Elina Duni/Rob Luft: Lost Ships (ECM 2689)

Elina Duni
Rob Luft
Lost Ships

Elina Duni voice
Rob Luft guitar
Fred Thomas piano, drums
Matthieu Michel flugelhorn
Recorded February 2020
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Jean-Paul Dumas-Grillet
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 13, 2020

You’ll have to flee,
But you’ll carry
This relentless sea,
Echoing in you, for always.

With this lyric, Elina Duni and Rob Luft share the secret of their collaborative masterpiece, Lost Ships. Between themes of migration and ecological failure, interspersed with memories of times and places, the Albanian-Swiss singer and British guitarist turn the spirit of contradiction inside out over and over until the differences blur beyond recognition. The track yielding this poetic observation, an ode to the wind entitled “Brighton,” is a veritable curtain of sound billowing in breath. Before that, however, the Italian lullaby “Bella Ci Dormi” (Beauty, You Sleep) elicits the album’s first declaration. Whereas we might normally think of such singing as marking the closing of a day, this feels more like the opening of one. The pianism of British multi-instrumentalist Fred Thomas and lilting guitar exude the same grammar. Other traditional gems, including the Albanian “Kur Më Del Në Derë” (When You Appear At Your Doorstep) and the American “The Wayfaring Stranger,” remind us that nothing has truly changed from when they were first unearthed.

“Flying Kites” is one of the many journeys herein penned by Duni and Luft and stands out for its instrumental unraveling, especially in the playing of Swiss flugelhornist Matthieu Michel, who completes the ensemble. Further originals include “Numb,” a timely plea for forgiveness, and the title song, a shapely construction that travels in curves even as it speaks straight to the heart. Another is “Empty Street,” a duet that turns ghosts into signposts for those living in the wake of their demise…

No matter what Duni touches, she turns into something far more precious than gold: time incarnate. A marvelous example is her rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “I’m A Fool To Want You.” As a lantern hanging from the outstretched hand of a dark past, it seeks redemption in an era that has forgotten its meaning. At Duni’s lips, the words remind us of just how sharp the edges of hope can be. And in making Charles Aznavour’s “Hier Encore” her own, to the sole accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, she helps us understand that nature stands in the way of love when our love of self stands in the way of nature.

Lost Ships carves a special line in ECM’s broad waters, and to its fleet I would add Amina Alaoui’s Arco Iris, Arianna Savall/Petter Udland Johansen’s Hirundo Maris, and Norma Winstone’s Somewhere Called Home for worthy company. As such comparisons should imply, it is more than a recording; it is a voyage, contrary to its title, of being found.

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Opening (ECM 2742)

Tord Gustavsen Trio

Tord Gustavsen piano, electronics
Steinar Raknes double bass, electronics
Jarle Vespestad drums
Recorded October 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 4, 2022

A new Tord Gustavsen Trio album is cause for quiet celebration. In that regard, ECM’s characteristic five seconds of opening silence feel most appropriate, at once an obstacle to and a cushion for our expectations. With the introduction of new bassist Steinar Raknes, the feeling of revival is palpable.

Melodies are treated as structural suggestions rather than prescriptions, allowing them to travel as a cartographer would, knowing the general layout of the land but never the details until they fall under foot. Being invited along for the journey is an honor I do not take for granted. Neither do these introspective artisans take the creative act for granted, as “The Circle” proves with open arms. It is the embrace of a friend we haven’t seen since the world became socially distanced yet whose presence never left, our ears receiving the kiss of something wondrous. Despite the slight reshuffling of personnel, the communication between Gustavsen and his bandmates is as organic as ever, each signature floating in and out of focus with an overall coherence.

