Thomas Zehetmair: Sei Solo (ECM New Series 2551/52)

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Thomas Zehetmair
Sei Solo

Thomas Zehetmair Baroque violin
Recorded August 2016, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Hannelore Guittet
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 15, 2019

The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, inked by Johann Sebastian Bach under the trim title of Sei Solo (pseudo-Italian for “Six Solos”), are often lumped among his “secular” instrumental works, albeit as the crowning achievement of their kind. Yet they are every bit as spiritual as his cantatas and just as glorious in their ability to activate metaphysical particles in the listener. That said, they are more than illustratively hagiographic, for they are their own acts of transcendence.

We know little of the genesis of the Sei Solo, though Bach was accomplished enough as a violinist that he would have possessed requisite understanding of the instrument’s inner life to write them. And where some violinists—wittingly or not—take to obscuring the bodywork required of the interpreter, Thomas Zehetmair broke new ground in this regard with his recording for Telefunken in 1983. Said recording came to me by way of Teldec’s 1992 reissue (which I purchased on CD after wearing out my vinyl copy) and has been my benchmark ever since. Only later, once I saw that Zehetmair was being featured on an increasing number of ECM productions, including accounts of the solo works of Eugène Ysaÿe and Niccolò Paganini, and especially in light of ECM’s other takes on the Sei Solo by John Holloway and Gidon Kremer, I hoped he might one day think to revisit Bach’s masterworks. Imagine my elation when I saw the press release for this recording in my inbox. It was eminently worth the wait.

Now playing on period instruments that, by sheer coincidence, date from Bach’s birth and death years of 1685 and 1750 (along with two bows from around 1720) and recording in the priory of St. Gerold, a location known well by ECM aficionados as a favorite of the Hilliard Ensemble, Zehetmair brings more than thirty years of bonus experience to these personal interpretations.

Zehetmair’s use of gut strings, combined with the immediacy of playing without a shoulder rest, is palpable. As before, he eschews demonstrative pitfalls, lets endings exhale, and understands the architecture inherent to each movement, but this time brings the wisdom of life itself to bear on music that is, too, life itself. His ornamentation has grown in both detail and control—drawing from within rather than adding from without—and emphasizes the importance of reflective surfaces to give light meaning.

The Sonata No. 1 in G minor moves across his strings with the grandest of gestures, as if in that very sweep he describes the fullness of an entire village with all the histories, triumphs, and tragedies it has seen. Standing in the center of that village is a church where Bach himself can be seen praying for a world that is increasingly turning its ears away from the beauty it was designed to preserve. The initial effect is so inwardly focused that when extroversions like the Allegro emerge, they do so with light in their grasp. Zehetmair’s pacing is as magnificent as it is organic, swimming with the currents of time as a fish fearing neither hook nor net. His dynamics are also noteworthy, holding back with artful righteousness. Even in the briefer Siciliana, he ensures that every note has its say among a congregation of voices lifted high. Even the urgency conveyed in the final Presto is tempered by faith. Its balance of legato and rhythmic scraping is crepuscular.

The Allemanda that opens the Partita No. 1 in B minor is one of the most heroic passages of the entire collection (and, incidentally, where Zehetmair began the first recording). It is rendered here like an erratic brush painting. In moving through its narrative, cycling back to its repeat mark as if to confirm a memory before leaving it behind, Zehetmair allows previously glossed-over double stops to resonate a touch longer, speaking in a voice that can only resonate through hair and string. He plays the Double with such grace as to be its own hymn; the Corrente likewise. The Sarabande and its own double are hauntingly exquisite, as is the Tempo di Borea, which dances its way through the heart as if it were a springboard into doctrinal truth.

