My latest book review, for the website Contemporary Japanese Literature, is of Keigo Higashino’s problematic mystery novel, Under the Midnight Sun. Click the cover to read my critique.
Into The Silence
Avishai Cohen trumpet
Bill McHenry tenor saxophone
Yonathan Avishai piano
Eric Revis double-bass
Nasheet Waits drums
Recorded July 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: February 12, 2016
Following his appearance as sideman on Mark Turner’s Lathe of Heaven, Avishai Cohen makes his leader debut for ECM Records. Bearing dedication to his late father, Into The Silence teams the trumpeter with a fantastic band of his own that includes tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Nasheet Waits. This effort marks the first time the band had, as such, stepped foot inside a studio, and the results hark back to the golden age of ECM in both texture and mood. From its spacious arranging and freely realized originals to its classical roots (the solo piano music of Rachmaninoff was a conscious inspiration) and cross-pollination of styles, Cohen’s musical identity speaks at once from without and within.
Through the six-sided prism of as many tunes, Cohen shines a light as only the darkness of mourning could yield. The muted lines of “Life And Death” feel as much celebratory as elegiac. Cohen thus asserts himself as more than a voice among the voiceless, as if the album’s titular silence were not the absence of sound but a personal choice to protect one’s dreams. Here, however, we are bathed in dreamlike qualities with such melodiousness that it’s all we can do to not imagine the many fates that must have convened to produce this patient bit of magic. Avishai’s pianism is another ripe fruit in the band’s gift basket. Morphing from barest comping to bluesy climatic shifts and sparkling tails, he is a comet in an already starry sky. The end of this opener, though a postludinal afterthought, is just as substantial as what comes before it.
“Dream Like A Child” only deepens the spell craft of its predecessor. Unmuted yet just as vulnerable, Cohen undoes the ribbon of this offering to reveal a melodic ocean just aching to crash on the listener’s shore. The pianism is majestic yet aptly proportioned, mirroring the underlying respectful altitude at every turn: just when you think it has gathered enough momentum to soar, it touches its feet to the earth. Though things do cohere in more groove-oriented ways as the rhythm section builds a higher and higher wall from which Cohen and McHenry must jump, there’s no doubt that the ground will hold its foundation through Waits’s textural reinforcements.
The title track expands on ECM’s evolving ethos of ritualistic jazz, as drums and microtonal harmonies in the piano interlock with downright spiritual patience. Again, the band flirts with groove but foregoes that sweetness for a cerebral savory. These strategies become more evident with repeat listens (for this is, indeed, an album you’ll want to return to time and again). Waits is an organic force here, moving from tumbling abstractions to tight snare rolls at the flick of a wrist, his plumage fully outstretched.
Somberness, however, is never far behind, and “Quiescence” bottles its fragrance like a master perfumer. Cohen’s trumpeting is the center of a vocal solar system, shining through planets forged in thematic space dust. Lengths of days and seasonal changes are determined by the gravitational pull of nostalgia, so that by the next track, “Behind The Broken Glass,” one knows that fragmentation is a universal law. Cohen proves that, in the wake of any emotional shattering, no effort of putting the pieces back together will produce a clean reflection, for it will always bear the scars of its undoing. The breadth of his inspirations has brought him to this humble (and humbling) realization in his career, and finds empathetic amplification in his bandmates that funnels in the solo piano reprise of “Life And Death” that ends the album’s journey.
Having seen this project with a different roster at the 2016 New York City Winter Jazzfest, I can attest to the raw, living power of its music. So much so that, following that experience, this studio date feels somewhat tame by comparison. So: see them in person if you can, but revel in the wonders of this “second best” all the same, for in them is a pilot light that ECM lit nearly five decades ago, and which continues to burn pure and warm despite the winds of change.
