the uplifting harmonies of Marie Daulne (her striking visage graced every Nattjazz poster in Bergen). As alter ego Zap Mama, Daulne and sister singers Tanja Daese and Lene Christensen spun such anthems as “Vibrations” and “Rafiki” (Swahili for “friendship”) with heartfelt affirmation and throwing attention to bassist Manou Gallo for a head-nodding solo spotlight.

Manou Gallo
(Manou Gallo of Zap Mama)

The most precious jewel along the way was forged in the hands of accordionist Frode Haltli, whose Avant Folk project yielded the festival’s most cohesive experience. Between those unmistakable bellows and his band’s fluid congregation of fiddles, percussion, guitar and winds (including a memorable turn on ram’s horn by Hildegunn Øiseth), moods ranged from Sigur Rós-esque dirges to traditional-leaning dances. Haltli and friends showed mature respect for the music as landscape, which they rendered in layers like painters to evoke depth.

Frode Haltli
(Frode Haltli)

Equally effective was the Nils Økland Band’s mélange of folk and Baroque concepts as the fiddler/composer assembled a sum far greater than its parts. Whether through the strings of a Hardanger fiddle or viola d’amore, he threaded songs of air and sea, recreated to stunning effect by the boat- like creaking of bassist Mats Eilertsen’s bow and the hulk of percussionist Håkon Mørch Stene.

Nils Økland
(Nils Økland)

Other Nattjazz highlights included the rhythmic alchemies of multi-instrumentalist Ola Kvernberg’s super group Steamdome. In many ways, this outfit’s unity was the soul and spirit of the festival, an extroverted counterpart to Haltli and Økland’s delicate introversions.

Ola Kvernberg
(Ola Kvernberg of Steamdome)

It was music that made you want to run up a mountain just so you could feel the rush of jumping toward the fjords below—an image strengthened by the Skydive Trio of guitarist Thomas T. Dahl, Eilertsen (switching upright for electric bass) and drummer Olavi Louhivuori. Their melodic yet occasionally intense brand of lyricism vacillated somewhere between classic Bill Frisell and searing free improvisation. Even their ballads held intensity in their craw and spoke to an overarching interest in patiently building solos into narratives with beginnings, middles and endings.

Mats Eilertsen
(Mats Eilertsen of Skydive Trio)

And so, I end my own narrative of this sojourn, made possible by the tireless efforts of Nutshell masterminds Brit Aksnes, Nina Torske and Aslak Oppebøen, who, like those paragliders over Voss’ windswept mountains, provided the necessary equipment to land safely and live to tell the tale.

(This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Kristjan Randalu: Absence (ECM 2586)

2586 X

Kristjan Randalu

Kristjan Randlu piano
Ben Monder guitar
Markku Ounaskari drums
Recorded July 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 6, 2018

In the past decade, ECM Records has welcomed a range of new artists into its fold, but perhaps none so unassuming as Kristjan Randalu. Equally versed in classical and jazz performance, the Estonian pianist offers a debut that forgoes breaking ground in favor of the tectonic shifts beneath it. The title of Absence therefore accurately describes the music’s lack of allegiance to ear-catching grooves and sly hooks. Randalu and his bandmates—guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Markku Ounaskari—explore new territory without mapping it, per se, as the latter would imply a sense of colonial control in which they are clearly uninterested.

The album’s topography is nevertheless trail-marked by four of its briefer artistic statements. “Lumi I” and “Lumi II” are the most revealing in terms of process. Monder’s painterly sensibilities are free to roam here, as also in counterparts “Adaptation I” and “Adaptation II.” Together, these tracks illustrate the band’s core principles. Whether grounded in occasional arpeggios or expanding like lungs filling with air, they show a contemplative, physical awareness achieving greatest symmetry in “Partly Clouded.”

Although the album for the most part treads an even atmospheric keel, there are standouts. “Forecast,” for one, opens from Randalu’s crystalline intro into the album’s first and longest tune. But the brightest stars in the mix are “Sisu” and “Escapism,” both of which render some of the most achingly cinematic vistas to be developed out of the ECM camera in a long time. Working slowly and surely and with promises of nothing other than their own honest reflections, both are deeply moving works of art. The same holds true of the concluding title track, a lyrical vehicle for Monder’s balladry that ends with a tender kiss. An appropriate way to finish, to be sure: rewarding love with love, in the hopes of birthing more in kind.