As Stanley Ritchie writes in his book on interpretations of the Sei Solo: “There is no such thing as ‘unaccompanied’ Bach.” This statement, I imagine, refers not only to the fact that the violinist must have an intuitive command of multiple strings and arpeggios (the connections of which bleed richly into one another in St. Gerold’s acoustics), but also to the music’s own self-referentiality. The Grave that begins the Sonata No. 2 in A minor, for instance, is certainly a ghost of the Allemanda that began the preceding Partita, and sets up the Fuga as if it were a closing statement from a pulpit. But then the tenderness of the Andante weaves its threads like a shroud for a glorified body and prepares to receive the sacrament of the final Allegro. Played at an initially conservative tempo, it escalates—as the flesh is wont to do—in abandonment of a rhythmic ideal, shifting from one phase to the next as if each were born of its own tempo.

The Allemanda of the Partita No. 2 in D minor breaks the chain of its cousins and forms a more rounded and contemplative sonic sculpture. Jumping over to the Giga, we encounter another wonder of the arpeggio in its ability to converse with itself. All of which brings us to the mighty Ciaccona. Despite taking on a life of its own as a self-contained performance piece, it is best heard in context. Zehetmair’s bowing comes across with sentience, as if compelled to communicate by something far more powerful than words: namely, melody. So, too, must we read carefully the Adagio opening the Sonata No. 3 in C major that follows as a continuation of that restless fatigue, and the organ-like Fuga that follows it as the beginning of a revival taken to fullness of joy in the concluding Allegro assai. What the exuberant Preludio of the Partita No. 3 in E major lacks in duration it makes up for in Zehetmair’s purity of interpretation. His mixture of the royal and the rustic is uniquely his own, as is true also of the Gavotte. And because the two Menuets feel like such snapshots out of time, the final Bourrée and Gigue are surely recreations of the past.

For me, at least, the bar has been set even higher by the one who placed it there to begin with. In so doing, Zehetmair has left us with a document unlike any other. The transformation he has undergone in a matter of decades—the same to which we are granted access over the span of two CDs—puts me in mind of Verses 1-7 from Psalm 102:

Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come unto thee. Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily. For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth. My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin. I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.

So, too, does the lone instrument gaze upon the world from its vantage point, waiting for grace to show itself. But one also knows that goodness is never far behind wherever evil treads, and that divine protection is ours for the taking because it is offered freely against enemies whose melodies reign dissonant and unsweet. Bach gives one such set of armor, and here it has been tempered to mirror shine.

Cyrillus Kreek: The Suspended Harp of Babel (ECM New Series 2620)

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Cyrillus Kreek
The Suspended Harp of Babel

Vox Clamantis
Jaan-Eik Tulve conductor
Marco Ambrosini, Angela Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Anna-Liisa Eller kannel
Recorded April 2018, Transfiguration Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Margo Kõlar
Recording supervision: Helena Tulve
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 8, 2020

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
Psalm 137:1-4

Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) is the latest member to be welcomed into ECM’s congregation of Estonian composers, and on this album we encounter a program of his choral music. Though a teacher by trade, Kreek spent decades transcribing nearly 1300 folk songs, three quarters of which he arranged for choir. These settings comprised a choral touchstone in Estonia and inspired such composers as Veljo Tormis and Tõnu Kõrvits in their own creative pursuits. Interpreted by Vox Clamantis and guided by director Jaan-Eik Tulve, these pieces constitute a worthy introduction for listeners outside Estonia to a composer who dedicated his life to the revitalization of local cultures. Joining these voices are Marco and Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa) and Anna-Liisa Eller (kannel), whose preludes, postludes, and intertextual commentaries render just enough connective tissue to channel our attention into the meaning of every word we hear.

The tender clarity of Kreek’s style lends itself authentically to the album’s many folk hymns, thus establishing a sacred baseline for all else that surrounds. Structures vary from the dancelike Mu süda, ärka üles (Awake, my heart) to the supplicating Kui suur on meie vaesus (Whilst great is our poverty), from the flowing Kes Jumalat nii laseb teha (He, who lets God prevail) to the prophetic Ma tulen taevast ülevelt (From heaven above to earth I come), in which the nyckelharpa shines through verses like the light of Bethlehem’s star. To my ears, however, the most powerful of these is Jakobi unenägu (Jacob’s dream), an Estonian runic song from Kanepi parish that moves through visions of crucifixion and lamentations of persecution by way of two solo voices: one singing, the other chanting in prayer. Such division mirrors the battle of flesh and spirit that every believer knows all too well. It also transitions into the Psalmnody of Kreek’s Õhtune jumalateenistus (Orthodox Vespers), from which two blessings are offered. His combined treatments of Psalms 135 and 136 show both his ability to restructure texts with humility of consideration and to compose by inspiration.

