My latest article for All About Jazz is an interview I had the honor of conducting with Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi about musical partnership, life during the pandemic, and their new album They’re Calling Me Home. Click the photo below (credit: Karen Cox) to read!
It’s tempting to draw a connection between ancient meanings and modern practice. In the case of LACE, an ongoing project from harpist Zeena Parkins, such connections become more tangible than any etymology ever could be. The word “lace” is derived from the Latin laqueum, meaning “a noose, a snare,” but any negative connotations of such parlance turn to a cloud of dust that Parkins draws, particle by particle, into light. LACE began with an invitation in 2008 from the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio as part of its “Music Mondays” series. “There was an impending deadline,” she recalls, “and most of my compositions at the time would have taken months to learn. I had collected fabrics over the years and I just grabbed some graphic-looking pieces of lace and made conditions for improvisers to read each piece as a score. It worked.”
Since then, she has created an action card-based game piece, recently recorded by percussionist William Winant, a project for her band Green Dome—with Ryan Sawyer (percussion) and Ryan Ross Smith (piano and electronics)—based on transforming the lace knitting patterns from the Shetland Islands into scores and a fourth movement, entitled “Stitchomythia,” performed on an anamorphic carpet designed by Nadia Lauro. If anything, Parkins does not tie snares but unravels them in hopes they might reach the soil of the ear and grow without forsaking their precise comfort.
Such impulses have been a running thread of her ethos since 1993’s Nightmare Alley. Across the terrain of that formative album, a near-catharsis unfolds, as if the very zeitgeist from which it arose were crying in search of change. Parkins cites it as an important turning point in her career. “I felt a need to do a solo record, lay my gauntlet down and take a place. It’s not like I had a manifesto, but I was really at the beginning of a process of determination to do something that I hadn’t heard exactly the way I was doing it. My mission was to do something with the harp that was unfamiliar to me.” To be sure, it was just as unfamiliar to the audience who came to hear her play at New Langton Arts, curated by visual artist Nayland Blake in San Francisco in the summer of 1991. “I hadn’t done that many solo shows and they didn’t have an acoustic harp available, so I played with my electric harp. The gallery had rake seating fanning out from the center—and it was packed. I was in a state of shock. Inspired and excited, I just improvised. That’s when Table of the Elements approached me and asked if I would be the first artist on the label. It was a special way to start.”
Besides introducing listeners to a voice that needed hearing, Nightmare Alley revealed the harp’s multifaceted potential. Though the credits list “electric and acoustic harps” as its material resources, the album was a revelation of immaterial forces that betrayed next to nothing of their origins: “I’m very connected to the harp,” notes Parkins, “but not in a way meant to convey technical virtuosity.” Trained in the rigors of classical piano yet aware that it wasn’t the path she wanted to follow, she encountered the harp while attending Cass Technical High School in Detroit. “They took pity on us pianists for being isolated in our practice rooms, so they assigned us orchestral instruments to get us out there performing. The school had many orchestras and I was willing to give it a try. Walking into a back room without windows and seeing eight concert harps was the most unexpected situation I could ever have imagined myself in. I totally fell in love with the instrument; it made total sense to me physically. When I realized that I was really going to seriously be involved with harp, I trained privately knowing I wasn’t ever going to play it live in a classical setting.” Out of that training emerged a musician who understood the corporeal math needed to bring forth a sound that translated her inner equations into a language that we on the outside could understand.
It wasn’t long before her interest in developing that language opened a portal into the harp’s very soul, pulling from that formless void a second heartbeat in electric form. The earliest version of her electric harp was built by late cellist and Skeleton Crew bandmate Tom Cora and visual artist Julian Jackson in 1985. The following year, it was remade by luthier Ken Parker as a freestanding instrument allowing her to play standing up. Next, sound artist and clandestine instrument builder Douglas Henderson added, among other things, new pickup placements and an ebony strip along the whammy bar side, which Parkins praises for a certain physicality, noting that it “profoundly changed the instrument, creating a fingerboard-like environment for me to develop different kinds of playing techniques.”
At the same time, there is a deeply metaphysical aspect to her work that has continued to evolve from one setting to the next. For Parkins, however, it’s less of a dichotomy than a spectrum: “The physical can become metaphysical because gesture and materiality are so important. It’s about presence, which is very much a part of how I am as a performer. Not just the body, but also one’s intention and absence of intention, desire, expectations, failures—all these things help.” A case in point is her latest album, Glass Triangle (released in February 2021 on Relative Pitch Records), for which she joins Mette Rasmussen (alto saxophone) and, again, Sawyer. Despite having played together only once at The Stone Series at Happylucky no.1 in Brooklyn, the trio made the studio its crucible. What ensued in the freely improvised session was reverse alchemy—not turning lead into gold but breaking down the latter into its constituent parts, each no longer precious alone yet all the more authentic for having been liberated. Thus, what begins as a fragmentary coalition gathers around the campfire of an intimately connected excursion. Sounding at times like an electric guitar, at others like a voice dying in its attempts to communicate from behind the wall of noise erected by recent politics, the harp hoists a protest sign for a generation woefully uncertain of the future, as if some gargantuan lie were morphing into truth. In this space, magic is outed as a restless muse that would sooner destroy its adherents than enable a miracle. Between dips into sustained beauty, one encounters the profundity of “The crystal chain letters,” a track that references Bruno Taut, whose legendary correspondences with kindred architects imagined a future in which urban planning welcomed rather than dictated human behavior. The letters were also, more importantly, a honeycomb around World War I, the traumatic effects of which begged not for utopia but for an ability to use the rubble of the past as material for mosaics of the future. This sensibility is broken and rubbed into the skin of Glass Triangle as if it were a necessary armor for the road ahead.
In light of this historical awareness, Parkins reflects on her beginnings as an artist as follows. “I was myopic then in thinking about the future, just living in the moment. Growing up with an immigrant father and a first-generation mother, I was encouraged to be practical, to be good in school, to do music on the side but focus on a career. But I just wanted to be in the world of music, to be surrounded by a community of musicians, to hear things I’d never heard before. I wanted every experience.” Under the current circumstances, one would be remiss to ignore this motivation. The need for community seems to have grown in proportion to the world’s tendency to fall down the rabbit hole of isolation. Such concerns were already on Parkins’ mind before the pandemic, when questions of safety and practicality prevented her from touring with the electric harp. The mindset of quarantine rekindled her relationship with the instrument. With the help of her partner, filmmaker Jeff Preiss, she began shooting solo performances as a means of reaching out. As she sees it: “You put a recorder up and instantly it’s more than just you in the room.”
