Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile: Continuum (ECM 2464)

Continuum

Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile
Continuum

NIK BÄRTSCH’S MOBILE
Nik Bärtsch
piano
Sha bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Kaspar Rast drums, percussion
Nicolas Stocker drums, tuned percussion
EXTENDED
Etienne Abelin violin
Ola Sendecki violin
David Schnee viola
Solme Hong cello
Ambrosius Huber cello
Recorded March 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 22, 2016

Swiss pianist and bandleader Nik Bärtsch makes no distinction between the old and the new, thriving instead on constant transformation. Freed of evocative titles, he writes in so-called “modules,” each of which combines through-composed and improvised material. This approach has yielded a series of albums for ECM under the name Ronin, but on Continuum he debuts his parallel ensemble, Mobile. Drummer Kaspar Rast and mononymous clarinetist Sha are familiar standbys, while percussionist Nicolas Stocker and a string section are the new recruits. Those familiar with Ronin will recognize certain tics in Mobile’s larger body. I ask Bärtsch to elaborate on their differences.

NB

“Mobile is acoustic and Ronin amplified, resulting in different consequences concerning power, pressure, volume, and listening behavior (for musicians and audience alike). We recorded Continuum in close proximity with each other while the Ronin sessions had us in different rooms. Mobile is also a music ritual group and often plays long concerts of several hours or even days. In Mobile we include rhythmic strategies of contemporary classical music, for example in ‘Modul 5.’ The band’s name refers to a ‘perpetuum mobile,’ while Ronin is a ‘groove generator.’ Mobile creates groove equilibriums and orchestral maneuvers while Ronin attacks with a paradoxical mix of empty meditative roughness and strong rhythmic energy: Zen-funk.”

The ritual foundations of said “Modul 5” reveal the virtuosity of their execution with patience. The same holds true for “Modul 60,” in which strings interlock with their surroundings like stairways in an Escher lithograph.

On Continuum, Bärtsch has taken his craft one step closer to an ideal that, while perhaps unreachable, is more audible than ever. Beyond my own idiosyncratic impressions, however, the music of Mobile is rooted in the presence of its musicians, as anyone who has seen them live can attest. Movement would seem to be central to “Modul 29_14” in particular, a force of suggestion made by its pairing with martial arts in a promotional video:

The binary relationship between Rast and Stocker in this piece unpacks bits of code into full-blown programs. High notes in the glockenspiel, doubling those of the keyboard, activate those programs in one artful sequence after another. Bärtsch, for his part, is careful to keep his own perceptions grounded the physical body. “A musical pattern, rhythm, or resonating structure is a sensual movement,” he says. “Sometimes, when I am practicing intensively, I dream of becoming such a musical being: a pure resonating energy of movement. We are all dancers in the universe.”

And is this dancing indicative of the project’s classical leanings?

“The music might seem more ‘classical,’ since we give the impression of a chamber ensemble. In principle we work the same way as with Ronin: I compose a piece, which in the context of the group develops its own instrumentation and dynamics. But in one respect your reception is probably correct: there is less obvious improvisation than in Ronin, although ‘Modul 12’ is completely improvised, if on the basis of a modular, coherent structure.”

That latter module is remarkable for Rast’s brushwork, by which he smooths out a layer of gravel over Sha’s tunneling contrabass clarinet.

Mobile

While most comfortable on the live stage, in this instance Mobile is uniquely bound to studio parameters. This does not, clarifies Bärtsch, equate to a reduction. “An album is a different genre altogether,” he notes. “It has and creates its own rules. But the group profits from the long-playing rituals, which leave us open to the situation of the recording: a new space-time continuum to be explored and created.”

To my ears, “Modul 18” is a well-rounded example of this brand of creationism. Its elements—metal, wood, air—come to life in a vibrational field of bowed strings against a repeating bass drum, Stocker shining like a constellation in its darker sky. Throughout “Modul 4,” too, the two drummers act as one as a high overlay of notes from Bärtsch foreshadows closure. Listening to such older modules, I can’t help but wonder how they’ve changed. Are they seeds for cultivation or do they become unique entities with every iteration?