Pat Metheny guitars
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Gary Burton vibraphone
Scott Colley double bass
Danny Gottlieb drums
Paul McCandless English horn, soprano saxophone
Klaus Graf alto saxophone
Ernst Hutter euphonium
Eberhard Weber bass (from tapes)
Michael Gibbs arranger, conductor
Ralf Schmid arranger
Rainer Tempel arranger
Libor Šíma arranger
SWR Big Band
Helge Sunde conductor
Concert organized and produced by Martin Mühleis, sagas productions
Recorded by SWR, January 2015, at Theaterhaus Stuttgart by Doris Hauser, Volker Neumann, and Boris Kellenbenz (technician)
Mixed at SWR Studio, Stuttgart, by Volker Neumann (engineer), Manfred Eicher, Eberhard Weber
Pat Metheny’s “Hommage” mixed in New York by Pete Karam
Mastering: Christoph Stickel at MSM Studios, Munich
An ECM Production in collaboration with SWR
Redaktion: Günther Huesmann
SWR Big Band Manager: Hans-Peter Zachary
U.S. release date: September 11, 2015
Bassist Eberhard Weber two-handedly defined a generation of sounds, resulting in some of the most iconic albums the ECM catalog has to offer. In recognition of his contributions to the arts of performance and recording, Weber received the Jazzpreis Baden-Württemberg lifetime achievement award on his 75th birthday, and was guest of honor at jubilee concerts held in January of 2015—proving that, despite the stroke that rendered him unable to play since 2007, Weber’s fire blazes on.
Among his illustrious torchbearers is guitarist Pat Metheny, who in a liner note for the album describes lasting indebtedness, having joined Weber on the classic Ring and Passengers (Weber also appeared on Metheny’s Watercolors). As one who has always made the most of technology to harmonious advantage, Metheny acknowledges the inspiration manifest “in the instruments that [Weber] had built to bring that sound into the air, crystallizing a sonic fingerprint that even all these years later remains as uniquely identifiable and fresh as it was on first hearing back then.” All of which makes it doubly celebration-worthy to see Metheny swimming again in ECM waters. His “Hommage” is, in fact, this disc’s centerpiece. A sprawling world unto itself, it includes its dedicatee as performer in the form of video footage of the improvising bassist projected onto a screen at stage rear, creating what the composer calls “my imagined virtual Eberhard.” The idea somewhat recalls the speech-to-melody experiments of composer Steve Reich, with whom Metheny has worked and whose influence can be felt here in certain passages throughout the half-hour-plus suite.
Germany’s SWR Big Band, backing a chain of venerable soloists, brings this and the other works on the program to a resurrected state, here supporting solos from the formidable Gary Burton (vibes), Scott Colley (bass), Danny Gottlieb (drums), and Metheny himself. The opening is everything that Weber’s music ever was and will be: verdant, atmospheric, and fully developed right out of the box. The videographic Weber is almost ghostly, but over time feels less like an avatar and more a viable player whose creativity shines with unquenchable force. Metheny navigates their virtual interactions deferentially at first before easing into fuller integration, while the band handles this transformation with grace at director Helge Sunde’s exacting touch. The latter’s consistency ensures that Burton’s soloing is both the vessel and the water keeping it afloat; that Colley’s bassing, while distinctly Weberian, also adds its own shades to the spectrum; that Gottlieb’s adornments feel like more than just that; that Metheny’s flights always have their shadow in full view; and that Weber’s archival reveries transcend the limits of space and time they’ve been allotted.
Before this, listeners are treated to a far more intimate introduction in Jan Garbarek’s “Résumé Variations.” Based on the album of the same name, this piece finds the saxophonist improvising in his cinematic, clarion way around prerecorded bass lines. The two instruments intertwine in a way that only years of collaboration could produce, as if two massive continents of time were coming together in the least destructive abduction imaginable.
On the other side of Metheny’s juggernaut is a string of artfully pruned evergreens. “Touch” evokes the golden age of Yellow Fields. Featuring solos by Burton and Ernst Hutter on euphonium, and arranged by Ralf Schmid, this timeless jewel floats on a bed of vibraphone, moving in breezy fashion across its landscapes with the redolence of an old film magically restored. Its reach is matched by “Maurizius,” here arranged by Michael Gibbs and breathing with all the power, and more, of the original. Sharing solo duties with Burton is Paul McCandless, who carries his soprano saxophone to distant shores in this quintessential turn from Later That Evening. The same soloists carry over into an arrangement of “Tübingen” by Rainer Tempel, whose sense of flow meshes sympathetically with Weber’s. McCandless and Burton weave a carpet of textures through a stirring and complex sound that is equal parts somberness and joy.
