Thomas/Orazbayeva/Railton: Three Or One (ECM New Series 2640)

Three Or One

Fred Thomas piano
Aisha Orazbayeva violin
Lucy Railton violoncello
Recorded 2012/2018
University of Huddersfield,
courtesy of Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay
Recording and mixing engineer: Alex Bonney
Balance engineers: Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay
and Rob Sutherland (trios),
Elliott Parkin (solos)
Recording producer: Fred Thomas
Cover photo: Manos Chatzikonstanzis
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 22, 2021

Three Or One documents the prismatic transcriptions of pianist Fred Thomas, who for this project dips his fingers into the font of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. He adds to that unfinished book of organ chorales and canons a selection of vocal movements and other Bachiana, lovingly sequenced by producer Manfred Eicher. As revealed in a liner note, Thomas sought to “subvert the associations of the piano trio (so remote from Bach) and induce a hushedness that I heard in his compositions.” Bringing said trio to life are violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and cellist Lucy Railton, whose sense of color, space, and time humble the proceedings to a scriptural level.

The opening chorale, “Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 649) gives majesty to the very air as if it were only a medium for melody. Such presence is strong yet yielding throughout, as most apparent in the organ pieces. Of these, “Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes Sohn” (BWV 601) is especially touching for its heartfelt composition and centuries-delayed interpretation. “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 639) is another spiritual well from which is drawn the water of life itself.

The arranging is as sensitive as the playing. Whether in the delicate cello pizzicato of “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt” (BWV 637) or the sustained violin lines of “Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott” (BWV 721), one can feel the close-eyed bliss of the creative process in both directions. The program offers solo piano interpretations as well, including a flight of four cantata arias and a sinfonia. In these are light-footed grace, intensifying passion, geometric wonder, and childlike whimsy all rolled into a holistic package.

Culminations of these signatures are found in the shining beacons of “Liebster Jesu, wir sind heir” (BWV 633), in which the strings blend like siblings while the piano sermonizes as if to a congregation of three, and “O Gott, du frommer Gott” (BWV 767), in which the violin sings as if a choir of one. Perhaps, this is a hidden nuance of the album’s title, referring not only to the number of musicians but also an evangelical diversity. Another doctrinal nugget is “Gott, durch deine Güte” (BWV 600), in which a closely miked violin played sul ponticello fills the left channel with birdlike movements.

We can be sure that everything gained here is the result of something lost. Hence the poignancy of what we are hearing: the cycle of birth and death that allows these beauties to exist in the first place. We can feel history coming together as much as separating, working to define the sounds through equal parts memory and unknowability. Notes Thomas: “Bach set out to discover, not create, the musical rules of the universe.” Indeed, there is much to discover in these hymns, sung before we could ever sing them.

Michel Benita: Looking At Sounds (ECM 2663)

Michel Benita
Looking At Sounds

Michel Benita double bass, laptop
Matthieu Michel flugelhorn
Jozef Dumoulin Fender Rhodes, electronics
Philippe Garcia drums, electronics
Recorded March 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Jan Kricke
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: September 18, 2020

Bassist Michel Benita carries over flugelhornist Matthieu Michel and drummer Philippe Garcia from his Ethics group, which made such a profound mission statement with 2016’s River Silver, and welcomes to that nexus keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin in a new quartet from which the present album derives its title: Looking At Sounds. The name, Benita tells me in an email interview, is an homage to Jon Hassell: “He made an album called Listening to Pictures that I like a lot. I thought, well, you could reverse that sentence and that would give something like what we have here.” It’s an especially appropriate moniker given that ECM’s ethos has long been guided by Gertrude Stein’s playful dictum, “Think of your ears as eyes.” Indeed, there is plenty of imagery to interpret in these tunes.

Compared to its predecessor, this album feels more metaphysical, if only because its use of effect takes precedence over cause. A case in point is “Dervish Diva.” Cowritten by Benita and Michel, its bass harmonics delineate a dark pool in which Fender Rhodes and flugelhorn drop their stones of light. Cymbals trace the ripples while hand-played drums transition into brushes for a touch of the secular upon the sacred. Two tracks later, the album’s title tune unfolds in like manner, treating the bass as a skeleton and the other instruments as its flesh and blood. One can hear so much of Kenny Wheeler in this tune, especially in the aerial qualities of the playing, that it almost brings a tear to one’s eye. The same holds for “Barroco,” which is the most overt spotlight for Michel, whose flugelhorn is a joy. And yet, while each musician has a distinct voice, unity and continuity are at constant play. Consequently, the spotlight is more diffuse than traditionally shined, an unraveling of the melodic core at hand. Benita agrees:

“These guys have exactly the same idea of what playing together means. And Matthieu’s lines, beneath the fact he’s the most identified ‘soloist,’ are very much floating in space and absolutely cliché-free. Long ago, I got tired of the strictly jazz scenario of theme, solos (too many), theme, etc. I always liked bands that had a conception of playing as a whole unit. It was already clear inRiver Silver and before that with Andy Sheppard in Trio Libero. I love being part of that global sound and interplay, where no role is really defined. It also gives me a lot of freedom for my bass playing. Any one of us can decide to change directions, and the band will follow. And yes, you need a melodic core, as you call it, to make that concept readable for the listener.”

Despite the expansive implications of such an approach, the results are more intimate than they are distant. This is especially true in the diptych of “Berceuse” (Kristen Noguès) / “Gwell Talenn” (Benita), which blurs the lines of division until such lines cease to matter. Likewise, in “Elisian” (Benita) / “Inutil Paisagem” (Antônio Carlos Jobim), the fresh blends into the faded, each feeding on qualities of the other.

Three of the four musicians make use of electronics, which in tracks like “Slick Team” add droning texture and context without ever dominating the scene. These are no mere ornaments but congregations of shared values. Whether emanating from live sampling or chameleonically changing the keyboard’s tonal qualities, they give movement to stillness. Digital fingerprints can also be dusted in “Cloud To Cloud,” a studio improvisation that came about at the suggestion of Steve Lake, subbing in place of Manfred Eicher (who was sick at the time). Yet another atmospheric wonder is “Body Language,” a cinematic masterpiece that affords only glimpses of its reflection.

To my ears, there are few layovers on this journey more comforting than “Islander,” a flowing and laid-back experience that is nostalgia incarnate. As its composer notes of the tune:

“It came from an acoustic guitar motif that I had recorded on my iPhone some years ago. When starting to write new music, I went through all those tiny bits of melodic lines I had compiled and that one caught my ear. The rest of the tune developed very fast and almost by itself. I’m always trying to add a bit of rhythmic complexity or unexpected note placement to those seemingly simple melodic lines. As for ‘comforting,’ well, maybe that minor/major ostinato? I love when it modulates, in that 16-bar bridge, before going back to the main theme. I wrote that at the last moment, as I felt we needed to open the tune at one point. The title refers to my situation over the last three years as a resident of L’Île d’Yeu. I’m an authentic islander now.”

Fender Rhodes and drums form a large portion of this one before bass and flugelhorn take the image from monochrome to high-definition color. “Low Tide” explores similar themes, dipping into the waters of the past to make the present fuller in self-realization. Brushes on drums evoke the caressing of the shore by the waves and the patterns left in their recession. All roads lead to “Never Never Land” (Jule Styne), which feels naked after all that production.

This has all the makings of a classic ECM session.

Mathias Eick: When we leave (ECM 2660)

Mathias Eick
When we leave

Mathias Eick trumpet, keyboard, voice
Håkon Aase violin, percussion
Andreas Ulvo piano
Audun Erlien bass
Torstein Lofthus drums
Helge Andreas Norbakken drums, percussion
Stian Carstensen pedal steel guitar
Recorded August 2020 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Martin Abrahamsen
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 24, 2021

If you’ve ever reunited with an old friend, picking up where you left off as if no years had kept you apart, then you’ll know what it feels like to immerse yourself in the sounds of When we leave. The appropriately titled “Loving,” the first of seven mononymous originals by bandleader Mathias Eick, is a door that is always open to us. Whether we come bearing gifts of joy or bearing burdens of sadness, here we find a place to warm our bodies and spirits without the pretensions of the world at our backs. The familiar shape of Eick’s trumpet leans into Håkon Aase’s violin, which takes its scissors to the paper-thin pianism of Andreas Ulvo with the care of an artist who woke up with an entire scene in mind. Bassist Audun Erlien, whose arcing gestures in the subsequent “Caring” grace the bellies of the clouds even as Stian Carstensen paints rivers of steel guitar below, blows out the lantern of dreams and replaces it with the wick of self-sufficiency. The blessings of life reveal themselves with resolute humanity, folding every piece of sonic clothing like a napkin after the most humbling meal. All the while, a brushed undercurrent signals the input of drummers Torstein Lofthus and Helge Andreas Norbakken, whose binary star is as melodic as it is rhythmic in frequency.