Beyond the Vespers, other Psalms emanate from his scores with supernatural purpose. The album’s title can be pieced together between the lilting hallelujahs of Paabeli jõgede kaldail (By the rivers of Babylon), thus hinting at God’s infinite nature through its picturing of the ephemeral. Another wonder to be cherished herein is Issand, ma hüüan Su poole (Lord, I cry unto Thee), a deep dive into Psalm 141 that enhances the folly of David’s doubting heart. As through the ache of Kiida, mu hing, Issandat (Bless the Lord, my soul) and the women’s voices of Päeval ei pea päikene (The sun shall not smite thee), images are born with an apparent age: a universe without precedent destined to prove the existence of eternity.

After the lively yet reflective Viimane tants (The last dance) from the Ambrosinis, we end with another Estonian hymn, Oh Jeesus, sinu valu (O Jesus, Thy pain), along with the song Dame, vostre doulz viaire by Guillaume de Machaut of 14th-century France. While the latter may seem an unexpected suffix in theory, in practice it is seamless. Moving backward, as if to remind us that time has neither beginning nor end, it pictures death, burial, and resurrection by the most fundamental element of them all: breath.

Jean-Louis Matinier/Kevin Seddiki: Rivages (ECM 2617)

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Jean-Louis Matinier
Kevin Sedikki
Rivages

Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Kevin Seddiki guitar
Recorded April 2018, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Mixed by Lara Persia (engineer) and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 29, 2020

Following one of my favorite productions of this century alongside nyckelharpa virtuoso Marco Ambrosini, accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier returns with another duo, this time sharing Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI studio with guitarist Kevin Seddiki. In the past, Matinier has contributed vitally to ECM sessions with Anouar Brahem and Louis Sclavis, but in the here and now of Rivages cultivates some of his most heart-to-heart playing yet. Because this marks Seddiki’s debut for the label, however, many ears will be on him. As a student of guitarist Pablo Márquez, he brings classical precision and emotional fluidity to the program, which draws on ten years of friendship and collaboration. After refining their rapport and repertoire alike, they put together a mix of in-house compositions, improvisations, and arrangements of material they love.

Indeed, love is on tap when the flotation of “Schumannsko” opens its eyes. Its marriage of a Bulgarian folk tune to a theme by Robert Schumann establishes a tone of mutual regard and open-ended communication that sustains itself to the album’s very end. The accordion’s purchase lends itself to the guitar, which itself allows melody to flourish unimpeded by the creeping vines of expectation. Clearly, flow is the default mode for this duo. Other original material upholds such virtues with consistency, illustrating each image, thought, and word with the care of a calligrapher. “Après la pluie,” for one, begins with Matinier drawing air through the bellows without a single note, evoking a breeze after a quiet storm, while Seddiki regards every earthward droplet from its leafy perch. “Rêverie,” for another, builds a conduit between dreaming and waking or, as in “Sous l’horizon,” between childhood and adulthood. The more virtuosic “In C” treats ecstasis not as hedonic pleasure but as a form of communication between realms.

Arrangements of enduring gems, by contrast, show Matinier and Seddiki at their gentlest. Where the traditional “Greensleeves” reveals darker shades and a fresh, jazzy quality, their take on Gabriel Fauré’s “Les berceaux” is an astonishing example of how a relatively straightforward presentation can reveal something new. The same holds true of “La chanson d’Hélène.” This classic song by French film composer Philippe Sarde is transformed. Such is the power of letting things grow until they are mature enough to shine on their own. Even in the duo’s colorful improvisations, of which the retrospective “Miroirs” is a highlight, they recognize the simple yet profound fact that neither an origin nor a destination mean anything without drawing a line of travel between them.

