Kristjan Randalu: Absence (ECM 2586)

2586 X

Kristjan Randalu
Absence

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

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

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

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

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

Maciej Obara Quartet: Unloved (ECM 2573)

Unloved

Maciej Obara Quartet
Unloved

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

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

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

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

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

The Study of Touch

Django Bates’ Belovèd
The Study Of Touch

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

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

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

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

ECM by the Decades: Final Installment Tonight

Join me and host Andrew Castillo tonight (May 21) on WKCR’s Jazz Alternatives program, from 6-9pm EST. We’re continuing where we left off, closing out our series with a selection of personal ECM catalog favorites from 2010 to the present. Click the logo below to be directed to the WKCR website, where you may stream us live by clicking the “LISTEN” icon on the top-right corner of the screen. As always, if you’re unable to tune in, we’ll be archiving the program here for future streaming and downloads.

WKCR

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Awase (ECM 2603)

Awase

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Awase

Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha bass clarinet, alto saxophone
Thomy Jordi bass
Kaspar Rast drums
Recorded October 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: May 4, 2018

The booklet for Awase, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch’s latest release with his band of Ronin, quotes French theorist Roland Barthes: “The sign is a fracture which only ever opens onto the face of another sign.” Perhaps no other statement better expresses the fractal nature of this music, for the more one zooms in on its precisions, the more one senses its freedoms expand. Joined by Sha (bass clarinet and alto saxophone), Kaspar Rast (drums) and newest recruit Thomy Jordi (bass), Bärtsch finds himself rooted in a familiar ethos while sprouting new verdure.

The album continues his “modular” approach, by which larger bodies coalesce from elemental forces. The newest of these, “Modul 60” and “Modul 59,” open and close the album with hints of a concentrated future. Where the latter emotes in liminal territory, the former is a direct link to Continuum, Bärtsch’s previous record for ECM with his Mobile project. Any nods to the past, however, are refracted through a brighter coming of age: a sound that once ran now leaps. The ritual groove of “Modul 58,” for instance, is at once what we might expect and a fresher take on group integration, a taste of perpetual motion shown in the band’s willingness to let details express themselves to the level of ecstasy. “Modul 36” reveals the deepest change; known to any longtime listener of Bärtsch, here it takes on the uniformly colored properties that would seem to extend the band’s evolutionary path. It’s a classic yet forward-thinking groove, one that feels like a childhood home renovated from the inside out. “Modul 34” is another early tune, only now making its studio debut. There’s an almost digital quality to it, nuanced by human touch.

Awase is also a departure for including a non-Bärtsch original by Sha: the enigmatically titled “A.” Gradually building an ocean out of a water droplet, its waves flow to the magnetic suggestions of an itinerant philosophical compass. Like the album as a whole, it toes the line between light and shadow with every intention of shedding its ego to both along (and by) the way.

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

ECM by the Decades: The 1990s

On April 9, 2018, WKCR DJ Andrew Castillo and I presented the third in our five-part series, “ECM by the Decades,” focusing this time on the 1990s. The episode is now available to listen by clicking the PLAY button below. You may also download the full episode by clicking here. Scroll down for a full playlist, including links to my reviews of each album:

LEAD-IN
Jan Garbarek
RITES (ECM 1685/86)
“Rites”

[INTRO @ 00:08:25]

00:15:02
Kenny Wheeler Quintet
The Widow In The Window (ECM 1417)
“Ma Belle Hélène”

00:23:42
Dino Saluzzi Group
Mojotoro (ECM 1447)
“Lustrin”

00:30:00
Don Cherry
Dona Nostra (ECM 1448)
“What Reason Could I Give”

00:33:45
Trevor Watts/Moiré Music Drum Orchestra
Wider Embrace (ECM 1449)
“Southern Memories”

[BREAK @ 00:41:39]

00:45:27
John Surman
Adventure Playground (ECM 1463)
“As If We Knew”

00:52:54
Charles Lloyd
Notes From Big Sur (ECM 1465)
“Requiem”

01:00:54
Arild Andersen/Ralph Towner
If You Look Far Enough (ECM 1493)
“For All We Know”

[BREAK @ 01:04:56]

01:10:30
Peter Erskine/Palle Danielsson/John Taylor
You Never Know (ECM 1497)
“Evans Above”

01:16:48
Bobo Stenson Trio
Reflections (ECM 1516)
“Reflections in D”

01:22:12
Ketil Bjørnstad/David Darling/Terje Rypdal/Jon Christensen
The Sea (ECM 1545)
“The Sea II”

[BREAK @ 01:29:40]

01:33:27
Terje Rypdal
If Mountains Could Sing (ECM 1554)
“The Return Of Per Ulv”

01:38:24
Jack DeJohnette
Dancing With Nature Spirits (ECM 1558)
“Anatolia”

01:50:33
Nils Petter Molvær
Khmer (ECM 1560)
“Access / Song of Sand I”

