Tarkovsky Quartet: Nuit blanche (ECM 2524)

Nuit blanche

Tarkovsky Quartet
Nuit blanche

François Couturier piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
Jean-Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Recorded April 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 7, 2017

When opening our eyes, do our minds turn to thoughts of waking? Nuit blanche, the latest from pianist François Couturier’s ever-deepening Tarkovsky Quartet, answers this question with a possibility of dreams. It’s clear not only in the tracks variously titled “Rêve,” “Dream,” and “Traum,” but also in the blurring of corporeal borders such linguistic costume changes imply. In those pieces, each fitting into a larger improvisational puzzle, we get lost just to be found.

In so much of the connective tissue that holds together these vital organs, this quartet’s ethos blossoms vividly. A gentle urgency in the title track’s cello, singing at merest touch of Anja Lechner’s bow and tempered by the cross-hatching of Jean-Louis Matinier’s accordion, provides ample preparation for the soprano saxophone of Jean-Marc Larché to unfold its wings one feather at a time. As if to drain that metaphor of its itineracy, tracks like “Soleil sous la pluie” and “Fantasia” evoke a feeling of suspension. Taps of bow on strings and of knuckles on hollow body play out a dialogue of mechanical sins and immaterial salvations, each detail a poem without words. The latter piece’s transcendence recalls the levitation scene in The Sacrifice, and by that association adds a touch of spirit to vessels of the flesh, turning in on itself until the two are indistinguishable in glory.

Whether in more direct references such as “Dakus,” inspired by Tōru Takemitsu’s Nostalghia (itself written in memory of the director), or the distinct nostalgias of “Urga,” every ruined landscape we encounter here is, as in the wasted Zone of Stalker, a blanket of broken futures over a memory too joyous to contain. Couturier’s unaccompanied “Daydream” and “Nightdream” are likewise liminal, at once floating and sinking in a stream of imagined silence. Between them is “Cum dederit delectis suis somnum,” plucked from Antonio Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus and passed like a torch from bow to reed with all the sanctity it demands.

If, as Andrei Tarkovsky himself once said, “the sounds of this world are so beautiful in themselves that if only we could listen to them properly, cinema would have no need for music at all,” we might also say that the music of this quartet named for the Russian auteur, if watched properly, would have no need for imagery at all. Then again, one can’t help but treat it as a projection screen for internal scenes, each more personal than the last. And so, ending as we began, with the eyes as fulcrums between dreaming and waking, never knowing where to draw a line between the two yet confident that no level of imagination can do justice to what they see, we walk into sunset, knowing that all we need to make it a sunrise is stand on our heads.

Benedikt Jahnel Trio: The Invariant (ECM 2523)

The Invariant

Benedikt Jahnel Trio
The Invariant

Benedikt Jahnel piano
Antonio Miguel double bass
Owen Howard drums
Recorded March 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

Five years after their 2012 ECM debut, pianist Benedikt Jahnel, bassist Antonio Miguel, and drummer Owen Howard return to form while also expanding the parameters of what’s possible within it. A clue, perhaps, into this calling-card title—The Invariant—through which implications of constancy are playfully cross-hatched by their own unraveling. It’s all there in the pianism that opens “Further Consequences,” laying the stones for a spiraling staircase into the heart. Here, in this innermost sanctum, is where the torch of interpretation is passed from performers to listeners. The urgency of Miguel’s bassing is softened by the entrance of Howard’s brushes, which by their gentle persuasion soften the temperature into cooler streams of consciousness.

All of this lays a grand carpet for the introverted groove of “The Circuit,” in which the trio swings gently enough that one barely senses its passage through crowded city streets. It’s a transfiguration of time through space, and of space into time itself, a psychological wormhole between modes of creation. But regardless of whether the atmosphere at the other end is the funkier “Part Of The Game” or the fragmentary “Interpolation One,” the deeply arranged “Mirrors” or the balladic “En Passant,” Jahnel and company separate rope into filament at every turn. They also leave themselves open to suggestion, as in the case of “For The Encore.” Originally intended to close out the set, producer Manfred Eicher felt its steady triangulation of pulse, free-floating midsection, and bass soliloquy worthy of earlier placement.