Terje Rypdal: Selected Recordings (:rarum 7)

Rypdal

Terje Rypdal
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

Among the cadre of guitarists gathered beneath ECM’s umbrella, Terje Rypdal stands as a pioneer of Nordic hybridism. His cross-pollination of rock, jazz, and classical influences continues to inspire listeners all these decades later, and a collection like this offers blinks of an eye’s worth of insight into the full scope of his craftsmanship. Having said that, I can lead you through this sequence in confidence that Rypdal himself has chosen for us a worthy discographic pilgrimage.

Of the trifecta referenced above, the most thoroughly represented persona is that of art rocker. Wielding his guitar like an ax in both the proverbial and literal sense, he rightly divides sonic truth from fluff across a spectrum of classic albums. From the representative 14-minute “Silver Bird Is Heading For The Sun” (Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away, 1974), in lockstep with drummer Jon Christensen over Mellotron strings, to the aphoristic “The Curse” (Blue, 1987), with bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr and drummer Audun Kleive, Rypdal takes fearless melodic risks, compressing shadows into a prism through which to shine the distorted light of his guitar. Said guitar sings in “Transition” (Chaser, 1985) and distorts in “Tough Enough” (from his 1971 self-titled debut), but always in a way that listens before it speaks.

On the jazzier side of things, we find him guiding a band of melodic travelers in “Waves” (from the 1978 album of the same name) and forensically examining the horn-laced groove of “Over Birkerot” (Odyssey, 1975) as if his life depended on it. His sweet spot, however, lies somewhere between those two coasts, and reaches its apex in “The Return Of Per Ulv” (If Mountains Could Sing, 1995). More than my all-time favorite Rypdal track, it’s also a giant leap of intuition for ECM’s shaping of his sound. Rypdal is unabashedly lyrical and Kjellemyr’s bass pliant yet unbreakably supportive in a tightrope walk between grunge and beauty. Other liminal spaces to be noted are the cowboy’s funereal dream that is “Mystery Man” (The Singles Collection, 1989) and “Ørnen” (another from Chaser), which stokes Bill Frisell-esque flame with a distinctly Rypdalian kindling.

We encounter Rypdal the bona fide composer via the second movement of his Double Concerto, which was paired with his 5th Symphony on a wonderful 2000 release. Strings and harpsichord add a finely woven carpet beneath Rypdal’s guitar, building to urgency before flowing back into a comfortable baseline.

Like a saddle that must be ridden many times before it is broken in and which molds itself to rider and horse alike, Rypdal’s guitar has been well-traveled and handled to the point of serving as an extension of his body and soul. Only time can know where each ride will take us and how long we will need to get there.

Bill Frisell: Selected Recordings (:rarum 5)

Frisell

Bill Frisell
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

Bill Frisell is one of a few musicians who came into prominence under Manfred Eicher’s purview yet has since gone on to spread his wings over landscapes of other labels. On ECM, however, he produced a body of work that was entirely uncommon, and embodies the :rarum title as much as any artist featured in its roster of compilations. His self-selection of music is as insightful as it is dreamily alive. Such a description could apply across the board, but perhaps nowhere so organically as in his work with drummer Paul Motian. On “Mandeville,” for instance, a cornerstone of 1982’s Psalm, his backwoods charm—cultivated as if in the marshlands of a distant childhood—carries that same fluid charge of Motian’s free associations, as also in the dark river currents of “Introduction” and “India” from 1985’s it should’ve happened a long time ago. The latter’s inclusion of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano shows just how wide a vista a trio can paint. Other key collaborations include “Singsong” (Wayfarer, 1983) with the Jan Garbarek Group, in which he and the saxophonist intertwine as birds who no longer need to hunt because they are fed by each other’s song, “Kind Of Gentle” with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler in 1997’s Angel Song (one of my all-time favorite ECMs), and “Closer” (Fragments, 1986) with pianist Paul Bley. In these, his guitar sings of the past in the language of the present.