Seeking other channels through which to foster a sense of community, including a virtual book group, has allowed connections that might not normally have crystallized to take root and flourish: “This situation we’ve been enduring is like a combination of patience and faith, but also the understanding that there need to be points of correction, a sense of urgency for transformation. It gives us a new way to look at our world with brutality and honesty, knowing that we are faced with a different kind of time.” What a sonic blessing, then, that we can wield the lanterns of her creations to show the way. As justice shines like a constellation above a horizon that only seems to recede the more we approach it, we need all the light we can get.
(This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
Larry Roland is a poet of the bass and the pen with nearly four decades of professional experience across a variety of fields. After graduating from Boston University in 1973 with a BS in Education, he taught health and P.E. in the local public school system. He later earned a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Massachusetts. All the while, he was refining his poetic voice, drawing on everyday life around him to reflect on both individual and collective pasts and continues to do so in his current home of New York City. Along the way, he found kindred solace in the upright bass, alongside which he cut his teeth as part of the house band at Wally’s in Boston’s South End. After touring and recording with trumpeter Raphe Malik and founding the Urge 4Tet with pianist Donal Fox, he released his first album of solo bass and spoken word, As Time Flows On, in 2001. Next for him was the Bassline Motion project with dancer/choreographer Adrienne Hawkins, plus an acclaimed record with the Charles Gayle Trio, Streets, in 2011. Since 2012, he has been involved in We Free StRINGS, a free jazz ensemble intent on dismantling the ethos of Western musical paradigms. Most recently, he put out a book of poetry, ..Just Sayin’!!, in 2019 and in 2020 was featured on the album We Were Here by The Jazz & Poetry Choir Collective, of which he is a former founding member.
Tyran Grillo: Can you tell me a little about those early days at Wally’s?
Larry Roland: That was my school, man. We played bebop—no ballads—every night from 9 pm to 2 am. We had Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart, Tommy Campbell, Billy Kilson…you name it. And there I was, somehow ending up as the bass player.
TG: On your solo album, As Time Flows On, you’ve got this track called “The Journey,” which resonates deeply during this time of pandemic. In it, you talk about the “realization of being bound” and a “serious trek for truth.” Regardless of what you’re playing, does that spirit animate everything you do?
LR: You see, that’s the bottom line. It’s the spirit. In almost everything you see going on today, the spirit has been manipulated. It’s missing. There’s so much fear in the world that people start craving these parameters created by someone who has a title or what have you. I say no, man, I’m just writing this stuff up. When people started asking me to participate in these “soirees” back in college, it was very interesting to me. I was able to check out the whole class thing. I would show up with my writings folded up in a brown paper bag stuck in my belt and people would say, “Oh, you’re here!” I’d read something and people would be floored, but to me, I was just talking about life. I wasn’t there to be a token entertainer, but to educate. And then I’d be kicking it in my dorm—I was an athlete, you see, a ball player at Boston University—and would share something there, too. They thought it was deep. Being taken seriously off the court by guys I rubbed shoulders with on it was important. It put a smile on my face, because academically I was struggling.
TG: How did you channel that energy at such a formative time into a professional life, as it were?
LR: People always tell me, you should be out there, man. I say, listen, I’m just satisfied being above the ground and having a few things to say. As far as getting caught up in the race, I’m not really sure on my feet like that. I didn’t go to school to learn how to play bass or write. I went to very poor public schools. And that’s fine with me. I try to keep it as raw as possible without really having to answer to anyone. If it resonates and touches someone, that’s a blessing for me, because I’m just a conduit.
TG: Where and how does the music fit into all of this?
LR: I grew up in a household filled with Bird, Trane, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, Yusef Lateef and Stravinsky. During that time, we still had a little record store on the corner where you could find all sorts of music. Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, I was inundated with all of that. Plus, my dad knew a lot of musicians. He and Roy Haynes were tight. So much so that my mom would get tired of seeing Roy’s drums in the living room. “Put dem drums back in the hall!” she’d say. Around Christmastime, we would get these postcards from creative people all over the world. Every time I looked at them, I couldn’t help but think, now that’s freedom. Whenever people ask me about the most significant thing growing up that really helped shape my perception into who I am today, I always say it was the music. My dad knew these people: painters, musicians, intellectuals. They would meet in my house and break down stuff in ways I never experienced on the outside. They were all focused more on the qualitative than the quantitative. Some of the deepest stuff I heard was in my living room.
TG: In listening to your spoken word especially, I get this palpable sense that you’re looking at history with clear and open eyes. Whereas the world may cut and re-paste it into a different narrative, you’re trying to get to the heart of it, in the same way a genealogist may draw up a family tree. How do you see yourself making a contribution?
LR: It all comes back to the spirit. People sometimes tell me, man, I’ve never seen anyone procrastinate as much as you; you should be doing this, that and the other. But I am doing it. You just don’t see it. I’m always creating in my mind. I’m just not about trying to be up front with it and gain all the attention. This brother, Hasan Abdul-Karim, I play with sometimes—in his 80s and still blowing tenor—is really into astrology, so he offered to do my chart one time. He said, “I wish I had your stars. You don’t even have to do anything. You’re linked to the universe. That’s special. That’s power. Spiritual power.” So I walked with that. I try to stay what I call “naturonic.” I try to move with nature. These days, I have a little mouse in my pantry. Most people would see him as a nuisance, but he’s trying to live the same way we’re trying to live. He’s not trying to bring attention to himself. He respects my space and I respect his. The odds are against him. Maybe he’s got a crevice behind the wall and maybe even a family he’s bringing crumbs to. Maintaining that connection to the little things is how I’ve been able to move ahead and navigate the terrain. Just be as still as you can and your surroundings will speak to you.
TG: You could say there’s a difference between those who move for the mere sake of it because they don’t know how to be still and those who have to be still and let the world blossom around them. You can’t be attentive to the spirit, or any spirit, if you’re always on the go, because you’re either too busy talking down to everyone or shutting them out. We need time for cultivation.