The boldest circle here, however, is “Mono Lake,” of which an insistent beat and diecast melody hold the surrounding muscles together as a ligament. Like the album in the fullness of its being, it flirts with infinity in a collective song so resolutely out of body that words struggle to catch its shadow.

Quercus: Nightfall (ECM 2522)



June Tabor voice
Iain Ballamy tenor and soprano saxophones
Huw Warren piano
Recorded December 2015 at Cooper Hall, Frome
Engineer: Mike Mower
Mixed at The Soundhouse Studios, London
Engineer: Gerry O’Riordan
Produced by Iain Ballamy and Huw Warren
Release date: April 28, 2017

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
–Edward Thomas

Four years after a 2013 debut on ECM, the trio known as Quercus deepen their mission in this follow-up gospel. Unlike singers whose tone may be described as silken, sultry, or smoky, June Tabor treats her voice as would a metallurgist an alloy. Together with saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren, she yields new admixtures at every turn, each more elemental than the last.

High crests among the program’s traditional selections include two songs collected by Somerset folklorist Ruth L. Tongue (1898-1981). “On Berrow Sands” and “The Shepherd And His Dog” showcase Warren’s exquisite pianism, the former with such oceanic clarity that one can almost smell the ghosts of dead sailors taking flight among the seagulls as Tabor recreates their sacrifices. In “Once I Loved You Dear (The Irish Girl),” she mines the ore of words, handing it to us without polishing away the dirt of its forgotten slumber. As stolen love takes flight into darker realities, Tabor gouges out superficial wounds and fills them with the bronze of self-reflection.

All of these are branches to the roots of “Auld Lang Syne,” which opens the album in a cradling of words. Tabor steps out of time, pulling aside the curtain of night just a sliver to let the past bleed through. Ballamy illustrates that transition beautifully, adding deeper evocations of trauma through his tenor in “The Manchester Angel” and maternal love in “The Cuckoo.” He also contributes his own composition, “Emmeline,” in a circling duet with Warren, echoing the form taken in Warren’s own “Christchurch.” Both fit naturally into their surroundings, as does the jazz standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” an evergreen dipped in silver. And whether turning West Side Story’s anthemic “Somewhere” into something mysterious or making Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” uniquely her own, Tabor communicates so vividly as to render every stalk of wheat, every stone and animal bone in the fields beyond. Such music, then, is never about inclusion but extension of a tradition whose torch glows only in the human heart. An intimate and special experience that could have been created by no other.

Dénes Várjon: De la nuit (ECM New Series 2521)

De la nuit.jpg

Dénes Várjon
De la nuit

Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded April 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 31, 2018

He searched under the bed, around the fireplace,
in the chest: but he found no one.
And he could not understand how the spirit had crept in—
and how he had escaped again.
–E.T.A. Hoffmann, Night Pieces

Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, who last regaled ECM listeners on 2012’s Precipitando, returns with another program of three culturally disparate composers united by the immaterial. Although the blood running through the veins of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) may be genetically dissimilar, in each we find arbitrations of music that, according to the booklet essay by Jürg Stenzl, “far transcended the confines of their time.” The untethered quality of these compositions, each chosen with utmost attention to detail, by virtue of their literary angles interlock in organic conversation. And in rendering them, ECM has found an unparalleled interpreter.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op. 12 of 1837 are comprised of transfixing poetry. In these “character pieces,” linked explicitly to the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jean Paul, Schumann eschews sonata form in favor of an emotional mosaic that abides by its own logic. Its foundations support a lighthouse for listeners lost at sea. From the dramatic (Aufschwung and In der Nacht) and tenderly inquisitive (Warum?) to the mythic (Fabel) and dreamlike (Traumes Wirren), Schumann shines his light through one incredible prism after another until, coming to rest after the robust Ende vom Lied, Várjon, too, breathes the sigh of a journeyman closing his eyes with success.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (1908), inspired by a prose-poetry collection of the same name by Aloysius Bertrand, spins those latter impulses into a web of vivid imagery. The lambent Ondine evokes the water sprite of the same name, whose attempts at seduction follow fountain-like trajectories before rejection sends her reeling into the background. Le Gibet (Gallows) is meant to illustrate the body of a hanged man. Morbid yet beautiful, its suspensions take on new meaning. Scarbo returns to folklore in its depiction of the eponymous dwarf, said to haunt nightmares. The sensation of running desperately through a forest of which every tree is a hand tearing at our clothes makes this one of the most astonishing renditions I’ve ever heard of this piece.