If any of these impulses can be said to have brothers and sisters, they can be found roaming the architecture of the album’s predecessor, Ravensburg, the autobiographical shades of which find brighter counterparts throughout this sequel in everything but name. Whether in the overlapping territories of “Turning” or the intimate weave of “Flying,” the itinerant listener is likely to lose interest in maps, borders, and divisions of speech. Indeed, as Eick sings in “Arvo,” a below-the-radar tribute to the triadic harmonies of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, the lack of words opens us to the possibility of a language with no other agenda than porous communication. From the opening tintinnabulation arises a band synergy that has a soul of its own and offers its worship without fear. The drumming is especially vibrant and warm to the touch, as are the contours of “Playing,” which is the living embodiment of equitable conversation. And if “Begging” can be said to be a farewell, its placement last in the sequence is as inevitable as its electricity is static. It relies on the contact of our listening to hold its charge, thus passing on timeless wisdom one electron at a time, for time itself may exist of nothing more than a spark drawn to the cadence of infinity.

Marcin Wasilewski Trio: En attendant (ECM 2677)

Marcin Wasilewski Trio
En attendant

Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double bass
Michal Miskiewicz drums
Recorded August 2019, Studio La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Max Franosch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 10, 2021

Although En attendant hit the airwaves after Arctic Riff, the Marcin Wasilewski Trio’s somewhat divisive collaboration with saxophonist Joe Lovano, it was recorded just before that earlier release. With brothers from another mother Slawomir Kurkiewicz on bass and Michal Miskiewicz on drums, the Polish pianist brings more than 25 years of deep listening into the studio for what might just be their most intuitive session to date. I make the latter claim if only because what we have been gifted here is more than a collection of memories in the making; it is a reflection of life’s supernaturally driven purpose to leave something of itself behind as a relic of its passing. Such instincts take their purest form, perhaps, in a subtle arrangement of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variation 25, the minor-keyed clothing of which reveals major-inflected whispers to be transcribed by the eager ear. That this melody reaches out to us centuries later is just as comforting as Carla Bley’s “Vashkar,” which, despite having decades under its wings, nevertheless spreads its blanket without so much as a bent corner. If jazz was ever to be organized as a novel, this tune would deserve a chapter all its own. As a touchpoint of the trio’s repertoire, it lends itself comfortably to this between-the-lines reading, inked by the quill of Kurkiewicz’s diaristic bassing.

Another calling card is the trio’s penchant for curating gems from the popular canon, and the present take on The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm” is no exception to this ethos. Like a coffee purist who sees latte art as a needless decoration, Wasilewski allows his bandmates to steep the grounds in which the tune’s familiar flavor originates. In anticipation of those dark clouds, Wasilewski’s “Glimmer Of Hope” shines as if it were the last utterance it ever wanted to offer. In this instance, we must submit the pages of our expectations to be erased, rewritten, and sealed by a lyricism so achingly precise that can only wander the train tracks of our collective vanishing point until it, too, ceases to be.

The album is tented by three freely improvised pieces entitled “In Motion.” From their searching vocabularies emerges an answer of sorts to an age-old debate: it was never about the chicken and the egg but about the inhalation and the exhalation. The cycle has always been infinite, and for the duration of a musical disc, we get cosmic blink’s worth of wisdom to revisit whenever we want. Such privilege does not go unrecognized for a single moment, either as performers or as listeners, and how fortunate that we can count ourselves among the living after its wonders have been revealed.

Anja Lechner/François Couturier: Lontano (ECM 2682)

Anja Lechner
François Couturier
Lontano

Anja Lechner violoncello
François Couturier piano
Recorded October 2019, Sendesaal Bremen
Engineer: Christoph Franke
Cover photo: Erieta Attali
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 16, 2020

On Lontano, the cello of Anja Lechner and the piano of François Couturier play the roles of scenery and camera. As the lens bends the light into a discernible image yet changes that image in the process of fixing it within a frame, Couturier funnels Lechner’s sunbeams laden with stories that can only be heard with the eyes (and vice versa). If such a description seems too cerebral or even bogus, it’s only because the music it seeks to capture doesn’t accompany it. Even “capture” feels like an inappropriate word to interpret the relationships being explored by this symbiotic duo, especially when one considers that the music is half improvised and slips through the pores of any enclosure that surrounds it. Echoes reveal themselves to have been in the air they breathe all along, thus nullifying categorization as a political shadow that has no business casting itself here.