Two reimagined songs from Pendulum close out the program: “Notes After An Evening” and, available as an exclusive bonus track via digital download, “Street Scenes.” Both are masterfully arranged by Libor Šíma, who gives them a certain heft. Burton and McCandless reappear, with alto saxophonist Klaus Graf adding his nocturnal lines to “Notes.” McCandless’s English horn, by contrast, burns like the sun in “Scenes,” balancing out cooler blasts from the band at large with energetic forecasting.
Given that Weber will never play again, one can’t help but find something bittersweet about these performances, built as they are on a legacy that, while nominally retired, lives on, their poignancy like a pair of lips pursed to a candle flame—yet which, instead of puffing it out, contributes to its glow.
Be sure to check out the DVD of these performances, available from Jazzhaus, which I have reviewed here.
Anthony de Mare
Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano
Anthony de Mare piano
All pieces were commissioned expressly for The Liaisons Project, Rachel Colbert and Anthony de Mare, Producers.
Producer for The Liaisons Project: Rachel Colbert
Recording producer and engineer: Judy Sherman
Additional engineer and editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis
Recorded 2010-2014 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, and Greenfield Recital Hall, Manhattan School of Music, New York.
Backing tracks for “Birds of Victorian England” engineered by Kevin Boutote
“Johanna In Space” backing track provided by Duncan Sheik
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Steve Lake at MSM Studios, Munich
An ECM Production
Listen to that old piano roll play.
When I hear that old piano roll play,
I just gotta dance,
And what I mean is dance with you.
In her exhaustive biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest shares the story of an adolescent Sondheim’s encounter with the 1945 film Hangover Square, and within it a piano concerto written by scorer Bernard Herrmann. The music’s bold mix of romanticism and Americana captured Sondheim’s imagination and was to become part of the origins of his intersections with the dramatic stage.
Sondheim has always composed at the keyboard, charting out his scores in great detail, to be orchestrated by (since 1970) esteemed collaborator Jonathan Tunick. Broadway has relied on this formula, which over the decades the duo funneled into surefire productions, but the project lovingly packaged in this three-disc collection from ECM takes Sondheimania to a new level through the intervention of rigorously trained note-smiths, each occupying a band along a spectrum of collaborations from a distance.
The roster of composers, who the behest of new music champion Anthony de Mare wrote new variations on the theme of Sondheim, reveals a depth and variety equaled by the songs they have re-imagined, as William Bolcom, Nico Mulhy, Steve Reich, David Rakowski, Eve Beglarian, Jason Robert Brown, Duncan Sheik, Eric Rockwell, Wynton Marsalis, Derek Bermel, Fred Hersch, Annie Gosfield, Jake Heggie, Kenjie Bunch, Ethan Iverson, Ricardo Lorenz, Paul Moravic, Frederic Rzewski, David Shire, John Musto, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Phil Kline, Bernadette Speach, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Andy Akiho, Ricky Ian Gordon, Nils Vigeland, Rodney Sharman, Gabriel Kahane, Thomas Newman, Jherek Bischoff, Mary Ellen Childs, Peter Golub, Tania Leon, and de Mare himself put a personal spin on the Sondheim songbook that is as true to life as it is to art.
Though Sondheim has historically been averse to being interviewed, in this collection we hear him speaking through the hearts of every composer who has felt his influential hand. In an album note, he himself describes these pieces not as “decorations” but “fantasias” of his songs. Indeed, Sondheim’s recognizable voice has been reworked with such fidelity—one original inspiring other originals to create new originals—that one need hardly peel away any layers of obfuscation to find him. Above all, however, it’s his scarcely rivaled gift for pastiche that resonates by virtue of de Mare’s encyclopedic flair.
According to Mark Eden Horowitz’s extensive liner text, the composers chose their songs based more on the lyrics and their stories than the melodies sung around them. And so, one can listen assured that de Mare’s consummate touch makes room on his metaphorical suitcase to display every sonic sticker of his travels. His dramatic, romping, emotional rollercoaster ride through A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), and Passion (1994) accordingly dwells as much on differences as similarities, bringing to fruition a “global” sound.