[BREAK @ 01:56:26]

01:59:33
Jan Garbarek
Visible World (ECM 1585)
“Red Wind”

02:03:21
Misha Alperin
North Story (ECM 1596)
“North Story”

02:08:45
Tomasz Stanko
Leosia (ECM 1603)
“Morning Heavy Song”

[BREAK @ 02:15:23]

02:17:50
Kenny Wheeler
Angel Song (ECM 1607)
“Nicolette”

02:26:19
Ralph Towner
ANA (ECM 1611)
“The Reluctant Bride”

02:30:43
Dino Saluzzi
Cité de la Musique (ECM 1616)
“Gorrión”

[BREAK @ 02:34:02]

02:35:52
Christian Wallumrød Trio
No Birch (ECM 1628)
“The Birch 2”

02:39:00
Charles Lloyd
Voice In The Night (ECM 1674)
“Homage”

02:48:22
Vassilis Tsabropoulos/Arild Andersen/John Marshall
Achirana (ECM 1728)
“Fable”

[CLOSING REMARKS @ 02:56:40]

LEAD-OUT
Arild Andersen
Hyperborean (ECM 1631)
“Patch Of Light I”

ECM by the Decades: The 1980s

On March 12, 2018, WKCR DJ Andrew Castillo and I presented the second in our five-part series, “ECM by the Decades,” focusing this time on the 1980s. The episode is now available to listen by clicking the PLAY button below. You may also download the full episode by clicking hereThere were some microphone issues during my introductory remarks, so the volume is rather low in that portion alone. Scroll down for a full playlist, including links to my reviews of each album:

LEAD-IN
Hajo Weber/Ulrich Ingenbold
Winterreise (ECM 1235)
“Karussell”

[INTRO @ 00:07:24]
(Please excuse the microphone issues here…)

00:11:54
Art Ensemble of Chicago
Full Force (ECM 1167)
“Old Time Southside Street Dance”

00:17:03
Eberhard Weber
Little Movements (ECM 1186)
“‘No Trees?’ He Said”

00:22:03
Rainer Brüninghaus
Freigeweht (ECM 1187)
“Stufen”

00:30:21
Steve Eliovson
Dawn Dance (ECM 1198)
“Venice”

[BREAK @ 00:36:51]

00:43:16
David Darling
Cycles (ECM 1219)
“Cycle Song”

00:50:18
Mike Nock
Ondas (ECM 1220)
“Doors”

00:56:40
Paul Motian Band
Psalm (ECM 1222)
“Psalm”

[BREAK @ 01:03:27]

01:12:15
Dewey Redman Quartet
The Struggle Continues (ECM 1225)
“Joie De Vivre”

01:20:42
Chick Corea
Trio Music (ECM 1232/33)
“Eronel”

01:25:17
Bill Frisell
In Line (ECM 1241)
“Throughout”

[BREAK @ 01:32:04]

01:36:54
Steve Tibbetts
Safe Journey (ECM 1270)
“Test”

01:43:07
Everyman Band
Without Warning (ECM 1290)
“Patterns Which Connect”

01:48:30
Marc Johnson
Bass Desires (ECM 1299)
“Samurai Hee-Haw”

[BREAK @ 01:56:09]

01:59:09
Gary Burton Quintet
Whiz Kids (ECM 1329)
“Yellow Fever”

02:05:52
Enrico Rava/Dino Saluzzi Quintet
Volver (ECM 1343)
“Minguito”

02:17:05
Oregon
Ecotopia (ECM 1354)
“ReDial”

[BREAK @ 02:22:59]

02:27:04
The Paul Bley Quartet
s/t (ECM 1365)
“One In Four”

02:36:31
First House
Cantilena (ECM 1393)
“Cantilena”

02:39:57
Dave Holland Quartet
Extensions (ECM 1410)
“The Oracle”

ECM by the Decades: Second Installment Tonight

Please join me and host Andrew Castillo tonight on WKCR’s Jazz Alternatives program, from 6-9pm EST. We’re continuing where we left off, exploring some hidden (and some not-so-hidden) gems of the ECM catalog from the 1980s. Click the logo below to be directed to the WKCR website, where you will find more information about tonight’s program, and where you may stream us live by clicking the “LISTEN” icon on the top-right corner of the screen. Note: there will be no fundraising interruptions this time around, so listen with confidence! And even if you’re unable to tune in, we will be archiving the program here for future streaming and downloads.

WKCR

ECM by the Decades: Upcoming Shows

Thank you all who tuned in for my first of four “ECM by the Decades” radio shows on WKCR. Host Andrew Castillo and I will continue our saga through the label on March 12, April 9, and April 23. For those of you who joined us live during the first show, you will be pleased to know that the station’s fundraising efforts for this cycle are complete and that our show will no longer be interrupted. I am grateful for your patience the first time around. We’ll be on the air next Monday from 6-9pm EST, streamling live on the station website here. A podcast version will also appear on this website soon thereafter.