Frisell’s albums as leader find him at his most distilled and hard-won. In this respect, he offers digests of three watershed sessions: 1988’s Lookout For Hope, 1985’s Rambler, and 1983’s solo In Line. The first contains such tender flavor profiles as “Alien Prints” and “Lonesome” and boasts the umami of cellist Hank Roberts. The second shows a grungier side of Frisell in such tracks as “Resistor” and “Tone.” In the third, we envision the surreal beauties of the title track. And while In Line also contains one of his gems, “Throughout,” we find it here not in its original form but as arranged by composer Gavin Bryars, who transformed it into the transcendent chamber piece Sub Rosa on 1994’s Vita Nova. In stretching Frisell’s sense of time to fill an era, offsetting regularity with slightly askew phrases, unexpected turns, and breath-stilling highs, Bryars-via-Frisell proves ECM to be its own ecosystem, filled with carefully planted hybrids thriving in crowning harmony.

Jan Garbarek: Selected Recordings (:rarum 2)

Garbarek

Jan Garbarek
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

After the broad yet intimate selected recordings of Keith Jarrett, it’s only natural that the :rarum series should follow up with another two-disc album from another of its biggest talents: Jan Garbarek. The Norwegian saxophonist and composer has left his fingerprints on many an object in the ECM curio cabinet, and in so doing has gifted listeners with countless hours of creative engagement, ideas, and memories. Indeed, perhaps more than those of most artists on the label, his albums are easily connected to times, places, and experiences for nearly everyone who has followed his career.

One thing that distinguishes this compilation from those that follow it is the abundance of title tracks, as if each were sigil of the past. From the anthemic enmeshments with Keith Jarrett on 1974’s Belonging and 1978’s My Song to his interdisciplinary collaborations with Shankar (Song For Everyone, 1985), Ustad Fateh Ali Khan (Ragas and Sagas, 1992), and Anouar Brahem (Madar, 1994), his saxophone is a cleansing harmonizer. Dominant but never dominating, its echoes carry every message as if it were the last. Like a strip of cloth washed in a river and wrung out to dry in the sun, it changes color in the evaporation process. Other noteworthy titles abound. Personal favorites include 1985’s It’s OK to listen to the gray voice, a timeless theme rendered by David Torn on guitar synthesizer, Eberhard Weber on bass, and Michael DiPasqua on drums that keeps us earthbound by the gentlest of gravities; 1992’s Twelve Moons, in which drummer Manu Katché and percussionist Marilyn Mazur add fire and attunement to one of his most mature melodies; and 1989’s Rosensfole, which elevates his arrangements of folk songs sung by Agnes Buen Garnås. It’s an album so brilliant and relatively neglected in the Garbarek catalog that I almost wish there was more of it here to entice newcomers to its wonders. Seek it out if you haven’t already.

Then again, any Garbarek admirer will know he has always been adept at creating traditions from scratch. Whether weaving himself into the rainforest with guitarist Egberto Gismonti and bassist Charlie Haden in “Cego Aderaldo” (Folk Songs, 1981) or rendering aching parabolas of honest reflection with organist Kjell Johnsen in “Iskirken” (Aftenland, 1980), or even riding the wave of windharp with Ralph Towner on 12-string guitar in “Viddene” (Dis, 1977), his music comes to us fully formed and preloaded with histories of their own. That thread of ancient purpose is woven through “Lillekort” (Eventyr, 1981), a track combining the signatures of percussionist Nana Vaconcelos and guitarist John Abercrombie on mandoguitar, and a turning point in the engineering of Garbarek’s sound. It continues on in “The Path” (Paths, Prints, 1982), a balancing act of sun and shade shared with guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Eberhard Weber, and drummer Jon Christensen, as well as “Its Name Is Secret Road” and “Aichuri, The Song Man,” both solo excursions documented on 1988’s Legend Of The Seven Dreams. Said thread reaches something of a terminus in Part 1 of the floating “Molde Canticle,” from 1990’s I Took Up The Runes.

This collection offers even more joys for veterans and newcomers alike, such the classical piece “Windsong” (Luminessence, 1975), written by Keith Jarrett and performed with the Stuttgart Südfunk Symphony Orchestra, and the iconic cries of “Skrik & Hyl” (Dansere, 1976), with pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Jon Christensen. There’s even a haunting nod to 1991’s StAR with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Peter Erskine.