LR: I’m doing a piece right now on technology and I keep coming back to this image of Toto pulling back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. That’s exactly what I see going on. The mask is coming down and there’s desperation out there. We have to be careful with our minds, because the proverbial THEY understand the power of hypnotism based on repetition. Sometimes I hear the classics on the radio and am reminded of how the jazz greats did so much with so little. I’m blessed to have grown up in that time. Not just around jazz, but Black music in general. Gospel, R&B and don’t get me started on James Brown, now he packed the party. As soon as he came on, it was hands up. And if you didn’t have anybody, you just danced with the wall. But you were still telling a story.
TG: How did this upcoming live-stream concert come about?
LR: One Breath Rising asked me and I said yes, simple as that. Since then, I’ve been going through the pieces in my mind, letting them grow. The fact that it takes place on Valentine’s Day reminds me of a performance I did for the Provincetown Playhouse at the invitation of Regina Ress, who teaches storytelling at NYU. In that piece, I said I was “looking for an analog love in a digital world.” That notion got me thinking about sound. We’re living in a world of ones and zeros, kicked off with an electrical connection, but I’m used to striking something, producing vibration.
In that performance, for which I both spoke and played, I told the story of my bass, which was built in Germany in the 1840s. It was found in a bombed-out building in Berlin and no one knows how it got here. I had a chance to try it out at the luthier’s shop when I was getting my plywood model fixed. That night, I couldn’t sleep, all I could hear was that sound. I was in love. I ended up trading my bass for the German one and it’s still my go-to instrument. I told a more detailed version of that story to an audience once and at the end these two old couples approached me and introduced themselves as German concentration camp survivors. They felt such an affinity for my bass, down to the serial number imprinted on the scroll. As I was giving them a closer look, one of the wives was patting and rubbing the bass like it was a real individual, which it is. I got really emotional. They saw a lot of people in that story and told me to keep playing. That’s when I realized the gift ran both ways. You pull in things that so many others take for granted, and you magnify them. This is who we are.
TG: Speaking of sound, I can’t help but feel like you’re reciting poetry when you’re playing bass and playing bass when you’re reciting poetry.
LR: I’ll walk with that, too. I live an improvisational lifestyle. Whatever I don’t do today, I’ll do the next time.
TG: Finally, I’d like to go back to the beginning of your relationship with the bass.
LR: I didn’t pick the bass up until I was 30. When I did, I already knew how I wanted it to sound and where I would go with it. Back then, I was getting poetry gigs in Boston when I ran into a bassist by the name of John Jamyll Jones. We were having a Black History Month program and I wanted him to accompany me while I read. The performance was even shown on PBS under the name Say Brother. After that I joined his band, Worlds, reciting poetry and playing a little percussion. They had two bassists, one of whom pursued other paths in life and sold me his bass. At first, I just had it in the living room, but then I would put on John Coltrane’s Ascension and start playing along with it. I felt like part of the band. Jamyll showed me the rudiments: how to hold the instrument and plant my feet properly. Then I got some books on fingering and such. I practiced every night. I just wanted to play. I never met my teachers: Jimmy Garrison, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers and Palle Danielsson. Then, a guy from Berklee who’d heard me play called me about joining him at Wally’s. He needed someone fast, so I took the risk and developed from there. Aside from studying a bit with Cecil McBee, I was largely self-taught. It was always about the music. It saved my life. I was a listener before I was a player and I’m still listening.
(This article originall appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
The career of musical polymath Ethan Iverson has taken the pianist—and his pen—around the world and then some, in both the geographic and creative senses. Since striking oil in collaboration with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King as The Bad Plus, Iverson has simultaneously broadened his palette and focused his sound throughout a range of far-thinking endeavors. Among those is his landmark Bud Powell in the 21st Century, a big band project recorded December 2018 at the Umbria Jazz Festival and released at the end of this month on Sunnyside Records. You can continue to track his various trajectories in his web archive, DO THE M@TH.
Tyran Grillo: Who is Ethan Iverson now that he wasn’t 15 years ago?
Ethan Iverson: I always had a plan to keep studying. When The Bad Plus had our surprise breakout success in 2003, I didn’t feel like it was automatically the endpoint. Playing with that band was incredible, but all along I was also thinking about other ways to make a contribution.
One of the reasons I started writing about the music was to let Bad Plus fans know about this great tradition. When you’re the new flavor, it can be seductive to feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but everybody stands on the shoulders of those who preceded them.
TG: When you speak of tradition, do you see that as a monolithic term or is it always evolving?
EI: Someone once said that it’s important for an artist to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts in the mind at the same time. On the one hand, yes, tradition, but on the other hand you have to be in the moment; there’s always the present day, or even looking to build a better future. Both things are true. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to work to say, “I only deal with the tradition.” Neither does it work to say, “I am only new.” Nobody I admire says that only one of those viewpoints is correct.
TG: How does your thinking in that regard connect to Bud Powell?
EI: He’s someone that I keep on learning from. In fact, this project happened two years ago, but just this morning I was practicing and thinking about Bud Powell. He’s an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
There’s room to find inspiration from almost anything. One of my mentors is the choreographer Mark Morris. He goes out all the time to see varied shows. He is always listening to and talking about different forms of music. Despite being schooled in high, conceptual art, you might just as easily find him watching and enjoying the most banal TV show imaginable. He is inflamed by all of it creatively, from high to low. And that, I think, is a pretty good model.
TG: How did the Powell project come about?
EI: It was a commission by the Umbria Jazz Festival, marrying an American quintet with an Italian big band. I was delighted when Carlos Pagnotta and Enzo Capua at Umbria first approached me. Manuele Morbidini, who directed the big band, prepared the musicians so well before I got there that I actually cut a rehearsal. The band was ready. When it came time to look for a label, Sunnyside founder François Zalacain is a bit of an old-school bebopper and really liked the project.
TG: How does the sound you achieved at Umbria differ from what you’ve done before?
EI: Post-Bad Plus, I’ve been doing quite a bit of larger-canvas pieces. I wrote a piano concerto for the American Composers Orchestra. I curated a celebration of Thelonious Monk for his centennial at Duke University. For Mark Morris, I did Pepperland, an evening-length piece connected to The Beatles. There’s been quite a lot of formal composition in the last five years, but Bud Powell in the 21st Century is the first of these projects that’s coming out commercially for everyone to hear.
Speaking of tradition versus being in the present day, when I think of the tribute projects I admire, there’s quite a bit of original composition. Ornette Coleman, even when playing standards, always started with an original melody. So, there’s original composition in this project—the very first track is completely original—but there’s also Powell’s music, which in and of itself is very difficult.
TG: Can you unpack “difficult” for us a little?