The pianist’s writing is once again the center of this solar system, its light shining brightest on “The Longing.” In only two and a half minutes, this anthemic interlude charts an album’s worth of space and is the epitome of what this trio can accomplish. Other peaks in the proverbial valley include “Shepherd Song” and “Stream,” where soloing is always connected by a wind of regard. Just when it seems Gustavsen might fly off on his own, he reunites with his earthly shadow, never losing sight of home. In the latter tune, I cannot help but feel mourning for the late Harald Johnsen, who once stood where Raknes stands now. Like the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke, Raknes leaves slow explosions of floral life, fading as quickly as they blossom. What’s astonishing is how he, Gustavsen, and Vesepstad do all of this in real time, patiently crafting (if not letting themselves be crafted by) a gentle tug of war between echoing and foreshadowing. Such is the progression of life. Raknes must also be commended for bringing electronic enhancements to “Helensburgh Tango” and “Ritual,” in which his bow evokes the guitar of Terje Rypdal à la The Sea (in that same vein, Vespestad’s rolling snare and cymbals nod deeply to Jon Christensen). What sounds more aggressive on the surface, however, bleeds internally with humility.

A few improvised pieces keep us centered while revealing older inspirations and traditions. From the initial examinations of “Findings,” for instance, emerges the Swedish folk song “Visa från Rättvik,” while the album’s title track cloaks itself in a Gurdjieff-esque meditation. Both tracks have their counterparts, offering plenty of carpet on which to step, and not a hardwood floor in sight.

The final two tracks are the only ones not written by Gustavsen. Geirr Tveitt’s “Fløytelåt” (The Flute) takes us into a folkish vastness, widening the path for the metaphysical denouement of “Vær sterk, min sjel,” a Norwegian hymn by Egil Hovland. A conservative yet wholly appropriate statement on which to end, it moves in unison of steps. Here, the widest door is opened, even if the musicians feel no obligation to tell us what’s on the other side. That’s for them to know and us to find out.

Andrew Cyrille Quartet: The News (ECM 2681)

Andrew Cyrille Quartet
The News

Andrew Cyrille drums
Bill Frisell guitar
David Virelles piano, synthesizer
Ben Street double bass
Recorded August 2019 at Sound on Sound, New Jersey
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Assistant engineer: Christopher Gold
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover photo: Caterina Di Perri
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: August 27, 2021

The News convenes drummer Andrew Cyrille, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist David Virelles, and bassist Ben Street. One would never guess the ad hoc nature of the quartet (Virelles was a last-minute substitute for Richard Teitelbaum, who bowed out over illness) in light of the cohesions that abound from note one of “Mountain.” Its compassionate declarations describe a peak of sub-equatorial verdancy. Awaiting us at the top is not snow but a clear and sunlit promontory from which to gaze upon the path we are about to follow in subsequent tracks. This is also the first of three tunes by Frisell, whose “Go Happy Lucky” is rendered as an object of dark fascination in Virelles’s pianism, leaving “Baby” to shine for its continuity. As the epitome of this band’s approach to time and space, it glistens with the purity of a virgin spring.

The title track by Cyrille dates back to the late 1970s and involves a newspaper-covered snare drum with rhizomatic touches from his bandmates. This brilliant turn hints at melody but sidesteps the commonality of expectation for the rewards of each unraveling moment. The bandleader further offers his balladic “With You in Mind,” which opens in spoken word. This sets up a late-night feeling from piano and bass, then shifts into Frisell’s meticulous speech-songs as warm organ undercurrents embody a respiration of the soul. Cyrille and Virelles detach in the improvised “Dance of the Nuances,” a delicate web of communication.

Where the pianist thinks outside the box in his playing, he shows restraint in the original “Incienso.” Along with “Leaving East of Java” (by AACM advocate Adegoke Steve Colson), it paints with flowers. In the latter, Cyrille’s cymbals work itinerant wonders as Street’s bass holds a steady watch in the background.

This production from Sun Chung (who has since left ECM to start Red Hook Records) is a masterclass in how jazz should sound when left to define a space. The recording is shaped by the languages we hear, translated out of—and back into—a universal tongue and the great equalizer of all things: nothing less than music itself.