“The modular way of composing allows a piece to evolve, while also retaining compositional coherence. The triangle of composition, improvisation, and interpretation should be connected and alive. Usually a pattern, piece, or musical strategy has more potential than you first recognize. You have to explore it for years through playing and observation. I see this as a natural, spiraling development forward into roots.”

Such is the modus operandi of “Modul 44,” in which Rast’s skins serve as palimpsests for musical poetry. The subtlety of his drumming is unexpected from such a robust figure. As in the gradual progressions of “Modul 8_11,” his interaction with the others results in so many orbits that the after-images of their playing form one glowing sphere. Despite the utter precision required to pull off this effect, a free-flowing, interdimensional quality prevails. If any message stays behind, it is Bärtsch’s own: “Trust your ears. They are the most sensitive antennas for the resonating inner and outer world.”

The Gurdjieff Ensemble: Komitas (ECM 2451)

Komitas

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Komitas

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Emmanuel Hovhannisyan duduk, pku, zurna
Armen Ayvazyan kamancha
Avag Margaryan pogh, zurna
Aram Nikoghosyan oud
Davit Avagyan tar
Mesrop Khalatyan dap, dhol
Vladimir Papikyan santur, voice
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Norayr Gapoyan duduk, bass duduk
Eduard Harutyunyan tmbuk, cymbal, kshots, burvar, bell
Levon Eskenian director
Recorded February 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: October 2, 2015

Since forming the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble in 2008, musician and director Levon Eskenian has moved beyond delineations of the group’s namesake, even while staying truer than ever to the roots such an association implies. His ECM debut, Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, drew from a well that had already been dug into the label’s landscape by Keith Jarrett and Vassilis Tsabropoulos/Anja Lechner, and deepened by Lechner’s subsequent duo with François Couturier. It was only natural, then, that Eskenian should turn his attention to that spiritual progenitor of Armenian classical music: Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), a.k.a. Komitas.

Having appeared on Kim Kashkashian’s Hayren and Savina Yannatou’s Songs of Thessaloniki, among others, the music of Komitas has been something of a leitmotif in the ECM catalog, where its expressions of folk sentiment feel right at home, and nowhere so fully as on this first disc dedicated to him alone. As with Gurdjieff, Eskenian and his ensemble have gone as far back to into this music’s past as is conceivable, arranging it for the very instruments whose sounds first inspired Komitas to put pen to paper. Eskenian has, in essence, “re-composed” them as physical environments around on which listeners can walk to absorb every detail.

Gurdjieff Ensemble
(Photo credit: Andranik Sahakyan)

Eskenian, for his part, provides—in both the music and liner notes—a loving account of Komitas, whose approach to diverse interests imbued his writing with metaphysical levels of beauty. Even when composing for western instruments, he would often notate with traditional instruments in mind, and so Eskenian’s instinct is in keeping with the origin story at hand. Komitas and Gurdjieff share one degree of separation by way of the latter’s student, Thomas de Hartmann, but even more in terms of philosophy, lifestyle, and artistic engagement. I asked Eskenian whether these connections had anything to do with how he put this album together.

“Gurdjieff sent de Hartmann to Yerevan, where he immersed himself in, held concerts of, and gave lectures on the music of Komitas. Later on, de Hartmann would found the Komitas Society with the goal of collecting and printing the composer’s music. There are some pieces in which Gurdjieff and Komitas used the same folk tunes. Both of them were truth-seekers. Like Gurdjieff, Komitas would also talk about vibrations. He consulted ancient manuscripts and believed in the healing powers of music, the effects of modes and how each string of the knar [a traditional harp], for example, had on a different part of the body. He taught movements rooted in ancient ritual dances of pre-Christian temples, and often referred to himself as a teacher of dancing. In all cases, I consider the music of Komitas to be an essential key for a better understanding of the music of Gurdjieff and of the many other classical composers who have based their compositions on folk motifs.”