EI: With Powell, it’s hard to get all the details exactly right, because they’re quite specific, fast and complicated. I swore to myself that we would get those details right—such that if Bud was there, even if he didn’t like the whole thing, at least he couldn’t look at me and say, “You didn’t even play my melodies right, man.”
TG: How would you describe your relationship to Powell’s music?
EI: I like knowing the text. When The Bad Plus played The Rite of Spring, I played it just like Stravinsky wrote it. If I play Tadd Dameron with [drummer Albert] “Tootie” Heath, I learn Dameron’s original voicings. At one point I transcribed Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for The Bad Plus. My brain gets really excited by the details. I like to sit there and ask myself what really happened here. I can dive in, think about those details, transcribe and appreciate the subtleties.
There’s also this other side of creativity. I’m confident everything I do has a personal sound, that it sounds like me and part of that sound is wild and woolly. The fantastical or surreal comes in pretty naturally with Bud. At the end of the day, Bud Powell was an avant garde musician. Had the project been dedicated to the music of Dizzy Gillespie or Benny Golson, it might have been harder to find a way in to do something personal. But there’s a surreal glint in Bud Powell’s eye, so that’s a fit for me as well.
TG: What sorts of extra-musical inspirational forces do you find creep into your music?
EI: When I interface with literature, movies, or television, it helps me see that parameters of genre are freeing, not constricting. I like genres. Some people don’t believe in them and want to live their life “genre-free.” I have little interest in that perspective. I’m more like, “What is the genre?” If we know what genre it is, then we can fill the container with the right kind of material. In this project, Bud Powell is within the genre of bebop. I take bebop very seriously as a genre. I do things to it that are not pure bebop, but at the same time, I’m aware of the difference.
Everything “new” is a combination of previous things. What matters is how well you know each element you’re combining. If you’re writing a supernatural detective story, you need to ask yourself how well you know the supernatural genre and how well you know the detective genre. People often know one side more than the other. That’s always been an issue in the arts, but here in the postmodern age of the 21st Century, everything’s a click away. It’s all one big mashup. The question is how well you can control all the aspects you’re dialing in to the final product.
Sometimes, a college music student will say, “I don’t want to be labeled. Don’t even call it jazz; it’s all beyond category.” I get it, but at the same time, any single phrase you can play on an instrument has a heritage, so what lineage are you in? And if you know your lineage, you can accept it or work against it.
TG: Does this influence your selection of musicians as well?
EI: I chose the musicians for this project for specific reasons. There’s a core quintet of Americans, plus the Italian big band. The result is sort of a concerto grosso. My friend Ben Street plays bass. Ben really believes in jazz and plays with so much personality. There aren’t too many bass players you can hear on a record and immediately identify, but Ben is one of those.
Drummer Lewis Nash was suggested by Umbria. I’d heard and admired Lewis my whole life but hadn’t played with him before. For a big band you need a drummer who lays down the law. You can’t necessarily go in with a really idiosyncratic force like Paul Motian or Elvin Jones for a big band. Lewis is a consecrated bebop master who’s played with the Who’s Who, so he was a perfect choice.
I’d admired [trumpeter] Ingrid Jensen for years in the context of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, so she was always in the back of my mind as someone I’d choose if I ever did a big band project. She’s got connections musically to Kenny Wheeler, who wrote some of the more durable modern big band music. As for tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, I heard about him from Ben when in need of a sub for Mark Turner in the Billy Hart Quartet. Dayna is fast and very creative. Both Dayna and Ingrid get a few expansive solos in this project, but they also have solos in which they need to tell a story in just a chorus or two, like the original Powell session with Sonny Rollins, Fats Navarro, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes.
It was hard for all of us. We all left with a new appreciation for that genre of pure bebop, where everybody says their piece in three minutes. It was a joy to work within those confines.
TG: What surprised you the most when you first got together and played?
EI: I knew Lewis was great, but he struck me as very generous in his playing. He’s a natural accompanist. I’m not so used to that. I’m used to these people who push me around—and I want to be pushed around. But Lewis was like a beautiful jazz couch that you could just sit on and relax. As for Ingrid and Dayna, I knew they were virtuosos, but hearing them play these high-level, burning jazz solos confirmed that I’d gotten the right people. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but sometimes you put things together in your mind and it doesn’t always come out that way in reality. But they showed up, they kicked ass and it was great.
TG: What’s next for you?
EI: I expect to play quite a bit more solo piano eventually; that’s been coming along. A current commission is six formal sonatas for six virtuosos, which is going great. More formal composition is certainly in my future. The Billy Hart Quartet continues and we’re live-streaming at Dizzy’s Club to celebrate his 80th birthday. There’s also a wonderful singer named Marcy Harriell who I had a New Year’s Eve gig with last year doing music of Burt Bacharach and it was a huge success. Fortunately, there’s plenty to do. I’m blessed with a pretty sizable list of geniuses who are somehow willing to work with me.
TG: What would you most like to see happen in jazz that hasn’t happened already—or, for that matter, hasn’t happened for a long time and should be revived?
EI: Composition is important. Instrumental virtuosity is important. The blues is really important. Afro-Cuban rhythm is important. Romantic harmony is important. Telling a story is important. When we hear the great jazz records of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s all in a pretty perfect balance. After John Coltrane passed away, we’ve had 50 years of great music, but it’s seldom been the whole package. I believe in inclusivity. There are so many elements of music and if you can get a passing grade in many of them, you can keep moving it forward. When I talk about Burt Bacharach in the same breath as Bud Powell, I don’t see them that differently in the sense that both are the very highest level composers within their respective genres.
(This interview originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
Since making their ECM New Series debut with a program of works by Thomas Adès, Per Nørgård, and Hans Abrahamsen, the young musicians known collectively as the Danish String Quartet have secured a most suitable recording home in the label’s ever-growing annals. Having explored unfamiliar territory as intimately as breathing, they now approach familiar repertoire as distantly as foreign travel. This is, perhaps, something of the meaning behind their PRISM series, which pairs Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets with music of Johann Sebastian Bach and, between them, a modern work that ties the two together. When I caught up with the quartet via email, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard had the following to say about the title of this personal traversal:
“Just as a prism breaks light into different colors, we pass a linear beam of light from Bach to Beethoven. The original beam—in this case, Bach—already contains all the colors and directions of the future. In our interpretation, the late Beethoven quartets, typically considered a point of arrival, function as a prism, a pathway into something else. This puts all of the music into a very unusual perspective: Bach is the oldest, but already contains the future. Beethoven isn’t the end of a road. And the modern pieces are created from the oldest mold imaginable.”