Not surprisingly, Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd gets the most nods of the program, in addition to yielding a lion’s share of its highlights. One of those is Sheik’s “Johanna in Space.” This atmospheric gem opens with the chimes of a clock emulated on the piano and stretches itself over an electronic backdrop à la Tim Story. Todd’s ill-fated daughter is further subject of Brown’s “Birds of Victorian England,” which requires no small amount of heavy lifting from de Mare. As can be expected, Sweeney Todd engenders ample opportunity for over-the-top dynamics, epitomized in the spiraling density and fluent outcries of Bunch’s “The Demon Barber.” Other fine examples of the protagonist’s crushing pessimism abound, whether through the intimate knowledge of Newman’s “Not While I’m Around” or, in a satirical turn, Lorenz’s “The Worst [Empanadas] in London.” The latter requires a performer of de Mare’s chops to pull off the feel for rhythm and energy on which it subsists. De Mare welcomes the listener by shouting, “A customer!” as if in throwback to the speaking-singing pianist genre of which he was such a foundational proponent through his premiere of Rzewski’s De Profundis. It’s only natural, then, that Rzewski should have a piece included: the elegiac “I’m Still Here.” This and other selections from Follies, such as Wynton Marsalis’s Jelly Roll Morton-infused take on “That Old Piano Roll”, imply a bygone age with plenty of style to spare.
Company inspires a handful of homages as well, including Rakowski’s impressionistic “The Ladies Who Lunch,” through which Sondheim’s love for Ravel shines (as also in Bermel’s “Sorry/Grateful”); Rockwell’s tangible “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” in which the composer “imagined a pianist trying desperately to catch the attention of rowdy patrons at a cabaret with as wide ranging a series of pastiches as possible”; and Roumain’s “Another Hundred People,” which invokes the troubled crooning of a Kurt Cobain or Thom Yorke.
A Little Night Music lifts its story from the Ingmar Bergman comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, and its comic touches are duly noticeable in Speach’s “In and Out of Love” (a personal album favorite), which shuffles the harmonies of “Send in the Clowns” (see also Iverson’s whimsical take on the same) into a balladic “Liaisons.”
Sunday in the Park gives us Muhly’s minimal yet expansive “Color and Light,” which embodies the pointillism that so fascinated the play’s subject, Georges Seurat. Muhly’s feel for the piano as a textural toolbox translates superbly. Reich’s more compact “Finishing the Hat” is scored for two pianos (de Mare multi-tracks himself) and links a brief yet persistent chain of chords. Sharman’s “Notes on ‘Beautiful,’” on the other hand, originally a duet between Seurat and his mother, no becomes a conversation between the living composer and his deceased mother. De Mare’s rendition of “Sunday in the Park – Passages (encore)” opens a lifeline to possibilities, and makes us feel connected to our own.
Shire’s “Love is in the Air” puts a delightful spin on the original opening number of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, underscoring de Mare’s abilities to evoke the past in a language of the future, while Bolcom’s “A Little Night Fughetta” references Anyone Can Whistle, pushing Bach through a jazzy filter of development. Pacific Overture is another of the less represented but no less effective source texts. Gosfield’s “A Bowler Hat” displays a meticulous feel for deconstruction, while Kline’s “Paraphrase (Someone in a Tree)” paints the first meeting between American and Japanese officials in 1853 with unexpected colors. Merrily We Roll Along gives us León’s “going…gone,” another remarkable highlight that, along with Akiho’s “Into the Woods” is perhaps the most technically demanding of the program. Hersch’s “No One is Alone” is another ode to Into the Woods, this one pentatonic and alliterative. And let me not neglect Beglarian, who pays tribute to Passion in her “Perpetual Happiness.” This striking piece is as real as the music gets on Liaisons, and builds its wings one feather at a time, until flight is achieved.
Doing justice to all of the composers and pieces represented here would be a futile, wordy exercise. Suffice it to say there isn’t a single sour note to be found, and as a whole the album demonstrates that, while Sondheim’s music may sometimes play hard to get, it will love you through and through if you let it, because that’s all it wants to do.