If the “Praeludium” tells us anything, it’s that awakening in this scenario can only take place when there is both sun and dew. Otherwise, the dawn might have nothing to kiss as it peers over the not-so-distant mountaintops. In so much of what follows, the inverted images in those pinhead orbs find themselves repeated in blissful aberration. Whether in the churning sediments of “Solar I” and “Solar II” or the flowering “Triptych” for two, there is a sense of agitation beneath the surface. The deepest point of these dialogues is mined in “Gratitude,” where Lechner skims the edges of notes as if to welcome melodic wanderers just long enough to feed and clothe them before sending them back into the wilderness, listless and without instruction until an ear catches them again—maybe tomorrow, maybe a millennium beyond.

That which is composed is carefully torn and folded from the pages of life itself. With each new crease, once-distant letters cohere into a new language. Among these homages, Anouar Brahem’s “Vague – E la nave va” inspires an astonishing piece of aural cinema, a tracking shot that shows us a wall and glimpses of the victims on the other side of it. The sensitivity of Henri Dutilleux’s “Prélude en berceuse,” too, reveals a pathway to revival, where awaits the closing door of the “Postludium.” Like the “Memory of a Melody,” which threads an excerpt from the Bach cantata aria “Wie zittern und wanken der Sünder Gedanken” (BWV 105) through the needle of the here and now, it reminds us that all melodies are memories.

Lontano is, above all, most wondrous for standing as a corrective to the phrase “effortless execution.” Tempting as this descriptor is, I find evidence of the untold hours of patient corporeal shaping and experience that feed every note. A flow like the one preserved here is made possible only by the sacrifices that dug its trenches.

Marc Johnson: Overpass (ECM 2671)

Marc Johnson
Overpass

Marc Johnson double bass
Recorded January/February 2018
at Nacena Studios, São Paulo, Brazil
Recording engineer: Rodrigo de Castro-Lopes
Mixing engineer: Steve Rodby
Cover: Wade Carter
Produced by Marc Johnson and Eliane Elias
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 27, 2021

Three years after being laid down in a São Paulo studio, Marc Johnson’s Overpass comes to light. Indeed, light is in abundance across the full spectrum of this solo effort. The double bass, whether due to its size or range, is easily typecast as a darker instrument. And yet, as this set of eight pieces proves, it has plenty of brightness to share with the world. A hint of that inner glow is found in Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” the first of three classic tunes to triangulate Johnson’s original grammar with iridescent crossbeams. Its meshing of firm foundations and lithe upswings renders a fitting prologue to broader expositions of architectural proportion. The other touchpoints in this vein are Miles Davis’ “Nardis” and Alex North’s “Love Theme from Spartacus,” each of which seems to inspire the other in mutual admiration. The latter melody is among the album’s airiest and, as such, speaks to the wisdom of a life drawn to affectionate things. Like “Life of Pai” that follows, it is fueled by the gentlest of propulsions, singing as if it were speaking.

Despite the above assertions of light, one cannot necessarily ignore Johnson’s artful corralling of shadow, as evident throughout “Yin and Yang,” wherein the bassist draws along multiple axes. It is one of two overdubbed tracks, the other being “Samurai Fly,” a reworking of his timeless “Samurai Hee-Haw” from 1985’s Bass Desires. Featuring more arco than pizzicato, it opens new possibilities at a time when such hopes are needed in abundance (that album’s sequel, Second Sight, is also referenced here on “And Strike Each Tuneful String”). The culmination of all this is “Whorled Whirled World,” a tessellated masterstroke carrying itself into the night singing of another day.

An Interview with Billy Drummond

Billy Drummond 2015 © Roberto Cifarelli

Billy Drummond took an interest in the drums as soon as he could pick up a pair of sticks. He seems predestined to have made a humble home for himself in the pantheon of the instrument, playing on over 350 recordings alongside such pillars as Horace Silver, Bobby Hutcherson and Sonny Rollins, among many others. His 1995 leader date, Dubai, was named a New York Times #1 Jazz Album of the Year. Before and since then, Drummond has contributed to projects too numerous to mention in full, including his “Freedom of Ideas” quartet, which is preparing to step into the studio. This will mark his first leader record in more than two decades, heralding a welcome return to the helm for this much sought-after musician. Most recently, he was invited by Gábor Bolla to join the Hungarian saxophonist’s own quartet under the auspices of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, where a 10-day stint culminated in two days of recording. In this interview, we check in with Drummond to get his thoughts on the past, present and future. 