I asked Nørgaard to expand on how Beethoven and Bach came to be the frame around these roving images:
“A while ago we found ourselves slightly bored with much of the classical programming (including our own). Too much randomness, too little connection. If art museums were curated like classical concerts used to be, no one would bother going. Then back in 2012 we had a collective ‘aha’ moment when Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performed in Copenhagen. They started out with Ligeti’s Atmosphères and continued with Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin. By connecting these masterworks, he created a completely new framing but with elegance and highest respect. A small trick, but a brilliant way to serve this great old wine in a beautiful new glass. This idea made it into our five-album PRISM project. The specific connection to Bach came after reading Beethoven: The Music and the Life, in which Lewis Lockwood shows a connection between Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier late Beethoven.”
Such tandem dynamics of parallelism and interweaving, of distance and proximity, are particularly evident in the first of the series.
PRISM I (ECM New Series 2561)
Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded November 2016, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 21, 2018
Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, as arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the opening bookend of this installment, and by suggestion of its resonance sets the parameters, pours the concrete, and delineates the land for purposes of construction. And what a mighty structure we find built on this foundation in the String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor of Dmitri Shostakovich. A haunting piece in six movements, its opening Elegy, at 13 minutes in length, takes clear inspiration from Beethoven, and with it starts on a journey through some of mortality’s darkest channels, as Shostakovich crafts the quartet’s existence as a body of organs.
The Serenade that follows has rarely sounded so tactile, and finds itself rendered as a dance of understated capture. The DSQ seems to feel so much about what Shostakovich meant to convey, and by that communication flips details inside out. The sonorities of the Nocturne are of especially brilliant subtlety. Muted strings unmute the soul. After a harrowing Funeral March, they conclude with a dynamic Epilogue, whispering a farewell in E-flat minor before its major counterpart is leaked by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.
In his liner note for the album, Nørgaard describes their first encounter with the late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven as a humbling experience. What they first approached with academic flair they quickly found to be brimming with possibility and meaning. To them, Beethoven’s Opus 127 in particular felt “as if it had fallen down from outer space onto our music stands, disconnected from music history and tradition.” It begins with huge swaths of chord fabric, unfurled before instruments sharp as a blade yet not seeking to cut. It renders introverted textures in an extroverted language. The lengthy Adagio is its centerpiece, a 16-minute chain of hymnal variations for which the quartet plays, put so precisely by Paul Griffiths in his booklet essay, as “four hearts differently beating, but at the same rate.” A pall of shadows and softest light given fresh nutrients by this performance. The following Scherzo flies off the bows of the quartet with especial providence, while the Finale speaks in a similar language of planes and caesuras, achieving transcendence in the final stretch.
“When you spend so much time with a certain repertoire, you naturally end up having a very intimate relationship with it. On top of that I think we all enjoy digging into the music we play and finding all the little details that are just below the surface. We are just the lucky vessels that get to convey fantastic music. If you pick the good things out there, you don’t need to push all kinds of intent into it. It’s fine on its own as long as you do it justice in the way you play it. That being said, we never intentionally try to play in a very ‘intimate’ way. Maybe what sounds ‘intimate’ is actually our respect for the music.”
I wonder, then, how he might distinguish this album from their first two programs and, similarly, what binds it:
“Our two initial albums on ECM were ‘standalones.’ Everything is connected in the PRISM series, however. It’s a wonderful feeling doing projects like this. It teaches you so much as a musician. We tend to think that masterpieces are ‘otherworldly’ when in fact they were the result of a bunch of human beings inspiring and learning from each other. Like us. They were just exceptionally good at it! What stays the same is the stable ECM sound that we have come to expect. We truly enjoy working with people who are so passionate about what they do. It clearly reflects in the top-notch albums that come out of ECM and inspires us to do better.”
Listeners can be assured of placing this and the second volume squarely within that top-notch category.
PRISM II (ECM New Series 2562)
Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded May 2017, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 13, 2019
Bach’s Fugue in B minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, in an arrangement by Emanuel Aloys Förster, thus ushers us into the project’s continuation in the manner of an old friend, welcoming with an open door and an open heart. Moving with tenderness and spiritual comportment, it touches a window of reflection into unknown futures, tracing patterns of suspension and transcendence.
Following this is Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1983 composition in which ghosts of antiquity are astir. The opening Andante’s sirens move with grace and finality, even as they activate seeds that will one day grow into life. The contrast between stretches of quietude and heaves of mourning are transfixing. The middle movement’s self-refractive allusions are brilliantly examined, rendering Shostakovich-leaning textures and palpable flavors. The final movement, marked Pesante, returns to that keening quality of the first, treating every sonorous shift as a veil to be dyed and worn as a screen through which to view a monochromatic world. It ends off-center, waiting for something to speak.
For me, the Kronos Quartet’s version of this harrowing masterwork on Winter Was Hard has long been my reference recording of choice, and I can say with heartfelt assurance that its throne must now be rebuilt for two.
In light of this darkness, Beethoven’s epical String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major turns night into dawn. The opening stretch of landscape resolves into a jagged dance of joy. Its adjoining Presto even injects a bit of humor into the proceedings.
The three subsequent movements are like paintings in sound, each portraying the same scene from a different angle. The DSQ opts for the quartet’s original version, including the monumental Große Fuge (op. 133) as the finale. After a declamatory overture, it morphs into some of Beethoven’s most boisterous writing for the genre. A superb account in every way.
Holding both programs together as one, it’s easy to ascribe a visual quality to their emerging narrative. First violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen agrees:
“Schnittke and Shostakovich do create very strong images—to me more so than Beethoven and Bach. I guess that the beauty of music is that every single listener and performer can have different images in mind when hearing/performing it: it’s a very open art form in that regard. Of course as a quartet, we strive to project one common story when performing a piece. Often it’s easier to think in images rather than being too concrete—loud, soft, fast, slow—when studying a piece of music.”
And perhaps we can ascribe a cinematic aesthetic by the hand of producer Manfred Eicher, whose touch so often turns sound into physical action. Says second violinist Frederik Øland:
“It’s always lovely to work with Manfred. His presence exudes great authority, and we always feel very committed when he’s around. His overwhelming passion for recording, plus 50 years of experience in the business, gives you a totally unique and very personal touch on the records that I find rare in today’s music industry. I would argue that he is old school, yet innovative. Timeless, in fact.”