Jon Balke/Siwan: Hafla (ECM 2726)

Jon Balke

Mona Boutchebak vocals, kwitra
Derya Turkan kemençe
Bjarte Eike Baroque violin, leader
Helge Norbakken percussion
Pedram Khavar Zamini tombak
Per Buhre vocals, viola
Jon Balke keyboards, electronics, tombak
Recorded May/June 2021
The Village Recording, Copenhagen
Engineer: Thomas Vang
Recording producer: Jon Balke
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover photo: Sarah Murtaja
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 22, 2022

Hafla is the third go-around for keyboardist-composer Jan Balke and his group, Siwan. Taking inspiration from the cultural melting pot that was al-Andalus yet retying those threads into a friendship bracelet of striking originality, Balke and company retain the character of each idiom while achieving an overall design. Through the talents of Algerian singer Mona Boutchebak, Turkish kamancheh virtuoso Derya Turkan, Iranian tombak master Pedram Khavar Zamini, Norwegian percussionist Helge Norbakken, and violinist Bjarte Eike and his Barokksolistine, Balke summons the utmost familiarity from places and times that far outweigh our experiences as citizens of the 21st century. And while coronavirus restrictions prevented the ensemble from recording in the studio all at once, one would never guess the cutting and pasting required to bring the album to its present form in light of its hermetic coherence.

Balke’s compositions constitute the entire program, save for Boutchebak’s “Mirada Furtiva,” recalling a love so strong that it can never overstep the boundaries of modesty that keep it from consuming itself. Setting the poetry of Ibn Zaydun (1003-1071), the singer accompanies herself on the kwitra (Algerian lute), joined by low stirrings of wires and bows. Zaydun’s lover and the Ummayad princess of Córdoba, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (1010-1091), is the verbal force behind the program’s opener, “Tarraquab” (Visit). Its lilting character immediately transports us into a cinematic world of strings and percussion. Boutchebak evokes flowing transpositions of bodies into spirits and back again, scenting the evening air with yearnings for touch.

Other poets who find themselves redrawn beneath the Siwan overlay include Ibn Sara As-Santarini (Santarém, 1043-1123), Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (Alcalá la Real, 1213-1286), Abu Bakr al-Turtushi (Tortosa, 1059-1126 or 1127), and Ibn Hazm (Córdoba, 994-1064), all of whom express an intimate relationship with that most sensuous interim before the dawn. Whether in the bright harmonies of “La Estrella Fugaz” (The Shooting Star) or the gentle strength of “Diálogo en la Noche” (Dialogue in the Night), we encounter selves divided by pining and expectation. And in “Enamorado de Júpiter” (In Love with Jupiter), the gloom of unrequited affections unfurls a canvas for the brush of a pained lyric:

Knowing well that I am the full moon in the clear sky,
You fell in love with Jupiter, the darkest planet.

Braiding the invisible forces of “Arrihu Aqwadu Ma Yakunu Li-Annaha” and the seeking qualities of “Uquállibu” (Absence), Boutchebak attaches threads of continuity between burning hearts that have only the moon as their messenger. Even the two instrumental interludes, “Línea Oscura” and “Saeta,” seem to communicate in verse, so that when images as powerful as those expressed throughout “Wadadtu” (Is There No Way), in which the desire to become one with another achieves fiery tension, rise to the surface, it is all we can do to hold on to the rhythms for assurance of reaching the shore. As violist Per Buhre sings this song in English against a wash of strings and kamancheh to bid us farewell, the linguistic change of clothing starches the ears, making us realize just how far our tongues have yet to travel.