If you’re as much of an ECM New Series fan as I am, you will likely have encountered the bewildering yet inescapable pull of Helmut Lachenmann’s masterful opera, The Little Match Girl. I reviewed the album here, and have just come across this wonderful article by Johanna Keller, who puts the opera in a broader historical context and gives us a sense of its staging.
Nils Økland Band
Nils Økland viola d’amore, Hardanger fiddle, violin,
Rolf-Erik Nystrøm alto and baritone saxophones
Sigbjørn Apeland harmonium
Mats Eilertsen double bass
Håkon Mørch Stene percussion, vibraphone
Recorded June 2012, Hoff Church Østre Toten, Norway
Engineer: Audun Strype
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 8, 2016
Since his 1996 solo debut, Blå Harding, Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland has charted a range of melodic waters, always docking at the intersection of traditional and contemporary music. His relationship with ECM has produced a series of artistic statements, each more cohesive than the last. His first for the label was 2009’s Monograph, a solo album of great scope that led to 2011’s Lysøen, in duet with Sigbjørn Apeland. And now we have Kjølvatn, for which he has assembled a full band under his own name. Apeland rejoins the fray, here playing harmonium, along with saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and percussionist Håkon Mørch Stene. Each has lived in that gray area between folk, jazz, and classical, and funnels his unique experiences into Økland’s sound-world like grains of sand through an hourglass.
Having worked with these musicians for years in some configuration or another (all except Nystrøm played on Bris, released in 2004 on Rune Grammofon), Økland revisits a trove of older material with special familiarity. A look at even a few of the tunes shows the breadth of his network. He wrote “Mali,” for instance, after attending a concert by Swedish rapper Timbuktu. The band’s profiles cohere evocatively in this opening piece, as in the album’s title track, a retroactive score for the 1933 Scottish silent film The Rugged Island. “Undergrunn” (Underground), too, feels quite integrated, arising as it did from a collaboration with the London Sinfonietta around folk motifs. Such diversity of origins suggests that Økland’s influences are as complex and fragmentary as life itself.
Økland employs a variety of open tunings on the album, each of which has its own special name. The “dark blue” tuning (D-D-A-D) is heard on the processional “Drev” (Drifted), wherein are bolded Stene’s percussive colors, and “Start” the so-called “troll tuning” (B-E-B-D#). In the latter, Økland combines ancient structures and modern minimalism, both of which he sees as relying on short motifs multiplied to form larger structures.
Økland has been increasingly inspired by the viola d’amore, which like his mainstay instrument has extra strings that vibrate sympathetically beneath the main four, and on tracks “Puls” and “Skugge” (Shadow) he draws a darker soul from this cousin. In the former piece, the heartbeat is evoked by Stene on kettledrum, while Eilertsen explores kindred frequencies. Over this, a flight from Økland’s bow touches the ocean with a wingtip in search of nesting territory.
Location matters a lot in Kjølvatn, which was recorded at the Hoff stone church in the countryside of Norway’s Oppland county. Økland’s go-to engineer, Audun Strype, captures the church’s resonant bounce, allowing the rougher, more organic aspects of the performance to exude clarity. One may hear this especially in “Fivreld” (Butterfly), an alluring piece of ambience in which the harmonium breathes like sunlight through foliage. Made for a ballet performance at Haugesund Theater in Økland’s hometown, it veritably dances.
Other references to Økland’s past are found in “Blå harding” and “Amstel.” Earlier versions of both appeared on the aforementioned debut. The first is something of a blues dedicated to his Hardanger fiddle teacher Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa, while the second, which closes out the album, is greener, its organ-like harmonium reminding us of where we are.
Kjølvatn rarely bubbles beyond a simmer, but its flavors are all the purer for it. It’s a significant move in Økland’s career, and exemplifies an artist who, despite denying any underlying message, understands the value of careful construction. And in a way, that is its practice: to create art for its own sake, devoid of political baggage and free to roam in search of new and welcoming ears.