The album’s engineering, every bit as beautiful as the playing, confirms an underlying dedication to recorded art. Øland again:
“Luckily, we have great people working ‘behind the scenes’ on our recordings. I’ve often thought that the producer and engineer’s names should be on the front of the cover, just as much as the musicians. We always start with adjusting the sound, so that everyone is happy and can relate to what they actually hear, but from there much of editing and engineering is left out of our hands. It’s really a matter of trust, but with that said, I think our sound is very well taken care of.”
And listeners can feel confident walking into these beams of light knowing they, too, will be very well taken care of.
Natascia Gazzana violin
Raffaella Gazzana piano
Recorded March 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 20, 2018
For their third ECM New Series recital, violinist Natascia Gazzana and pianist Raffaella Gazzana deepen their conversation as soulful interpreters, if not also as interpreters of souls. Presenting four composers of spatial disparity yet creative overlap, they engage music that requires listening, respect, and emotional integrity. I recently asked them via email to talk about the new album, and how it differs from previous recitals.
“It takes us a long time to put together meaningful and organic programs, either for a recording or for public concerts. Usually in our recitals we span the gamut from established pieces of the classical repertoire to contemporary and less commonly performed pieces—or even totally unknown ones, such as György Ligeti’s Duo in this program. Our previous recordings were mostly focused on repertoire from the 20th up to the 21st century. On this album we went a bit further back in time, as we do in live performances.”
The Ligeti Duo is a brief yet narratively rich piece that receives its premiere recording here. Each character of this newly recovered folktale recalls the joys of childhood in exquisite detail, it searches for dialogue but instead discovers a soliloquy split into its component parts. And why, one wonders, did a piece by such an established modern composer get buried for so long?
“We have always loved Ligeti’s music and were wondering how it could be that he had not written any piece for violin and piano, a combination attempted by all composers. Only after looking through his catalogue attentively did we discover the Duo. Written in 1946, when he was only 23 years old, it was dedicated to György Kurtág and languished in a drawer. Most likely it was performed only for an inner circle of friends.”
The Gazzanas expended much effort to secure the rights to record the Duo, and the score, they note, has yet to be published. Heard alongside the 1932 Thème et variations of Olivier Messiaen that follows, it inhales shadow as Messiaen exhales sunshine. The Thème et variations is a wedding gift to the composer’s first wife, violinist Claire Delbos, and as such glows with adoration. The piano stretches a canvas for the violin, whose brushwork ranges from ponderous to effervescent.
While these two youthful compositions comprise the program’s second half, the first begins with Maurice Ravel’s Sonata posthume. Although composed in 1897, when Ravel was 22, his first chamber work wouldn’t see the light of day until 1975. Its combination of robustness and delicacy is masterfully recreated here. The initial violin line skitters through underbrush, its movements captured by the piano and rolled into a ball of spirited wonder. Fantastical elements omnipresent in Ravel’s later works are foreshadowed, but sway in and out of frame with the lilt of a windblown branch. Like water taking different forms, some moments drip through open fingers, while others evaporating as if from a distant lake, and still others polish to a reflective sheen. When playing such music, say the Gazzanas, “we concentrate on the sound quality and not getting distracted away from the structure of the work. We would think mainly in terms of sound story more than a visual narrative.” In that respect, sound structures are apparent even when silence is in order.
Because Ravel modeled his Sonata posthume on César Franck’s Sonate for piano and violin in A major, it makes for a natural inclusion. The Franck sonata was, in fact, the album’s seed:
“It is a real masterpiece and has a highly structured, cyclical form. Too often, when talking about French music, you may hear it spoken of in terms of delicate and refined sounds, nuances, and colors. Franck gave an impetus to the so-called French School and this sonata represents a cutting edge in composition that significantly influenced many subsequent composers.”
Originally written for Eugène Ysaÿe, it eschews showiness to spotlight the evocative abilities of its performers, who in this instance regard romanticism with a studied gaze. The second movement is a rolling tide of memory made flesh by the touch of these humane performers, while the third bridges a synapse of utter enchantment. As the profoundest example of communication between the Gazzana sisters, it is rich with unspoken language and metaphysical translations. The final movement walks a high tightrope in the violin, scaling down rocky terrain into an immaculately pruned path.
In combination, these selections offer a cumulative effect of consideration:
“Every piece included on the album represents our present vision. We enjoy immensely the fact that everything we have performed over many years has always sounded fresh to our ears. Every time we approach a work, we look for some new details or aspects to bring out. We are perfectly aware that we still have so much to learn and that every state of mind or stage in life can provide new impulse to our performances.”
Aiding in that process are producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Markus Heiland. Their contributions reveal hidden shades of meaning:
“Every stage of the recording process is important in bringing out the best sound quality possible. Manfred and Heiland were particularly attentive to microphone placement, and even before that to the placing of instruments in the studio. A lot of time was dedicated to finding out how to listen to each other, so as to balance the instruments’ levels. We went back and forth to the control room, listening to the results until we were satisfied with the purity of the sound. The final editing, the choice of the order of the compositions on the album, as well as the pauses between a piece and another also contributed to a lengthy creation process.”
By its end, forged together as a seamless story, the album beckons us like an open book, anticipating with great joy the experiences that await us.
Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.
For the word of the LORD is right; and all his works are done in truth.
Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, violinist Ruth Tumpalan is a dedicated musician and educator. She is currently a faculty member at the Lindeblad School of Music, where her pedagogical zeal has earned her a place of distinction in the hearts of students. She has studied with such renowned classical artists as violinist Christoph Poppen and pianist Gilles Vonsattel, and has performed with a range of others across genres, from Jaime Laredo to Michael Bublé. Most recently, she won first place in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Composition, and as a result of that honor was a featured soloist at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City. Her focus on cultural diversity is paramount and drives her to constantly improve her technique in all areas.
Yet behind the glamour of performing on some of the world’s most hallowed stages, Tumpalan has found special fulfillment as part of the music ministry at Heritage Baptist Church in Manhattan. Her love of God and music have been intertwined since childhood, and manifest with especial depth in her work with the church’s choir as part of a vibrant ministry.
I recently sat down with Tumpalan via Skype to discuss the role of faith in her personal and professional life, asking first about her musical foundations.