Enrico Rava: Edizione Speciale (ECM 2672)

Enrico Rava
Edizione Speciale

Enrico Rava flugelhorn
Francesco Bearzatti tenor saxophone
Francesco Diodati guitar
Giovanni Guidi piano
Gabriele Evangelista double bass
Enrico Morello drums
Recorded live August 18, 2019
at Jazz Middelheim, Antwerp
by VRT-Vlaamse Radio en Televisie
Engineers: Peter Préal and Maarten Heynderickx
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover design: Sascha Kleis
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 29, 2021

Recorded live at Antwerp’s Jazz Middelheim festival in 2019, the aptly named Edizione Speciale brings flugelhorn maestro Enrico Rava to the stage with tenor saxophonist Francesco Bearzatti, guitarist Francesco Diodati, pianist Giovanni Guidi, bassist Gabriele Evangelista, and drummer Enrico Morello. That many of these musicians are Rava’s mentees is obvious given the level of communication achieved in this performance. As Rava notes in the album’s press release, trust is at the core of everything this band does.

Pure excitement ignites the night as “Infant” hits the air. Its maximalism leaps into the listener’s heart, especially through the stellar guitar work and the detail-oriented drumming. Guidi further energizes the congregation while Evangelista gilds the frame with strong patterns of recognition. Bearzatti, too, grabs a prime patch of spotlight to strut his stuff. After only a brief introductory statement, the bandleader recedes to let his entourage do the talking on this 13-minute juggernaut. 

Michel Legrand’s “Once Upon A Summertime” and Rava’s “Theme For Jessica Tatum” make for solid company. Rava opens with the lyricism of classic cinema before Bearzatti paves the way for Guidi’s solo delicacies over a spirited rhythm section that harks to Rava’s second home of South America, where Brazilian vibes seep freshly through the mesh of time. After a round of solos, Bearzatti and Rava trading diary entries along the way, Evangelista puts a finer point on things. 

The sprawling introduction of “Wild Dance” (from Rava’s 2015 record of the same name) leads to Diodati’s surreal monologue, which Rava turns into an intermittent conversation. Electronic abrasions add a new face to this repertoire. After a fearless morph into “The Fearless Five,” of which Evangelista’s bass is the wick to the candle, “Le Solite Cose” finds the horns charging into a sparkling take on “Diva” (also heard on Wild Dance). As Rava re-enters the picture, joy abounds and carries over into the Cuban tune “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” (previously heard on Guidi’s This Is The Day). This one rolls off the proverbial tongue with ease. Its pianistic undercurrent gives rise to artful rhythming from Morello and an ecstatic round of input. With us as vessels, the music is assured of a home worthy of its robustness and love for life.

John Scofield: s/t (ECM 2727)

John Scofield

John Scofield electric guitar and looper
Recorded August 2021
Top Story Studio, Katonah, NY
Engineer: Tyler McDiarmid
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover photo: Luciano Rossetti
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 6, 2022

John Scofield’s latest for ECM features a set of solo guitar tunes backed by a looper, which he uses to establish progressions and contexts for his adroit picking. This long-awaited project, one that fans thought might never come, offers plenty of variety to meet that expectation. It all begins with a second-nature take on Keith Jarrett’s “Coral.” Launching into an improvisational spirit from the first breath and shifting into the melody only at the end, this interpretation features all of Scofield’s hallmarks: forthright expression, clear lines, and enough rough edges to guarantee authenticity. This is edible music.

Among all that follows, my ears are drawn immediately to Scofield’s originals. From the finely sculpted “Honest I Do” and the more whimsical “Since You Asked” to the emotionally charged “Mrs. Scofield’s Waltz,” he proves an uncanny ability to unravel moments of life into stories with beginnings, middles, and endings. The bluesy “Elder Dance” is a highlight. Scofield’s description says it all: “I picture older people (like me) doing a kind of lindy hop. I can picture it but I can’t do it.” This and the vibrant “Trance du Jour” make their recorded debut. Both are genuine pleasures to hear.

“It Could Happen to You” is the first among a handful of jazz standards. While recognizable from the start, it adds Scofield’s idiosyncratic touches, by turns fluid and angular. Even “Danny Boy” feels spontaneous in his brilliant hands, while the prison song “Junco Partner” bows its head in honor of the wrongfully incarcerated. Whereas “My Old Flame” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” favor message over medium, others, like “There Will Never Be Another You,” add new levels of interest to the tried and true. We end with the Hank Williams classic, “You Win Again,” speaking in the language of experience.