But the two most important touchstones of my own Garbarek discovery are also to be found in these borders. First is “Parce Mihi Domine” (Officium, 1994). This profound collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble was my introduction to Garbarek at a time when I was only immersed in ECM’s New Series classical releases, and which compelled me to purchase one of Garbarek’s own albums, Visible World, thus opening the doors to ECM proper. The beginning of that 1996 masterpiece, “Red Wind,” has always been a special one for that reason alone. With barest means—Garbarek on synths and soprano and Mazur on percussion—it meshes beautiful details and unfettered expression and stands as a testament to a relationship between musician and producer that will never be equaled in the hall of mirrors that is our audible universe.

Terje Rypdal: Works

Rypdal

Terje Rypdal
Works
Release date: April 1, 1985

Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal almost singlehandedly defined an era with his signature electric sound. While that sound had much to do with his balancing of lyricism and grunge, and of his classical and rock leanings, it was forged in no small way in his compositional foundry. Such eclectic roots were already well-watered by the time of his 1971 self-titled ECM debut, from which “Rainbow” is included in this deserving collection. Joined by Jan Garbarek on flute, Eckehard Fintl on oboe, Arild Andersen on bass, and Jon Christensen on percussion, Rypdal delineates a resonant dream space where symphonies and concertos go to be reborn.

Though the works featured here are not presented in chronological order, it makes sense to do so here. Next in the chain is “The Hunt” (Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away, 1974). This relatively surreal tune marries the Mellotron of Pete Knutsen with the deep digs of bassist Sveinung Hovensjø, while the French horn of Odd Ulleberg exchanges letters of the soul with Rypdal through forested landscapes. Said letters might as well be signed “Better Off Without You” (Odyssey, 1975), in which Rypdal’s delicate arpeggio draws a trajectory through the heat distortion of Brynjulf Blix’s organ. The title track of 1978’s Waves carries over the same Hovensjø/Christensen rhythm section over the uninhabited spaces mapped by Palle Mikkelborg on trumpet and keyboards. Rypdal takes an immaterial rather than physical role, brushing on the atmosphere one shadowy strand at a time.

“Den Forste Sne” references Rypdal’s marvelous 1979 trio album with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The latter’s call is so bright that it would blind Vitous and Rypdal were it not for their solar responses. “Topplue, Votter & Skjerf,” from the 1981 follow-up To Be Continued, casts Rypdal in a leading role. Like a warrior without armor, he wields only melody and protective instincts. Between those two signposts stretches the hybrid banner of Descendre. With Mikkelborg and Christensen at his side, he digs through clouds like an archaeologist of the ether in “Innseiling” and sings like liquid mercury personified in that 1980 album’s title track. These are, however, but a few of his many facets, all of which are worth exploring in a career that continues to evolve with listeners firmly in mind.

Keith Jarrett: Works

Jarrett

Keith Jarrett
Works
Release date: April 1, 1985

If the artists represented by ECM’s “Works” series so far have been princes, then Keith Jarrett would be candidate for their king. The pianist (and multi-instrumentalist besides), composer, and interpreter continues to chart the most prolific path through the label’s history in solo, trio, and quartet settings, as well as through the lenses of multiple genres. For this compilation, we encounter all of those strands, save for his trio outings, which would warrant a collection in and of itself.

Two tunes from his second European Quartet album, 1978’s My Song, touch our collective soul with a highly individualistic tone. “Country” reinscribes the unrepeatable nature of the band. From the ways in which piano and Jan Garbarek’s tenor saxophone lay down the theme while the rhythm section of bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen emotes with equal assurance in horizontal (not vertical) relation to the exuberant restraint of Jarrett’s grounding throughout, it’s a tune that feels as much like a farewell as a hello. We then find ourselves walking “The Journey Home.” As Garbarek leads with melodic fortitude, he sets up a welcoming groove of light. Christensen is especially three-dimensional, while Jarrett defers to Garbarek’s charms and really only dominates in the final slowdown.