Tyran Grillo: Did you ever have a “eureka” moment with the drums? 

Billy Drummond: As soon as I discovered the drums, before I’d ever played with anybody, I knew that was what I wanted to do. It might seem fairytale-ish to people, but the only person I know that knew me before the drums is my older sister, Sheila, and I was just a toddler. That being said, I don’t remember my life prior to playing the drums. 

TG: Does that mean you took to the drums naturally or did you struggle like everyone else? 

BD: It may sound like a cliché, but you could say the drums chose me, or mutual love at first sight, I don’t know! Every instrument has its idiosyncrasies that have to be dealt with; that’s the nature of the beast. Brass musicians, for example, have to deal with their embouchure, which is a constant struggle no matter who you are. It’s a choice and depends on what you’re trying to achieve and bring to fruition. So, of course, I had struggles and still do. You’ve got prodigies like Buddy Rich. Then there’s Tony Williams, who played at a level that was quite remarkable at such a young age. But he also had an incredible work ethic and dedicated himself to emulating the drummers he loved and studied as much as he could about playing the instrument. There were a lot less options and distractions, especially during that time [the mid ’50s] to keep one from pursuing such passions once they were decided on. You could focus on one thing all day. By the time he was 18, he had become one of the very greats he aspired to be. And he wasn’t the only one. Think about others like Clifford Brown, who started later in life and developed rapidly. The challenges were there then and are still present today. It’s hard work and most musicians have to stay up on the instrument. At least I do. If I take a break, I’m reminded of it the next time I sit down and play. I tell all my students: practice now while you still can before all the obligations and commitments of life start piling up. 

TG: I imagine that COVID-19, though, was an unprecedented type of struggle for everybody. 

BD: The rug was pulled out from under us overnight, so our livelihood suffered greatly because of that. Fortunately, for me, I teach at two major institutions for music [Juilliard and NYU], so during the school year, that kept the wolves a little farther from my door in that regard. Teaching helps subsidize my performing career and vice versa. I was able to keep my head above water, but a lot of things just vanished. I had tours, residencies, record dates and numerous gigs. When you have those things on your calendar, you plan accordingly and all of it went up in smoke. But here I am. Things are slowly coming back, but it remains to be seen what’s going to happen with different variations on the theme, so to speak, of the virus. I got on a plane for the first time in July, went to Europe, did a festival, a bunch of gigs and a recording. It felt like the way I used to feel as a working musician from day to day. The travel part of it is not for the faint of heart. It was never really that luxurious, to say the least, but as musicians, that’s what we have to do. We can’t just play in our own back yards and expect to survive. For most of us who rely on performance, you have to get on an airplane for it to be at least somewhat lucrative. 

TG: Would you say this speaks to the adaptability of those who make music? 

BD: You have to go into every situation with an open mind and coalesce with everyone involved. The end result is making the music come to life. You’re presenting the music. It’s not about me as a drummer, showcasing my drumming. I can’t do that anyway! But there are those who can wow you and still be incredible contributors, like Tony Williams. Some are more overt than others. I’ve flocked around drummers for other reasons, like Billy Higgins, Al Foster and many others I could name who amaze but not overtly so. It’s all about musical conception, how the mind works in the moment. It gets beyond the rat-a-tat-tat physicality of all that. Why are they doing it and how did they come up with it? What are they listening to and for and how are they contributing to the big picture? They all have these audacious concepts and they bring them to fruition. And all that just by hitting stuff with two wooden sticks! It’s a question of how one does it completely differently while achieving musical greatness with a distinctive sound and style. 

TG: Going back to the topic of practice, how do you keep yourself sharp? Do you have a set schedule or just work it in when you can? 

BD: As you mature and are confronted with more of life’s responsibilities, it becomes more difficult to adhere to a schedule. That’s because you’ve got other stuff to do all the time. If you’re planning on practicing, things can interfere. When I do, I practice the same things I’ve always practiced, such as the things we drummers know as “rudiments.” Basically, these are combinations of doubles and singles in certain patterns. I also practice “time” because that’s what you’re doing 99.9% percent when playing with people. I play along with recordings, work on things I’d like to be able to do and all that. You have to stay up on these basic things to be able to bring whatever creativity that’s in your mind to fruition. You need to have a reasonable amount of facility to put your opinions out there. If you don’t, those ideas never come out. That’s what’s so remarkable about the thinking process of great drummers. We only hear the end result, but you can bet they worked on the nuts and bolts to move us with the music. 