“My father is a pastor, so we were all homeschooled, but when I was 10 he enrolled me and my siblings in an extension program at the University of the Philippines to study music. Two weeks later, I was playing in a Christian wedding officiated by my father. Since then, I’ve always played in church, both as a violinist and choir pianist.”
At the age of 12, Tumpalan got the chance to visit the United States with her father while he was touring churches. Upon returning home, she immersed herself in recordings and live performances, all the while cultivating a desire to pursue music as a profession. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of the Philippines, with a focus on violin, graduating cum laude in 2009.
“After college, I played with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, but after five years decided I wanted to develop myself even further through study. I had been praying since high school for an opportunity to study abroad, ideally in the U.S., in pursuit of new perspectives and higher standards. In 2014, God led me to a full scholarship to earn a Master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts.”
Tumpalan doesn’t take such blessings lightly and has always seen her gifts as God-given. While at UMass, however, she found herself at an impasse.
“There I was, halfway through my two-year program, contemplating what the Lord’s real will was for me. Did he want me to go back to the Philippines or did he have something bigger in store? It was a long journey, filled with prayer. But God provided, one step at a time, lining me up with a job before I even finished my degree. Although music had originally led me here to the U.S., I know in hindsight that it was actually God’s provision all along, working through all the little things to get me where I am now.”
Although Tumpalan’s husband was in Hong Kong at the time, he also earned a scholarship to study percussion at UMass, bringing them closer under an unseen but ever-felt guiding hand. They were further led to Heritage Baptist Church, where Tumpalan became immediately involved in the music ministry.
“Playing at Heritage is my priority. My job is important, but I like the need of going to church and being with brethren. It also enhances my career, leading me with strength through daily life and its many decisions. When I don’t go to church, even for just a week, I feel that my well-being is lowered.”
(Tumpalan performs at Heritage Baptist Church)
And what, I asked, of her experience playing at Carnegie?
“I never thought I would get to play there as a soloist. I’d played there before with the Philippine Philharmonic, and thought that was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But then, last year, I was working with an excellent pianist named Jongsun Lee, who suggested we try out for the competition. With my full studio schedule, it wasn’t easy to manage practice time and teaching, but my teaching actually helped me to prepare. Certain things my own teachers had taught me before suddenly made sense. I never expected to get first place, but God made it possible.”
For that performance, she chose Henryk Wieniawski’s formidable Scherzo Tarantelle Op. 16, a work brimming with the very excitement that stokes her appreciation for music as a means of communication.
“The best feedback I’ve ever gotten as a musician is being told that I moved someone to tears. In that respect, in my playing I aim to be more of an inspiration, to connect with people at a level beyond words.”
This approach is integral to Tumpalan’s teaching, which builds upon the renowned methods of Shinichi Suzuki.
“I always make sure to explain to parents that the Suzuki method was designed to create better human beings through music, and that the most important things to learn from the experience are discipline, empathy, and cooperation. These are more than musical skills; they’re life skills. Without them, playing well and achieving success in music mean nothing. Whenever someone makes a mistake in my group classes, no one is allowed to point. They must respect themselves, first and foremost.”
As for the future, Tumpalan sees herself becoming even more involved in the church, and has been considering putting together a book of Christian music arranged for various instruments. Whatever may come, her faith will only continue to grow.
Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary:
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts:
praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:
praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD.
Praise ye the LORD.
Aaron Parks piano
Ben Street double bass
Billy Hart drums
Recorded October 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 21, 2017
The first time that Melquíades’ tribe arrived, selling glass balls for headaches, everyone was surprised that they had been able to find that village lost in the drowsiness of the swamp, and the gypsies confessed that they had found their way by the song of the birds.
–Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
After making his lauded ECM debut with Arborescence, Aaron Parks returns with his first album for the label as bandleader. Featuring an enviable dyad of bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, Parks’s outfit is melodious enough on paper before PLAY is even pressed. I caught up with the pianist and composer via phone to ask about his experiences making Find The Way with producer Manfred Eicher:
“By the time Manfred and I began discussions, I had been working with this trio for a number of years already, and mentioned it to him as a band of special energy. Later on, as it turned out, we had a six-day tour in the UK. I had it in mind to capture the band in the studio right after the tour, and he was into the idea.”
Special energy comes across as an understatement when the different generations represented in each player align as if by genetic suggestion. Track 5, “The Storyteller,” is an emblematic summation in this regard, for like an oral storyteller Parks focuses on the integrity of plot arc without privileging any word over another. This dynamic is as conscious as it is inevitable, given the simpatico atmosphere in which the trio operates:
“At our best, we felt like one organism. You can hear that especially later in the album’s sequence. Being in that environment, hearing it back in the studio, makes you play differently, as does having Manfred there listening. I went into that session with the idea of radical surrender. With the trio in general, I’ve got my compositions, but Ben and Billy create a context for me to let go of them and explore together.”
Although “Adrift” was recorded second, upon hearing it Eicher immediately knew it would be the first track of the record. So it goes when a trusted pair of ears notices things of which sometimes not even creators themselves are aware…
“We were really sequencing it on the fly as we went along. There’s an interesting architecture, intended or not, in the sequence. The tunes at the end are solidified, while “Adrift” feels tumultuous to me, as if we might not make it out alive. We’re all coming from different angles at once, circling the beat by virtue of a common gravitational pull. And in general, there’s a feeling throughout the record of gradually achieving solid form.”
(Photo credit: Bart Babinski)
As it stands, the set’s opener lands us softly into its seascape, folding wings made not of feathers but vinyl, beating hard against the sun in defiance of Icarus’s folly. Across the spectrum of “Song For Sashou” (a bossa nova for a dear friend), “Unravel” (a connective introspection), and “First Glance,” we encounter laid-back yet fully rendered images in which Parks gets every last molecule of pigment out of his sonic paintbrush. Gentle on the ears yet even gentler on the heart, his solos read like love letters, balancing prosody and poetry while avoiding the temptation to self-edit as he writes. He lets everything go, giving more than taking, his chords swept like a pond’s surface beneath willow branches.
The title of “Hold Music” is something of a misnomer. Sounding nothing like the vapid pedantry one usually encounters in a maze populated by customer representatives, it delineates an emotional pause for reflection that keeps us steady while the world rushes by on its own path to self-destruction. Hart’s depth-soundings here reveal the piece’s original conception as a “miniature drum concerto.” Park goes on:
“I used the same 15-chord sequence in an old tune called ‘Chronos,’ which appears on James Farm [Nonesuch, 2011]. Something about those chords takes me to outer space every time, so I decided to revisit them here. I think of the title in terms of creating a space to hold this music. Also, in this song you’re waiting for something that never really happens.”