(This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Maciej Obara Quartet: Unloved (ECM 2573)


Maciej Obara Quartet

Maciej Obara alto saxophone
Dominik Wania piano
Ole Morten Vågan double bass
Gard Nilssen drums
Recorded January 2017 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 10, 2017

In keeping with its commitment to fresh artistry, ECM presents the studio debut of Polish alto saxophonist Maciej Obara and his young quartet. As an improviser, Obara understands the fleeting nature of spontaneous creation, accordingly emoting with the soul of a poet—which is to say, wasting neither sentiments nor space to contain them. Case in point is the album’s opener, “Ula.” It introduces a tangible sound ideally suited to ECM’s visually-minded ethos. Remarkable about Obara is the gesso-like way in which he listens before applying his own strokes to any given canvas. Like any skilled oil painter, he knows that certain layers must dry before others can be added with clarity. In that vein, pianist Dominik Wania provides the broadest textural palette, giving just the right amount of uplift for the bandleader’s reed. Wania’s intros are especially well blended and draw from a variety of reference points. He brings shades of John Cage’s In a landscape to the album’s title track by Krzysztof Komeda (the only one here not penned by Obara) and in his extended setup of “Echoes” polishes a mirror without an inkling of vanity to show for it.

Bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Gard Nilssen are purveyors of a mature subtlety by which give and take are rendered synonymous. In “One For,” they understand the lyrical potential of negative space. Interlocking in the freely-flowing “Joli Bord” and the concluding “Storyteller,” they sharpen serious arrows in preparation for whimsical targets. In terms of airtime, the piano trio is this record’s core, but Obara, in being so often backgrounded, unfolds his solos with an intensity made even more remarkable for selectiveness. His sound is unpretentious yet stands tall, fulfilling melodic promises with feeling rather than technique. It’s a surreal yet somehow organic form of communication that sticks as many feathers to each thematic bone until flight becomes achievable. The result is humility made musically incarnate and ready to fly.

(This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Django Bates’ Belovèd: The Study Of Touch (ECM 2534)

The Study of Touch

Django Bates’ Belovèd
The Study Of Touch

Django Bates piano
Petter Eldh double bass
Peter Bruun drums
Recorded June 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 3, 2017

British pianist Django Bates makes his ECM leader debut with The Study Of Touch, and by its release gives hope to fatalists who see the piano trio as a dying genre. Bates himself was only convinced of throwing his own hat into that congested ring upon hearing his future bandmates—bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun—in the halls of Copenhagen’s Rhythmic Music Conservatory, where he’d just begun teaching in 2005. First conceived as an improvisation outfit, his Belovèd trio grew to encompass the formative influence of Charlie Parker as a springboard for Bates’ own writing. Parker’s spirited “Passport” is, in fact, one of only two non-originals on the program. The other, “This World” by Iain Ballamy, harks to the saxophonist’s All Men Amen (B&W, 1995), on which Bates appeared. Significantly enough, on Ballamy’s album this tune’s title was followed by four ellipses, whereas here those ellipses are gone, implying expressive surety. This symbolic change speaks to something vital about Bates’ artistry, by which each gesture feels as inevitable as the mind-melded contributions of his rhythm section. It’s there in the topsy-turvy feel of “We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way” and underlying blues of “Senza Bitterness.” Such balance of slip and grip can only come from many hours of playing together without a roadmap.

Despite the many personal associations on which the tunes are founded, if not also because of them, listeners can’t help but merge at any given moment onto the band’s ever-changing fast lane of thought. Between the reflective “Little Petherick” and meatier “Slippage Street,” tessellated “Giorgiantics” and lushly colored “Peonies As Promised,” one encounters the clarity of anatomical drawing. The title track, along with the opener and closer, underscore this impression, sowing a sound defined by that which it refuses to define. Hence the prescience of touch as a theme for music rendered in that most asymptotic of contact zones between time and space, leaving us with one of the finest trio records of this millennium so far.

(This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Uusitalo/Sloniker/Louhivuori: Northbound (feat. Seamus Blake)


Despite what its title would have you believe, Northbound hits every cardinal direction. At its core are Tuomo Uusitalo (piano), Myles Sloniker (bass) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums), who together form an indivisible unit of expression. Unlike some other simpatico ensembles, their rapport isn’t so much one of interlocking as hybridization, as evidenced by the free improvisations peppering the set. In these, the voice of each musician breathes through the same body. From the microscopic cartography of “Focus” to groove-seeking insights of “Awakening,” the music gels organically and with clarity of purpose.

Similar intuitions fortify the meat surrounding these bones, into which guest Seamus Blake blends the protein of his tenor saxophone throughout six originals. Each lends insight into its originator’s talents. Sloniker’s “Counterparts” and “Gomez Palacio,” like the bassist’s playing, balance arcs and angles, unraveling two knots for every one tied. Louhivuori offers a diptych of his own with “Forgotten” and “Song For Mr. Moorhead,” building in each a patient reach for consummation. The drummer bridges these with the free solo “Rumble,” evoking a distant storm, before Uusitalo rounds everything out with the album’s strongest compositions. “Pablo’s Insomnia” is a highlight for its composer’s right-handed solo and command of space while “The Aisle” builds to anthemic parting.