TG: Who embodies that philosophy for you? 

BD: Pretty much anyone who played with Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Nancy Wilson, Art Blakey, Jackie McLean and all the others I grew up listening to. Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones…the list goes on. It’s all good stuff that I still find today to be the top of the heap in that genre of music. But you’ve also got to realize that, back then, you never saw these guys on television for obvious reasons. The star drummer in the public eye in those days was Buddy Rich, so I was enamored with him because he was billed as the world’s greatest and was more of an entertainer and a personality than some of the others I mentioned might have been perceived to be. So there he was, playing the drums and doing it really, really well. This being the early ’60s, I was attracted to what was on television. It was a natural thing. You had Batman, the Green Hornet and Buddy Rich. 

TG: Who were your more immediate mentors? 

BD: I would have to point to my parents and my father in particular because, being a former drummer himself, he’s the one who turned me on to jazz and the drums. As I look back on it now, he also had an incredible record collection. I was hearing all that music I mentioned as a youngster. I didn’t even know what it was, but at that age, you absorb whatever’s going on around the house. When I gravitated toward the drums, the two connected like that. Both of my parents were very supportive and encouraging of my endeavors. I was very fortunate in that regard. 

TG: How have you changed the most since then? 

BD: For one thing, I hope that I’ve improved as a musician who plays the drums and, with that, I hope that coincides with my improvements as a human being. Sometimes, I wish that I could go back and do things a little differently both on the personal and musical sides. For example, I think about being able to play with certain people I played with 30 years ago, only with the mindset I have now. When you’re in your 20s, you have a whole different thing going on when you arrive in New York. There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s the way life is. As we grow older, we hopefully have a better understanding of things pertaining to life. I’m trying to understand by looking at things from a different perspective. You tend to do that when there’s a lot less ahead of you than there is behind you. Now it’s like, “I’ve got to get this next stuff as close to right as possible because I’ve got no time to waste.” 

TG: How does being a better person make you a better musician and vice versa? 

BD: You’re a human being first and foremost. You’re faced and blessed with all the things that humans have to deal with. When you’re a musician, especially one who has devoted your whole life to music, it becomes so intertwined with your vocation as such. As someone who has surrendered his whole life to music, music and everyday life are intertwined. You wake up in the morning and a large part of your thought process is about music: playing, rehearsing, writing, listening, all of those things. I don’t think people who do certain other things for their livelihood necessarily think that way. But we creative people think about it 24/7 and that could be a problem because there are other things we have to think about, too. Society isn’t set up for creative people because we don’t fit into that same foundation. 

TG: How does this relate to your life as a composer? 

BD: I’m working at it. One thing I could look back on and regret is that I didn’t take the piano seriously when I had the opportunity to so now here I am at this age, struggling, just to put two notes together that sound listenable! I’ve had access to a piano for a large part of my adult life and childhood as well, but I don’t consider myself a composer. I’ve written some tunes. Horace Silver, Carla Bley, Andrew Hill and many, many others I’ve had the pleasure of working with: thoseare composers. 

TG: Have you changed at all as a listener? 

BD: I’ve always been a listener of recordings. No one plays in a vacuum. Listening is one of the things I consider that I do well. I can’t play anything if I don’t listen to what’s going on around me. I like to instigate and react to an action. The drummer is the de facto leader in some ways, controlling the tempo and volume, all of which can impede on or contribute to the proceedings. It’s also the loudest instrument on the bandstand, at least in an acoustic setting. But beyond that, the drummers that I admire and am influenced by are great musicians and listeners and that’s why they’re great drummers. I could name hundreds. 

TG: What is the best compliment you ever got? 

BD: Compliments said to me by people whose opinion I have a great deal of respect for. Beyond that, I’d say the greatest compliment is having people hire me to play with them. They could’ve had anybody, many of whom are pictured up on my own wall of drummers I admire. To be hired from that pool and the many other fantastic drummers out there? There’s no greater compliment. That’s enough to be grateful for and I certainly am.