Eskenian’s gentle and respectful assertions of the significance of this music further explain why the album seemed to take form of its own volition. Eskenian elaborates on the genesis of the project, which began with a suggestion on the part of producer Manfred Eicher to center a follow-up to his Gurdjieff debut around Armenian folk and sacred music:

“For many years I’d thought about the Komitas dances, to have them performed on traditional Armenian and ancient instruments. I knew the pieces long before my encounter with the music of Gurdjieff and they had always served as a reference for me, but arranging the piano scores for authentic traditional Armenian instruments was in fact a bold labor which required additional research along anthropological, historical, and ethnomusicological lines in order to have a certain level of objectivity that wouldn’t ruin his work. Manfred left me free to decide the program. During the recording session he was actively involved in creating a comfortable atmosphere in which the musicians might better hear their inner sound, and with the assistance of engineer Markus Heiland recorded these instruments in their full timbrous colors. During the mixing session, Manfred paid strict attention to the sequence of pieces, and to the ‘silent’ pauses between them. The album cover was also of his choosing, a beautiful photo and one of the first of biblical Ararat Mountain ever taken at the beginning of the 20th century.”

In his own briefer liner note for the album, Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian—onetime director of the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan—expands on the cultural iconicity of Komitas, whose piano pieces he goes so far as to describe as “documentary works,” preserving as they do the spirit of his Armenian heritage. The “Yot Par” (Seven dances) represent one such set of piano pieces, recalibrated here to suit the spectral qualities of Eskenian’s peerless ensemble. These dances are centered around the capital of Yerevan, the contentious city of Shushi, the village of Karin, and the Turkish provincial capital of Mush. Whether the binary star of bowed kamancha and hammered santur in “Manushaki,” the duduk and tar in “Yerangui,” or the pogh flute and tmbuk drum duet that is “Het u Araj,” each dance flows in measured contrast to surrounding tunes and highlights a different instrumental color. That same pogh flute, in tandem with oud, embodies perhaps the deepest entanglement of ancient impulse and contemporary realization in “Karno Shoror,” which is about as close to experiencing history as this music gets. Even “Masho Shoror,” another piano work newly fashioned, is rife with textures that feel much older than we can articulate by any other means. The present rendition cross-hatches the double-reed zurna with the santur’s metallic lines. At just under 12 minutes, it is an album in and of itself, gathering as it does many influences in a single hearth of understanding.

“I often think about this piece,” says Eskenian, “which was a series of mystical pagan dances accompanying pilgrimage to St. Karapet Monastery in Mush. The monastery was one of the main pilgrimage sites for Armenians and served as their temple even before Christianity. After the Armenian genocide inflicted by the Ottoman empire, when most Armenians were killed, this marvelous monastery was destroyed much like ancient monuments in the Middle East have been in recent years. It was a great loss, to be sure, but I reflect on the fact that we have these sounds and traditions encoded into the piano music, now brought back to their inspirational sources. Through this process, we are reconstructing something of what has been lost. I am grateful to be able to share this with the world: a piece of the past reaching out to us from unrecoverable times.”

Eskenian

Many of the program’s standalone songs are likewise rooted in nature, by which traces of what came before our current generation continue to thrive, changed but also essential. In the plough songs of the northern Lori region, such as “Lorva Gutanerg,” we almost don’t need to know that Komitas gathered such melodies himself and separated them like chaff from the wheat so that posterity might be nourished by their bread. The medieval influences are clearest in these examples, as in the fortune-telling motivations of “Mani Asem, Tsaghik Asem” (Praises to the flower) and, more so, the strains of “Hov Arek” (Dear mountains, send me a breeze), a high point in the album’s topography that accentuates the talents of santur player Vladimir Papikyan, whose virtuosity unites sentiment and form. Moving through lullabies and other pieces for children, as well as love songs, the ensemble touches on Komitas’s religious affinities in songs like “Havun” (The fowl of the air), in which two duduks express Christ’s Resurrection in metaphor. On the subject of ascendant beings, the pogh solo “Havik” (A radiant bird) evokes its eponym with purposeful flight. Breathy and full of charcoal in its palette, it recalls the sensory world of a Japanese brush painting, trees barely visible as splashes of ink in the background.