Regardless of the complexities of the mazes put before him, Blake navigates with his eyes closed and heart on autopilot. He emotes with boldness yet manages to be sensitive to his environment. Neither overpowering nor overpowered, he knows exactly when to unhinge himself with a screech of color and when to sing in monotone, thus embodying the rarest aspect of Northbound: namely, its gracious handling of every melody. There’s something sacred to be found here and respecting it demands full attention.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available to download here.)

ECM: Between the Lines

On June 4, 2018, WKCR DJ Andrew Castillo and I presented an encore of sorts to our 15-hour traversal of the entire ECM catalog. Under the theme “Between the Lines,” I curated a playlist of world music and folk-leaning tracks that explore yet another major facet of the label’s output. The episode is now available to listen by clicking the PLAY button below. You may also download the full episode by clicking here. Scroll down for a full playlist, including links to my reviews of each album:

Bengt Berger
Bitter Funeral Beer (ECM 1179)

[INTRODUCTION @ 00:04:59]

Codona 3 (ECM 1243)

Jean-Louis Matinier / Marco Ambrosini
Inventio (ECM 2348)

Trio Mediaeval
Folk Songs (ECM 2003)
“Det Lisle Banet”

[BREAK @ 00:29:23]

Eleni Karaindrou
The Weeping Meadow (ECM New Series 1885)
“The Weeping Meadow”

David Darling
Cello (ECM 1464)
“No Place Nowhere”

Ketil Bjørnstad / David Darling
The River (ECM 1593)
“The River II”

[BREAK @ 00:46:37]

Stephan Micus
Twilight Fields (ECM 1358)
“Part 4”

Stephan Micus
Desert Poems (ECM 1757)

Stephan Micus
on the wing (ECM 1987)
“The Bride”

[BREAK @ 01:11:20]

Anja Lechner / Vassilis Tsabropoulos
Chants, Hymns and Dances (ECM New Series 1888)
“Assyrian Women Mourners”

The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble
Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff (ECM 2236)
“Atarnakh, Kurd Song”

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Komitas (ECM 2451)
“Hov Arek”

[BREAK @ 01:28:47]

Savina Yannatou
Songs Of An Other (ECM 2057)
“Ah, Marouli”

Savina Yannatou
Songs of Thessaloniki (ECM 2398)

Robin Williamson
The seed-at-zero (ECM 1732)
“Skull And Nettlework”

[BREAK @ 01:41:06]

Sinikka Langeland
The half-finished heaven (ECM 2377)
“The Light Streams In”

Per Gudmundson / Ale Möller / Lena Willemark
Frifot (ECM 1690)

Nils Økland Band
Kjølvatn (ECM 2383)

[BREAK @ 01:56:00]

Yeahwon Shin
Lua ya (ECM 2337)
“The Orchard Road”

Ambrose Field / John Potter
Being Dufay (ECM New Series 2071)
“Je Me Complains”

[BREAK @ 02:07:38]

Amina Alaoui
Arco Iris (ECM 2180)
“Fado menor”

Arianna Savall / Petter Udland Johansen
Hirundo Maris (ECM New Series 2227)
“Buenas Noches”

Jan Garbarek
Visible World (ECM 1585)
“Evening Land”


LEAD-OUT @ 02:35:12
Who’s To Know (ECM 1195)

Back on the air tonight with “ECM: Between the Lines”

Join me and host Andrew Castillo tonight (June 4) on WKCR’s Jazz Alternatives program, from 6-9pm EST for a special standalone program called “ECM: Between the Lines.” After chronicling a wealth of personal favorites from the label’s inception to the present along the jazz spectrum, I wanted to offer a specially curated playlist of music that leans closer to “folk” and “world music.” ECM has historically blurred the lines between such idioms, and tonight’s program will, I hope, serve to deepen that impression. We’ll be hearing some fantastic music from the label’s least definable genre-benders, including Stephan Micus, Robin Williamson, and Savina Yannatou, even as we chart worldly intersections with jazz per se, as in the foundational work of CODONA. There’ll be plenty to explore and discover, so the more the merrier!

Click the logo below to be directed to the WKCR website, where you may stream us live by clicking the “LISTEN” icon on the top-right corner of the screen. As always, if you’re unable to tune in, we’ll be archiving the program here for future streaming and downloads.