(See this review as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)
Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile
NIK BÄRTSCH’S MOBILE
Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Kaspar Rast drums, percussion
Nicolas Stocker drums, tuned percussion
Etienne Abelin violin
Ola Sendecki violin
David Schnee viola
Solme Hong cello
Ambrosius Huber cello
Recorded March 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 22, 2016
Swiss pianist and bandleader Nik Bärtsch makes no distinction between the old and the new, thriving instead on constant transformation. Freed of evocative titles, he writes in so-called “modules,” each of which combines through-composed and improvised material. This approach has yielded a series of albums for ECM under the name Ronin, but on Continuum he debuts his parallel ensemble, Mobile. Drummer Kaspar Rast and mononymous clarinetist Sha are familiar standbys, while percussionist Nicolas Stocker and a string section are the new recruits. Those familiar with Ronin will recognize certain tics in Mobile’s larger body. I ask Bärtsch to elaborate on their differences.
“Mobile is acoustic and Ronin amplified, resulting in different consequences concerning power, pressure, volume, and listening behavior (for musicians and audience alike). We recorded Continuum in close proximity with each other while the Ronin sessions had us in different rooms. Mobile is also a music ritual group and often plays long concerts of several hours or even days. In Mobile we include rhythmic strategies of contemporary classical music, for example in ‘Modul 5.’ The band’s name refers to a ‘perpetuum mobile,’ while Ronin is a ‘groove generator.’ Mobile creates groove equilibriums and orchestral maneuvers while Ronin attacks with a paradoxical mix of empty meditative roughness and strong rhythmic energy: Zen-funk.”
The ritual foundations of said “Modul 5” reveal the virtuosity of their execution with patience. The same holds true for “Modul 60,” in which strings interlock with their surroundings like stairways in an Escher lithograph.
On Continuum, Bärtsch has taken his craft one step closer to an ideal that, while perhaps unreachable, is more audible than ever. Beyond my own idiosyncratic impressions, however, the music of Mobile is rooted in the presence of its musicians, as anyone who has seen them live can attest. Movement would seem to be central to “Modul 29_14” in particular, a force of suggestion made by its pairing with martial arts in a promotional video:
The binary relationship between Rast and Stocker in this piece unpacks bits of code into full-blown programs. High notes in the glockenspiel, doubling those of the keyboard, activate those programs in one artful sequence after another. Bärtsch, for his part, is careful to keep his own perceptions grounded the physical body. “A musical pattern, rhythm, or resonating structure is a sensual movement,” he says. “Sometimes, when I am practicing intensively, I dream of becoming such a musical being: a pure resonating energy of movement. We are all dancers in the universe.”
And is this dancing indicative of the project’s classical leanings?
“The music might seem more ‘classical,’ since we give the impression of a chamber ensemble. In principle we work the same way as with Ronin: I compose a piece, which in the context of the group develops its own instrumentation and dynamics. But in one respect your reception is probably correct: there is less obvious improvisation than in Ronin, although ‘Modul 12’ is completely improvised, if on the basis of a modular, coherent structure.”
That latter module is remarkable for Rast’s brushwork, by which he smooths out a layer of gravel over Sha’s tunneling contrabass clarinet.
While most comfortable on the live stage, in this instance Mobile is uniquely bound to studio parameters. This does not, clarifies Bärtsch, equate to a reduction. “An album is a different genre altogether,” he notes. “It has and creates its own rules. But the group profits from the long-playing rituals, which leave us open to the situation of the recording: a new space-time continuum to be explored and created.”
To my ears, “Modul 18” is a well-rounded example of this brand of creationism. Its elements—metal, wood, air—come to life in a vibrational field of bowed strings against a repeating bass drum, Stocker shining like a constellation in its darker sky. Throughout “Modul 4,” too, the two drummers act as one as a high overlay of notes from Bärtsch foreshadows closure. Listening to such older modules, I can’t help but wonder how they’ve changed. Are they seeds for cultivation or do they become unique entities with every iteration?
“The modular way of composing allows a piece to evolve, while also retaining compositional coherence. The triangle of composition, improvisation, and interpretation should be connected and alive. Usually a pattern, piece, or musical strategy has more potential than you first recognize. You have to explore it for years through playing and observation. I see this as a natural, spiraling development forward into roots.”