(Billy Drummond can be seen and heard on his website here. This interview originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

The Tone Poetry of Charles Lloyd

(Photo credit: Dorothy Darr)

To regard a line of improvisation in the key of Charles Lloyd is to walk a spiral from the peaceful depths of one’s soul to the chaotic terrains beyond it. The tenor saxophone with which he is most commonly associated is a scepter that sounds, in his words, “a clarion call to truth and love.” A tender warrior committed to restoration, he sees no lines of demarcation in his music:

“That wouldn’t be right for the tradition I serve. You must have your elixir, and the elixir is in sound and tone. When you’re at the feet of the Universe, she will always bless and take care of us. It’s not politicians we need but sages. Many have their hand out for something, but I try to let my heart be filled so I want for nothing. I live in awe, drunk with the music.”

Hence the moniker of his latest collective The Marvels—featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums—of whom Lloyd is at once leader and faithful servant, a vessel for languages without script. Lloyd debuted The Marvels on the 2016 album I Long To See You with special guests Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, and reconvened the band for 2018’s Vanished Gardens which featured Lucinda Williams on half the album. For his latest Blue Note release Tone Poem, Lloyd presents The Marvels without guest vocalists for the first time on a nourishing nine-course meal of spiritual food. Lloyd recalls the genesis of the group:

“I used to play at this club in Memphis, where a country band was always finishing up as we came in. Their pedal steel guitar player, Al Vescovo, fell in love with my playing, and I with his. He and I became friends, which wasn’t easy on account of the color lines. But the warmth of our friendship was pure. I eventually left for California, and we never saw each other again. Years later, I started performing with Bill Frisell—a seeker whose music, like mine, dances on many shores. On the road, between concerts, I was always reminiscing with him about this young musician from my teens. One night, he invited a pedal steel guitar player to sit in on a concert we played at UCLA’s Royce Hall. That turned out to be Greg Leisz. Hearing him brought full circle a childhood feeling of that instrument and its sonority. Thus, The Marvels were born, because what had happened was a marvel.”

Indeed, the fluid way in which Frisell and Leisz finish each other’s sentences speaks of a mastery that eschews boundaries in deference to flow. The same holds true of Lloyd’s rhythm section, which finds coherence in the absence of rules. If Harland is the heartbeat, Rogers fortifies the blood in its arteries. But how is that sound achieved?

“Don Was and the folks at Blue Note believe in me. The songs we create are my children. They come back home with me. There’s an old saying: What you’re looking for is looking for you. As the character of sound flows, the world drops away, allowing you to make a contribution. This is my offering, my inspiration and consolation. Music has always brought me that. It heals me; I hope I can heal others. Even in the wide cast of artists I’ve played with over this long life, I still have beginner’s mind. Only now, I have the benefit of experience to go along with it.”

If one were to see this album as a ship, then the album closer “Prayer” might be its dotted path across a map of time. Although the parchment on which it is marked is frayed at the edges, it has enough empty space left on it for voyages of reconciliation yet to come. The arco bass and pedal steel guitar herein constitute a longitude and latitude, while drums played by hand glow like a compass in the night. Lloyd and his crew sail forth on a raft culled from bits of nature, each ragged and sun-scorched on its own yet, in unity with others, stronger than the waves. In the midst of the vast waters of this quest stands a chain of islands that includes the album’s original title track, “Tone Poem,” which from rhythmless materials builds a gently grooving structure. Next, it swings from sonic rafters of Thelonious Monk (“Monk’s Mood”)—last heard in duo with Frisell on Vanished Gardens—and on to the shimmering beaches of Bola de Nieve (“Ay Amor”) and Gabor Szabo (“Lady Gabor”). The latter tune offers a taste of Eastern airs and harks to Lloyd’s legendary performance at Montreux in 1967. Out of the primordial soup of that past, it hits the ground running as a fully formed creature—scintillating and agile. Such is the wonder of Lloyd’s playing: he is a traveler weary of the world yet unwilling to let it pass without a song in which to wrap it. He understands the vision of life as having fallen like a teardrop from a cosmic eye in need of being wiped away. And with his horn, he does just that. This music is so comfortable that it feels like a second skin.

“When I think back on my life and how long I’ve been here. Most of my heroes left long before the age I’ve attained. I am always paying homage in a dream state of bringing a better world, a universe that heals and touches. The model of the world as it exists is very primitive to me. Man’s inhumanity to man continues to cause great pain and destruction.  And yet, the fierceness of exploration stays fresh with me. I’m not here for roses. I’m still blessed and interested. The world continues to make history about generals…but my generals—Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Bird, and Trane—are lovers of the heart.”