Despite my appreciation for all that transpires here, this isn’t my favorite of ECM’s 2022 releases. Scofield is, of course, a master who could sound like no one but himself. And while I dig the easygoing, unrushed quality of the playing, I find relatively little to chew on in the standards. On the other hand, there’s plenty to enjoy in Scofield’s originals, which gift these ears with fresh, honest sounds. I just wish we’d been given nothing but, especially for a self-titled record from an artist whose contributions to the art of jazz are every bit as flavorful as the old chestnuts he has roasted here. Many will disagree with this assessment, so don’t let me discourage you from enjoying an album that might very well grow more than show.

Dino Saluzzi: Albores (ECM 2638)

Dino Saluzzi

Dino Saluzzi bandoneón
Recorded February-October 2019
Saluzzi Music Studios, Buenos Aires
Recording engineer: Néstor Diaz
Cover photo: Lisa Franz
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 6, 2020

Whereas many of us who once painted with fingers as a child moved on to brushes, Dino Saluzzi seems to have ignored that transition. On Albores, an album born of reckoning, Saluzzi renders what Luján Baudino in his liner note calls an “inner landscape.”

“Adiós Maestro Kancheli” opens on a somber note by paying respects to the late Georgian composer, who passed away in 2019. And yet, what we are given is more than a tribute or homage; rather, it is an identity without personhood, a force that animates the spirit of bygone days. Such redemptions of memory are as integral to Saluzzi’s language as sunlight and rain are to crops. The levels of introspection so organically achieved on “Ausencias” and “Íntimo” are what only decades of artistic experience could elicit. Such power of restraint, he reminds us, is foreign to our younger selves. It is the method of a heart that knows only the scrape of life’s cuneiform.

One need only bathe in the waters of “Don Caye” (an ode to his father’s music) to know that if the bandoneón were a film camera, Saluzzi would be one of its greatest living auteurs. “Écuyère” reorients the lens on a larger scale. Its prosaic qualities illuminate characters whose motives, while ancient, feel as familiar as our skins. The same holds for “Ficción,” a more jagged mountain carved by patience. Like “La Cruz del Sur (2da cadencia),” it rises among the very Andes in which it was born.

Hope is most apparent in “Según me cuenta la vida – Milonga,” a language seeking a mouth through which to be spoken. What dances in one moment turns during the next into a forlorn gaze toward a horizon that could have been. And yet, the trajectory that has brought him here feels inevitable. As in the closing “Ofrenda – Tocata,” it has always been inside, waiting to be sung.

Despite its generally slow pacing, there is plenty of verve to discover throughout Albores. Saluzzi’s energy floats just out of grasp so that we are always seeking its next steps. It is also a meditation on the lung capacity of the bandoneón itself. It breathes for those who no longer breathe. It breathes for those who have yet to breathe. It breathes for all who continue to breathe. Hints of light between its buttons are enough to remind us that even as the sun sets where we stand, elsewhere, it is dawn.

Matthieu Bordenave: La Traversée (ECM 2683)

Matthieu Bordenave
La traversée

Matthieu Bordenave tenor saxophone
Patrice Moret double bass
Florian Weber piano
Recorded October 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 25, 2020

La traversée offers the ECM leader debut of French tenor saxophonist Matthieu Bordenave, who first appeared thereon as part of Shinya Fukumori’s 2018 masterpiece, For 2 Akis. This time, he is joined by German pianist Florian Weber and Swiss bassist Patrice Moret. Clearly born for the label, onetime host to his hero Jimmy Giuffre’s band with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, he allows those early influences to take residence in current practice, each a shade letting in different amounts of light through the windows of his musical soul. The present trio holds its own in the presence of such expectations, ever open to the possibilities of space and unstructured play. Other influences include classical chamber music, especially of the modern French persuasion (think Messiaen and Dutilleux). Classical training indeed comes to the fore in his technical control while his love of jazz spreads across eight originals in the fashion of a spilled glass of water—inching ever closer to the edge of the table but prevented from falling by delicate surface tension.