Such is the modus operandi of “Modul 44,” in which Rast’s skins serve as palimpsests for musical poetry. The subtlety of his drumming is unexpected from such a robust figure. As in the gradual progressions of “Modul 8_11,” his interaction with the others results in so many orbits that the after-images of their playing form one glowing sphere. Despite the utter precision required to pull off this effect, a free-flowing, interdimensional quality prevails. If any message stays behind, it is Bärtsch’s own: “Trust your ears. They are the most sensitive antennas for the resonating inner and outer world.”
Time Is A Blind Guide
Thomas Strønen drums, percussion
Kit Downes piano
Håkon Aase violin
Lucy Railton cello
Ole Morten Vågan double bass
Siv Øyunn Kjenstad percussion
Steinar Mossige percussion
Recorded June 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed July 2015 in Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug, Sun Chung, and Thomas Strønen
Mastering: Christoph Stickel, MSM Studios, München
Produced by Thomas Strønen and Sun Chung
U.S. release date: November 15, 2015
At night, a few lights marked port and starboard of these gargantuan industrial forms, and I filled them with loneliness. I listened to these dark shapes as if they were black spaces in music, a musician learning the silences of a piece. I felt this was my truth. That my life could not be stored in any language but only silence; the moment I looked into the room and took in only what was visible, not vanished.
–Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces
Thomas Strønen follows in the ECM tradition of path-defining artists. Even if that means straying from the path one has already defined. Such is the modus operandi of the Norwegian drummer and composer, whose neural wanderings speak in soft bursts of ideas and creative directions. His relationship with the label began on 2005’s Parish, a leader debut whose acoustics stand apart from the electronic flights of his next three albums—Quiet Inlet, Mercurial Balm, and This is not a miracle—as part of the roving collective that is Food. In a recent interview, I asked Strønen to elaborate on how the band came together for this particular recording.
“The ensemble started when I was commissioned to compose a concert by Fiona Talkington (BBC Radio 3), who at the time was curating a concert series called Conexions. The concept was to bring UK musicians to Norway to collaborate with Norwegian musicians. While brainstorming with Fiona, I landed on these particular musicians. Some of them I knew from before and some of them I had never played with. The plan was always to only play this one concert, but it ended up being something musically new to me, as well as a lovely combination of people, so I decided to continue the adventure.”
Connections indeed nourish the lifeblood of this music, which in the network of its composer’s venation flows through human experiences, and beyond them into experiences of the human. Such flexible dichotomies are fully operational on Time Is A Blind Guide, yet another turn of the Strønen prism that reveals fresh hues of collaboration. Beyond departure, it is also integration, as the bandleader explains to me when I ask about its distinctions:
“This particular ensemble combines three constellations in one: it’s a piano trio, a string trio, and a drum trio. It’s an all-acoustic setting with more through-composed material than any other band I’ve ever played in. It’s a cross between a chamber ensemble and a jazz group, and the music was specially written with these musicians in mind. In a record industry struggling to survive and adjust to new ways of treating music (technically and economically), ECM still manages to be an important voice. To me, the release of Food’s latest record and this one shows how open-minded Manfred Eicher and his label are (and always have been).”
Strønen’s characterization of ECM is no small one to consider when approaching Blind Guide as an historical experience. For while it mines some igneous influences, it also draws light from aboveground into its balances. One might, in fact, say it’s his most cosmic record to date—all the more impressive when you consider the acoustic matrix in which it is based. As “The Stone Carriers” breaks the five seconds of silence that begin every ECM album, the sensation is of a comet reversing its trajectory to interstellar origins. From this diffuse texture coalesces a steady bass line, and with it the promise of a full groove going forward. Violinist Håkon Aase is an obvious defining presence from the start, one to listen for as the album progresses.
As one track break sets me up for the next, I can’t help but feel the album’s literary nature. Did Strønen have any particular stories, books, or narratives in mind while making it?
“While writing most of the music for this album I was (re)reading Canadian author Anne Michaels’s novel Fugitive Pieces. It’s a poetically written book in which language is as important as the actual storytelling. I’m not sure how much this affected my actual composing, but it set me in a state of mind and inspired me to use some words and sentences as titles for the pieces. The band name is the book’s first sentence.”