The title of Bartók’sSzabadban(1926) means “Out of Doors,” and provides respite in the pastoral truths of its canvas. Some of its many influences include folk songs in the darkly percussive first movement and the harpsichord music of Couperin in the third. Throughout, a sense of comfort is always one step removed, locked in step with the march of a history that has all but left these jewels behind. Like the final movement, each scene is totally committed to its own unfolding, until we’re ready to work it back into shape as a promise to return.

Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet: Metamodal (ECM 2631)

2631 X

Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet

Sokratis Sinopoulos lyra
Yann Keerim piano
Dimitris Tsekouras double bass
Dimitris Emmanouil drums
Recorded July 2018 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 15, 2019

Athens-based lyra virtuoso Sokratis Sinopoulos returns to the quartet that earned him deserved acclaim on 2015’s Eight Winds. With pianist Yann Keerim, bassist Dimitris Tsekouras, and drummer Dimitris Emmanouil, he once again brings the ancient and the unexpected into harmony. At the heart of Metamodal is its eponymous suite, divided into three parts: “Liquid,” “Illusions,” and “Dimensions.” From its quiet hole emerges a snake of melodic origin whose tongue flickers always in search of the next note. Behind the insistence of Sinopoulos’s playing, clay drums and bass erode a stony topography. As background and foreground intermingle, dances speak not of a celebratory present but of an unrecoverable past.

Before any of this takes shape, “Lament” opens the album proper with an arco bass drone, over which the lyra weeps, while a wave of piano caresses a distant shore, at once mournful of the footprints it destroys and hopeful of clearing the slate for new ones. Thus, Keerim lifts memories of those who once walked along those sands, their souls drifting to a land where the bodies they once inhabited were forbidden entry. Such transcendence is echoed in “Red Thread,” wherein the band paints a restrained yet dynamic canvas on which once-divisive politics now blend until their edges disappear.

If hope is to be found, it’s in “Walking” and “Dawn.” But the hope is fantasy. Still, the musicians hold fast to it like refugees their cultural identities, knowing as they do that illusions of safety are as real as one makes them out to be. And so, “Transition” is an appropriate title not only for the tune it names, but also for the aesthetic of Sinopoulos and his fellow travelers, who as a unit look two steps ahead with each remembered. As in the freely improvised “Mnemosyne,” they carry uncertainty like a treasure as they walk into the future, leaving footprints in the sand as an ephemeral record of their traversal.

(This review was first published in RootsWorld online magazine. The original link is here.)

Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen: Rímur (ECM 2520)


Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen

Anna Maria Friman voice, Hardanger fiddle
Linn Andrea Fuglseth voice, shruti box
Berit Opheim voice
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Recorded February 2016, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 3, 2017

If fate would send me around the world
far away from you,
I would yet, with tears, send you a sigh
that belongs to you.

The title of Rímur, Trio Mediaeval’s seventh album for ECM, takes its name from a longstanding tradition of Icelandic rhyming verses, passed down orally from generation to generation until reaching their present incarnations in a program that meshes three distinct voices with a fourth: that of trumpeter Arve Henriksen. In this artful sequence of chants, hymns, and folk songs drawn from Scandinavian sources, the quartet reimagines music as it might have swept across northern landscapes during bygone ages whose histories are renewed in these melodic survivors.

Because improvisation has always been a vital component of Nordic folk tunes, the leaps of intuition required of their interpretation are in-built into the music. And while saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble will draw obvious comparison—and, to be sure, fans of that project will want to own this one as well—it’s very much its own world, tracing a continental fringe that runs crosswise to that ECM classic.