Throughout Find The Way, transitions are never oversold. “Alice,” taking inspiration from the selfsame Coltrane, is a syncopated wonder, marking differences not only within its borders but also between them and surrounding territories. Over shifting tectonic plates, it works its way into a bluesy froth, spreading across shoreline like butter over toast until it melts: a memory to be savored. The equally evocative “Melquíades,” named for a character in Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork, reads fantasy into every note. The album finishes with the title track, the only not by Parks. Written instead by Ian Bernard and first sung by Rosemary Clooney on 1963’s Love, it closes the door in bliss.
“The tune has always stood out to me for its beauty and oddness: asymmetrical form, 7-bar A sections, playing with minor and major tonalities in unexpected ways. And the lyrics are so sad and strange. I’d known I wanted to cover it for a long time. And it felt so natural with this band. Billy’s performance on this one is just astonishing to me.”
But so should it all astonish, for the album’s banner of coexistence is something we can all uphold. In its shadow, we enter a natural order of things, where everything is a balance of safety and unpredictability. And because ECM has always thrived in such soil, there could be no better home for this music to have taken root.
Michel Benita Ethics
Michel Benita double bass
Matthieu Michel flugelhorn
Mieko Miyazaki koto
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Philippe Garcia drums
Recorded April 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 15, 2016
On River Silver, Paris-based bassist Michel Benita makes his ECM leader debut with the borderless Ethics ensemble. Joined by Swiss flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel, koto player Mieko Miyazaki, Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset (with whom he plays in Andy Sheppard’s quartet), and French drummer Philippe Garcia, Benita architects a veritable museum of mostly original creations. Even before a single note is heard, as Benita tells me in a recent email interview, the very name of the project is resonant in a way that caught the attention of producer Manfred Eicher:
“The world needs more ethics: understanding, empathy, and sharing. That’s how I hear this word. And the idea of sharing between different cultures is very important for me. Hence, our lineup. The band functions collectively, without ego. ECM, too, represents a certain kind of musical ethics. The band was almost made for the label, though not consciously, and I was very happy when Manfred recognized our familial relationship upon hearing the first album.”
In contrast to said first album, released in 2009 as Ethics on Outhere Records, for which Benita worked more laboriously in the post-production phase to craft a decidedly studio-oriented sound, River Silver followed ECM’s usual three-day regimen in Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, under the watchful ear of engineer Stefanio Amerio. Because the album was recorded without overdubs, Benita found himself approaching it differently from its predecessor:
“I had rehearsed mostly with Eivind in his home in Norway, to get the forms and sound directions right. But Manfred made his own very interesting suggestions and very soon in the process, as always with him, he developed an idea of sequencing. His overall conception is pretty much summed up by the expression ‘Less is more,’ both in the playing and exposition of a theme.One thing I learned from him this time (as when working with Andy Sheppard) is that you can record any band live, even with loud guitar amps, all together in the same room, and without wearing headphones. That’s a big relief and gives you a lot of freedom and concentration.”
Sure enough, the relationship between freedom and concentration is evident throughout River Silver as its philosophical and compositional foundation. And while the instrumentation is atypical for welcoming the koto’s plucked soul into a jazz context, the decision feels inevitable when in service of such intuitive music, honed over five years of collaboration.
“The whole Ethics project was actually born following my encounter with Mieko. I first saw her play with guitarist Nguyên Lê and I was very impressed with her charisma on stage and her sound, which blended perfectly into jazz-oriented music. So we met a few times and decided to start rehearsing tunes that I wrote along the way. Each rehearsal gave me new ideas, as I was starting to hear what could work best with my bass. Then, while listening back to our duo recordings, I thought of the other musicians whose textures would become part of this quintet.”
The set’s opener, “Back From The Moon” (a title lifted from a Joni Mitchell lyric) lays down a carpet so tessellated that it’s impossible to disagree with Benita’s democratic self-characterization. It’s easy to trace individual threads—from the rhythm section’s relaxed traction to the thematic unity of flugelhorn and koto, and Aarset’s reflections echoing through them all—but each feels as much supportive of the other four as the other way around. Miyazaki’s koto, for example, is a natural force in this configuration, not so much weaving as acting the loom for the others’ lyrical shuttles. Her evolution from single notes to resplendent strums reveals a narrative patience that would be absent without the band working as a whole. Despite this scope of vision, the music’s genesis emerged in relatively intimate quarters:
“I locked myself up for 10 days, alone in a friend’s apartment in Paris, where I wrote and demoed all the music with my bass, a guitar, and keyboards. This was a very nice experience. ‘River Silver’ is an illustration of the Seine, visible outside my window every day during the writing process. On some evenings, it really did look like silver. I like the abstract and organic collective improvisation of that tune.”
In the wake of this progressive introduction, the title track floats into urban slumber, and speaks even more deeply to the inwardness of what we encounter therein. “I See Altitudes” relegates the koto to a more backgrounded role and finds Michel soaring over Benita’s cartographic wanderings, while Aarset writes across the sky in starlit script. Furthering the metaphor, “Off The Coast” launches its intimate fleet into uncharted waters, wielding its navigational instruments with archival purpose. Aarset’s comet tails are the visual language of this introspective theme, held together by the ether of Miyazaki’s arpeggios and Garcia’s cymbals.
“Toonari” is the most cinematic of the tracks, yet leaves us in suspended animation, prepared to be “Snowed In” by a tender memory. For good measure, Benita welcomes three tunes not composed by him. Where both “Yeavering,” by Northumbrian folk musician Kathryn Tickell, and “Lykken,” a ballad by Norwegian songwriter Eyvind Alnæs (1872-1932), are swaths of lushest monochrome, Miyazaki’s “Hacihi Gatsu” (a misprint of “Hachi Gatsu,” Japanese for “August”) draws from a greener palette.
Ethics is a dream group in the truest sense, because everything it plays is of a dream. As such, it reflects Benita’s increasingly open approach to space and making music within it. All the more appropriate that he should have found a new home in ECM territory. On that note, even as I post this review Benita is in the studio again with Michel, Garcia, and new Flemish recruit Jozef Dumoulin on Fender Rhodes. Our hearts are open and waiting.