Alternatively, one might call this music cinematic in character, as if it were a soundtrack in search of images. Strønen, in his fashion, is amenable to the idea but also has his own:
“I tend to think less abstractly about my own music, as it is the result of a longer process from drawing board to recording session. The term ‘cinematic’ is versatile, and if the music brings associations to other art forms, I appreciate it. But it means something different to me. When I listen to my own music (something I seldom do), I seek ways to develop and improve. I enjoy working with various media and have been composing for theatre, film, and dance. These are areas I would like to explore more and I would be happy to see this music used in a movie score.”
Beyond associations with extra-musical art forms without context, I am further tempted to place this album in the grander realm of its ECM associations. In particular, I am tempted to draw threads of continuity back to the works of Jon Balke’s Batagraf (cf. the percussive interlude “Tide”) and Christian Wallumrød (“Everything Disappears”). I ask Strønen if these similarities are coincidental:
“My writing carries the weight of my experiences in my (musical) life. ‘Tide’ is a baka, a drum signal like the ones used in West African Wolof music. The difference is that ‘Tide’ compositionally goes through a special combination of time signatures and rhythmic modulations, while the original bakas are less metrical. I got introduced to Wolof music while traveling to Gambia together with Jon Balke and other musicians. I like Batagraf and worked with them in my own drum ensemble, Extended Ground. We have different approaches to drum music compositionally, but share some of the same aesthetics. I grew up listening a lot to European jazz and improvised music in my early years as a player. But I’ve also discovered treasures in the American jazz tradition, Japanese classical music, West African music, electronic music, and European and American minimalism. All of these have inspired me in many ways.”
Despite any lack of overall genre affiliation, artistic intent is the constant glue of Blind Guide. The extreme tactility of tracks such as “Pipa” and “I Don’t Wait For Anyone” invites the listener to be a piece of the puzzle. Melodic currents held by pianist Kit Downes are remarkable, complementing Strønen’s palette with comforting ease. At times, a silver-tongued violin regales with stories of long ago, moving in tandem with bass and percussion toward the attainment of conversational magic. In concert, these instruments move like a Rubik’s cube until colors begin to orient themselves along uniform sides.
Whether activated by chance or circumstance, the motivic gestures of “The Drowned City” feel as inevitable as the progression of time, thus intuiting the project’s title. Watery gongs and other submarine percussion give visuality to a lost civilization, while cascading pianism is the only indication of the grandeur that once thronged its avenues. “Lost Souls” treads a fraternal archaeology, matching the thread of a bowed string with the thicker rope of drums.
In light of these impressions, one may feel like this music is rooted in the ancient past even as it looks to the future. Strønen’s view is humbler:
“The music simply reflects my interests and my ideas of music. If I manage to create something some define as new, that’s great, but I’m not very concerned about having to create something that hasn’t been made before. There’s so much good music being made all the time and the last thing we probably need is more music. Still, we discover new elements or perspectives and many of us have a need to pen them down and try them out. So I guess it’s not a conscious choice, but more of a natural process.”
The title track demonstrates this organic quality in spades. Anchored by percussion, persuasion, and persistence, its steadiness is dotted with details in relief: a flower for every stem. “As We Wait For Time” further engages the subconscious with its thoughtfulness, violin and piano phasing like two reflections in search of the same radiance.
That being said, conscious connections to material lives do matter, as in “Everything Disappears (Pt. 2),” a quiet drum circle that bears dedication to pianist John Taylor, with whom a project was in works at the time of his death. But in the end, it’s the droplets of notecraft in “Simples” that belie the album’s oceanic casting, and unravel its hidden fortress of dreams.
As one immediately involved in both the recording and production of this album, Strønen has touched nearly every aspect of its growth from idea to digital reality. Blind Guide is a Polaroid snapshot of the serendipity that pulses through his musical universe, shaken to the beat of an unseen heart for want of an image that can only be your own.
Now up for viewing over at RootsWorld online magazine is my review of Nils Økland’s latest ECM project, Kjølvatn. This album takes an evolutionary leap from his first two for the label, Monograph and Lysøen, by surrounding the Norwegian fiddler with a full band. A beautiful expansion of folkish atoms into forward-thinking molecules. Click the cover to read the full review and hear a sample track.