This is especially apparent in two Ornette Coleman tunes (“Peace” and “Ramblin’”), neither of which were a part of Lloyd’s repertoire, yet which felt organically suited to the band. In both, the listener will find spirit-making sounds, all powered by the solar panel of Lloyd’s saxophone and released in melodic energy. The sense of forward motion here is phenomenally astute and something that, in these times of social distancing, crackles with a level of intimacy the pandemic has all but snuffed out.

“Some of the notes and cries you hear now on my instrument, I didn’t have as a young man. They articulate something. Then, I have these ensembles serving a higher goal. Sensitives are abundant on the planet; they just aren’t given credit for it. To be drunk while also being non-toxic and non-harmful to the world is a contribution worth making, a song worth singing.”

It’s also why poetry lingers even in the absence of words. In Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” it sings wordlessly and with a deep simplicity that needed to be explored in this context. And in the temperance of Lloyd’s own “Dismal Swamp,” it turns an individual truth into a universal one.

“I’m an archeologist and astronomer, trying to make a breakthrough. I have this dream that I’m going to melt into the music and I’ll become what it is. It’s such a beautiful gift that I’ve been given of being able to continue to explore. I pick up the instrument and I play and I can’t put it down. It takes me. I go out in nature and come home with these quantum mechanics in my heart.”

Music, because it is connecting to and opening up a spiritual purpose, brings about eternal effects, whereas everything we do in the flesh has a finite existence. But we’re so busy screaming at each other that we’ve forgotten how to sing. This is why Lloyd’s music has so much vitality: it is a gift in song form. It is a refuge.

“We speak the same heart. The heart of all hearts, we’re aligned with that. And the soul of all souls will bring us home. To be at Oneness. There are many windows into this house. You must be sincere and you must have a desire for truth, and somewhere you must have inspirations along the way, someone to guide you who knows the path. It’s incumbent upon all of us to sing that song of the infinite.”

A “dreamer of worlds” is how Lloyd describes himself. In that capacity, he offers inspiration and consolation to the named and unnamed alike. And now, with this sacred book, bound and stitched as an incantation of light, we can dream those worlds together as our own.

Tone Poem is available directly from Blue Note Records by clicking on the album cover below.

Trio Tapestry: Garden of Expression (ECM 2685)

Trio Tapestry
Garden of Expression

Joe Lovano tenor and soprano saxophones, tarogato, gongs
Marilyn Crispell piano
Carmen Castaldi drums
Recorded November 2019 Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover Photo: Caterina Di Perri
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 29, 2021


Following in the footsteps of its 2019 self-titled debut, Trio Tapestry returns with an intensely meditative successor. Saxophonist Joe Lovano (playing tenor and soprano, as well as tarogato and gongs), pianist Marilyn Crispell, and drummer Carmen Castaldi take their atmospheric coherence to the next level with this set of eight Lovano originals. His lilting tenor in “Chapel Song” manifests spiritual possibilities from first breath. As piano and brushes render the sky at his back a canvas of lost hopes, keys and time signatures melt into an echo of their former meanings. This nexus of the two Cs functions as the album’s paper, across which Lovano keeps an honest diary in his flowing script.

The notes of “Night Creatures” speak with the power of a supernova, which through a satellite telescope appears peaceful and nebulous but in the moments of its birth was surely violent at the molecular level. Such are the dichotomies being sung, where something as unseeable as the transmission of a virus can bring the world to a virtual standstill. The title track is a melodic wonder, which Crispell cradles as a mother would the head of a newborn. Implications of life dance in “West of the Moon.” With all the understated charge of a Paul Motian tune (and by no force of comparison, given that Lovano played in the drummer’s trio with guitarist Bill Frisell for three decades), it finds contentment not in the fallback of a groove but in the ever-changing currents of air that a groove risks prematurely denying.

Lovano’s tenor enables a study in physical contrast. Between the delicate altissimo of “Sacred Chant” and guttural lows of “Dream on That,” he paints with a variety of liminal shades in the middle range. His soprano in “Zen Like” points to yet another register, speaking in haiku rather than tanka. Any quantifiable border between day and night, except for that delineated by the act of sleep, loses all importance. We are bid to listen with eyes open to the language of a distant solar system. With so much to discover on repeated listening, perhaps no other description could feel so apt as that which names track 5: “Treasured Moments.” Given its focus on the simple and the beautiful, we can take the album’s dedication to victims of COVID-19 as more than a reactionary statement but as a prayer within a prayer.

(A condensed version of this review originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)