When the darkening of “River,” a duet between the bandleader and Weber, makes its gradations known, we find the saxophonist sitting alone in a place of seeming childhood significance. His breathy register is a ghost—not of the past but of the future. At the same time, his sound is antique in that one can taste the patina of his horn. When the character of the bass is introduced in the second scene, “Archipel,” an underlying cinematic implication is consummated. Thus, Bordenave recalls Giuffre but also Charles Lloyd’s muggy charm, cherishing the potential of a dying note as might a sitar virtuoso. All the while, Weber’s forthright pointillism meshes lovingly with Moret’s rounded spacing.

“Le temps divisé” assembles notes as an archaeologist does a skeleton, for great care is required amid the excitement of discovery to fashion a coherent simulacrum of the body it once inhabited. In the wake of that exacting labor, “Dans mon pays” speaks of home as the piano and saxophone nourish each other in the bass’s soil. “The Path” follows with the album’s deepest passage, rewarding the patient listener (like the set as a whole) with moments of sheer lucidity.

Although Bordenave is powerful and direct in his gentility, he understands the preciousness of space. “Ventoux” and “Incendie blanc” are special cases in point. Both are hopeful fascinations, treating yearning as an instructive force. Moret’s bass monologue in the former tune is superb, giving way to galactic light from Weber, whose delicate flames dance across the latter’s terrain. From the ashes of those reactions arises “Chaleur grise,” of which the meticulous fray wavers in reflection. Hence our return to “River,” now in trio form and willingly shed of its skin. A stepwise unison leads to the final note, free yet bound by just enough grit to make the dream feel actual.

La traversée is a diurnal experience, tracking heavenly bodies in a climate all its own. To listen to it is to watch your shadow marking the hours from dawn until dusk.

Oded Tzur: Isabela (ECM 2739)

Oded Tzur

Oded Tzur tenor saxophone
Nitai Hershkotivs piano
Petros Klampanis double bass
Johnathan Blake drums
Recorded September 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Sebastião Salgado
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 13, 2022

Saxophonist and composer Oded Tzur resurfaces in ECM waters for his follow-up to 2020’s Here Be Dragons, a maiden voyage that, like this spiritual twin, was a musical parable. Rejoined by pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Jonathan Blake, he examines the fluidity of structural principles and the materials involved in their making.

From the threads of “Invocation,” the quartet sews the binding of its thematic pages in “Noam,” which speaks through melodies that roll off the soul’s tongue. In “The Lion Turtle,” Blake taps the edges of his kit like someone testing the shell of an egg for vulnerabilities (and finding none). Klampanis’s solo feels like an extension of Hershkovits’s (and vice versa). Suggestions of alternate realities fade as quickly as they appear. Tzur’s unraveling is profundity incarnate, gracing the inner circle of every chord change as the tongue might move a morsel around the mouth for proper chewing. The result is more than a conversation; it’s an interactive prayer.

The title track awakens suddenly yet quietly. Love is the universal whisper here, as supple as skin. A near-stillness shifts midway into a locomotive dream before allowing the dawn to have its way. “Love Song For The Rainy Season” whips up the most energetic passages of the album, ending it on a cymbal crash that dissipates in breath.

At 36 minutes, Isabela is quintessentially about quality over quantity. The depth of interpretation promised by repeat listening far outweighs the expectation that a mere profession of duration may court from the skeptical heart. Tzur plays as if shielding his eyes from the sun, seeing in the distance a vessel he might have known as a child yet which is now haggard and without a sail, going only where the water and waves will permit it. He swings and whispers, meditates and shouts, holding each dichotomy as a eulogy.

(This review originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)