The Icelandic material yields the most ghostly effects—not only because of a certain transparency, but more importantly because of Henriksen’s ability to see in it what few others might. Whether rising like the stream of a quiet fountain in “O Jesu dulcissime,” a highpoint of the disc for its vocal blending and Hardanger fiddle accents, or unraveling inner spirit in “Morgunstjarna,” a hymn to God’s only begotten Son in confirmation of grace, Henriksen reveals unforced harmonies, by turns balladic and martial. Other highlights include the original “Krummi,” the traditional Swedish shanty “Du är den första,” and the anonymous chant “Alma Redemptoris Mater.” In each of these, he extends the wingspan of expectation while yet cooling us in a familiar shade. In his absence, Friman, Fuglseth, and Opheim are spotlighted by a handful of vocal pieces, including some especially evocative material from Norway. Of these, the wedding tune “Brureslått” features some of the most stillness-inducing singing the trio has ever recorded.

At the heart of this recording are substantial hymns to Saints Birgitta (Sweden), Magnus (Orkney), and Sunniva (Norway). The first, by 14th-century Swedish composer Nils Hermansson, epitomizes the dynamics that make Trio Mediaeval such a unique ensemble. The way in which they spin from a single voice a sonority beyond triplicate measure is exquisite, even as Henriksen adds a voice of his own, at first in lockstep then in untethered flight. In the other hymns, they sail equally selfless waters. Would that we were able to turn their metaphorical vessel into a reality, docked far beyond the world’s storehouse of hatred by a braid of divine inspiration.

Colin Vallon Trio: Danse (ECM 2517)


Colin Vallon Trio

Colin Vallon piano
Patrice Moret double bass
Julian Sartorious drums
Recorded February 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

For their third ECM recording, pianist Colin Vallon, bassist Patrice Moret, and drummer Julian Sartorious climb even deeper down the rabbit hole of their creative integrity. The music here was recorded without headphones, allowing the musicians to map open-bordered sonic territory. Meticulousness flows through “Sisyphe,” in which the dialogue between instruments follows the pulse of a vaster circulatory system. Such subtle insistence as that expressed in this opening track shows up that much more vividly on our listening radars. We know the end because he hear it in the beginning.

Titles are as much suggestive of an inner spirit as of the skin in which that spirit resides. Case in point would be “Tsunami,” which from insistent beginnings regresses into a memory of the quake that set it off. Moret’s centrifugal bassing is unassuming enough that we might not even be aware of its force until we’re caught in it, while Sartorious brings a three-dimensional realism to every curling tendril of water. And while the tune does build to peak intensity, one never senses danger. “L’Onde” is a distant companion, and after some cinematic ellipses transitions into a playful center before returning to form. The title track likewise undoes its own promises by meeting expectation halfway with something that, while rhythmically sound, nevertheless dislocates its own body.

“Smile” takes a more geometric approach, flitting through changes of key in the way a face might through emotions. Sartorious is a wonder, his distorted repetitions existing only to reveal the smallest disparities between them. The same holds true of “Tinguely,” the only contribution of Moret’s pen, in which prepared piano bejewels the very shadows on the way to a high-energy build. In much of what follows, including the melodic highlight “Morn” and the collectively improvised curio cabinet that is “Oort,” one encounters understated exuberance, a montage approach to memory, and deepest respect for the foundational arpeggio. For these reasons and too many more to articulate, Vallon’s is one of the most unpretentious piano trios in existence, and Danse further proof of its staying power in the ECM canon as a quiet but impression-heavy tesseract of sound. Let us hope it spins as long as we do.

Ralph Towner: My Foolish Heart (ECM 2516)

My Foolish Heart

Ralph Towner
My Foolish Heart

Ralph Towner classical guitar, 12-string guitar
Recorded February 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 3, 2017

Any new solo album from Ralph Towner is reason to celebrate. Even more so when you consider the guitarist and ECM veteran was just shy of his 76th birthday at the time of this recording. Not that one would know it by the joie de vivre that infuses even its quietest moments. In the opening “Pilgrim” we find Towner at his quintessential best, gluing a mosaic of disparate scales. There’s a domestic feeling to this piece, as if the occasional strums were the sounds of a straw broom moving across a wooden floor.