From that rich soundscape to the wonders of unaccompanied hideaways, we turn to “Ritooria,” from Jarrett’s 1972 ECM debut, Facing You. Like a candle burning in the dark for all who have ears to sense its dancing flame, it holds on to its wick in the left hand while the right flickers erratically yet connectedly. Another lone effort, Staircase, yields Part II of that 1977’s album’s title triptych. If you haven’t already revisited it, let this track remind you of it as one of Jarrett’s finest studio achievements alone at the piano. Like two transparencies of the same image overlapped yet slightly askew, it develops through not-quite-parallel voices, ending in almost ritualistic space. The only live solo selection is “Nagoya Part IIb (Encore)” from 1989’s Sun Bear Concerts. Treading the keyboard as if it were water, Jarrett holds every note in place before finding rest in gentle chords.

Between these relatively direct expressions of personal energy, Jarrett the composer is represented by the 2nd movement of his String Quartet, as performed by the Fritz Sonnleitner Quartet on 1974’s In The Light. Despite being a lovely work in its own right, it feels straightjacketed in its present company. (I might have chosen the beautiful Metamorphosis for flute and strings from that same program instead.) Somewhere in between those two poles of classicalist and improviser is Jarrett’s often-overlooked 1981 masterpiece Invocations/The Moth and the Flame, from which “Invocations (Recognition)” is excerpted. A semi-waltzing rhythm via pipe organ sets up an echoing soprano saxophone, warped and yet flowing in the right direction at any given moment. All of which serves to remind us that we are indeed nothing but moths in the presence of Jarrett’s alluring combustion, struggling to recreate our shape in the air long enough to be regarded as (to reference a much later title) a multitude of angels struggling to record what can never be notated, except on the ephemeral paper of the flesh.

Ketil Bjørnstad: A passion for John Donne (ECM 2394)

2394-front

Ketil Bjørnstad
A passion for John Donne

Håkon Kornstad tenor saxophone, flute, voice
Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Birger Mistereggen percussion
Oslo Chamber Choir
Håkon Daniel Nystedt
conductor
Recorded live March 2012, Sofienberg Kirke, Oslo
at the Oslo International Church Music Festival
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
An ECM Production
Release date: October 24, 2014

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to men;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Pianist and composer Ketil Bjørnstad has sailed some of ECM’s purest waters. Yet while many of those journeys have been instrumental, he has with increasing frequency turned to the human voice as a candle from which to exude a melodic glow. True to metaphor, much of 2008’s The Light represented a major engagement with English poet John Donne (1572-1631), whose verses are the backbone of the present recording. Written for the Oslo International Church Festival and given its premiere in March of 2012 (the very performance heard here), Bjørnstad’s A passion for John Donne features Håkon Kornstad (tenor saxophone, flute, voice) in his ECM debut alongside percussionist Birger Mistereggen, the Oslo Chamber Choir under the direction of Håkon Daniel Nystedt, and the composer himself at the keyboard.

An Introitus gradates this hymnal piece into existence with a gong before piano and choir pull back the curtain of night to reveal a dawn-lit choral arrangement of “Thou hast made me.” As Kornstad’s tenor weaves through the undergrowth of these self-reflective intonations, unfolding one wordless implications after another, a silent heart of reverence is illuminated. Kornstad also sings, lending sanctity to “A fever” and “Farewell to love” as Bjørnstad shelters him like a church would a believer.

The writing for choir is sweeping yet intimate, most notably in “Death, be not proud” and “A nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day,” the latter an atmospherically rich tapestry of waning moons and withdrawn souls. “A valediction, forbidden mourning” is another memorable passage, its use of marimba laying a supple path for Kornstad’s reed and voice to wander.

Each poem enacts a laser-focused concentration of mortality, distilling years of life into single words and phrases. This scriptural quality lends itself well to the piece’s concept as a “passion,” which by virtue of its promises of everlasting life through the doorways of death and love gives rise to a grander meaning in the texts. Like the benediction for incorruptible blood with which it ends, its prayerful mold feels more ripe than ever to be filled with our submissive will.