Towner’s playing can always be counted on for tactility, unafraid as he is to let details shine through. This is especially true of “I’ll Sing To You,” one of the set’s most melodic tunes, and in which every scrape of calloused fingers is captured in vivid close-up. As a composer, he excels in evoking a title’s movement or feeling. To wit: the sashaying gait of “Saunter” and the Baroque-inspired footwork of “Dolomiti Dance.” Of a kindred spirit are the two tracks featuring 12-string. Where “Clarion Call” is filled with stops and starts, thus working its magic through interruption of a spell, “Biding Time” echoes with reflective purpose.

Both “Shard” and “Rewind” are standbys from the Oregon songbook, and by their inclusion speak to the will of nostalgia. The latter tune ends the album with undulations of narrative. Before that we are treated to “Blue As In Bley.” Dedicated to Paul Bley, who passed away not long before Towner stepped into the studio, it’s a complex and finely wrought piece, which like the improvisations of its dedicatee cohere by magic of immediacy. A smattering of briefer pieces injects the discs of this musical spine with extra fluid. Of these, “Ubi Sunt” is a highlight for its choral beauty.

The title song by Victor Young has long been a source of inspiration for Towner, who revisits it here in humility. In his hands it feels like an old video watched in quiet ponderance. Every scene is a chance at renewal, proof that not only songs but also their interpreters can grow better with age.

Theo Bleckmann: Elegy (ECM 2512)


Theo Bleckmann

Theo Bleckmann voice
Ben Monder guitar
Shai Maestro piano
Chris Tordini double bass
John Hollenbeck drums
Recorded January 2016 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 27, 2017

Through the fields,
why must I go home?
Through the night,
I see starlight.

Vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann, encountered most recently by ECM listeners in collaboration with the Julia Hülsmann Quartet, strikes out on his own with his first session for the label as leader. Then again, “strikes out” is too forceful a term for music that submerges its face so deeply into the font of mortality that it arises glistening with afterlife.

For this journey he is joined by guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Shai Maestro, bassist Chris Tordini, and drummer John Hollenbeck, all of whom create an experience of ambient integrity. In “Semblance,” tides of guitar and piano find an intimate shoreline along which to flow, introducing the album with a tenderness exceeded by what follows. It’s also the first of scattered instrumentals, including the microscopic “Littlefields” (to which is added the tracery of Hollenbeck) and “Cortège” (aglow with Tordini’s cinematic bassing). Even—if not especially—when singing wordlessly, Bleckmann paints with his entire being: a feeling magnified in such near-volcanic meditations as “The Mission” and the title track. The latter’s ability to wring fire from ice, and vice versa, is more than alchemical; it’s experiential. Monder’s guitar takes on a revelatory tone, and presages the distortions of Bleckmann’s voice as it turns in on itself in demise. Like the transitions from rural to urban sprawl in “Wither,” it builds its own machinery of reckoning one gear at a time.

As for words, they fall in a quiet storm. While Bleckmann’s slow take on “Comedy Tonight” transcends the Stephen Sondheim staple in morose orbit, “To Be Shown To Monks At A Certain Temple” sets the words of 8th-century poet-monk Chiao Jan. Its sustained guitar, anchored by bass and drums, spins a fragrant web across which Bleckmann’s vocal spider may crawl in search of enlightenment, content enough to shine a voice through every dew drop as if it were an amplifier. His own words inhabit “Fields” and “Take My Life,” each a long-distance call from soul to soul. The latter’s ode to self-sufficiency finds Monder articulating that inner struggle and Maestro lighting torches of wisdom along the way, until the body is a vessel of vessels, sailing into itself to do it all over again.

Dim the light inside my eyes
Then fill my lungs with quiet
Let me subside to states more serene
Extinguish complexities in my dream