Despite any mystical characterizations one might draw around Komitas, it’s clear from this recording that the heart of his music runs on a fundamental energy. It’s the same energy that allows us to listen and to love, to seek out those things which connect us beyond concerns of the flesh. So much so, that no matter what form it takes, the music of Komitas occupies an immediately relatable realm of understanding. In this vein, listeners can look forward to an album of his complete piano music as performed by Lusine Grigoryan, who has worked diligently to reproduce every effect as indicated in the original scores. Where Eskenian has taken those cues to heart by transferring them the very instruments that inspired them, Grigoryan has accepted the challenge of expanding the piano’s vocabulary to suit the ambitious needs of these timeless melodies. The reconstruction has just begun.

(Click here to read the rest of my interview with Levon Eskenian for RootsWorld online magazine, alongside another review of the album by Erik Keilholtz.)

Anat Fort Trio w/Gianluigi Trovesi: Birdwatching (ECM 2382)

Birdwatching

Anat Fort Trio
Gianluigi Trovesi
Birdwatching

Anat Fort piano
Gary Wang bass
Roland Schneider drums
Gianluigi Trovesi alto clarinet
Recorded November 2013, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 8, 2016

On Birdwatching, Anat Fort’s third album for ECM, the Israeli pianist and composer proves once again that music is a journey without repetition. I trace this axiom back to her label debut, 2007’s A Long Story, from which “Something ’Bout Camels” carried over into the 2010 follow-up, And If. This time around, another tune from that same record—“Not The Perfect Storm”—makes a reappearance, now re-cloaked by the melodic overlay of Italian reedman Gianluigi Trovesi, who joins her trio with bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider for her farthest-reaching record to date. The rumbling pianism of that latter track speaks at once to Fort’s illustrative prowess and willingness to sidestep its clichés. Indeed, beyond the thunder implied in the lower register of her keyboard, the broad wingspan of Trovesi’s alto clarinet speaks of clearer skies. The forces at work are greater than the sum of their parts, which over the course of six and a half minutes emit more light than they absorb.

Moved by this collaboration, I opened a recent interview with Fort by asking about Trovesi’s involvement—a partnership perhaps as inevitable as it was unexpected.

“Unlike with Paul Motian, I was never intimidated by working with Gianluigi. I really loved his work, which I’d known through ECM, and fate brought us together on stage for a jazz festival in Novara, Italy in 2013. A few months later, he joined my trio in Israel. He’s such a gentle and beautiful human being, so there was never any conflict. The only thing that gets in the way is the language barrier, but at any rate we communicate through the music.”

Case in point: “Earth Talks,” which finds them conversing as a duo. Like Fort herself, Trovesi seems to attract entire planetary systems into orbit than be gravitationally pulled into others. His chromatic inflections are the blood flow of her ebony and ivory veins, which pulse with solitude even as they drink in joyful praises. Trovesi walks over, never through, Fort’s articulate themes, so as not to disturb their archaeological integrity. Even when he joins the full trio, as in “Jumpin’ In” or “Murmuration,” his sinewy topography feels like grass in love with the soil. In other words: an affirmation of roots.

Neither does the trio engage with blatant exhibitionism, but finds unity—and utility—in the negative spaces that frame each intimate spectacle. Such alignment to the inner workings of faith gives the quartet all the oil it needs to burn through the collectively improvised “Inner Voices.” Though delicate and exploratory, it never breaks its stare. Such disparate elements reach deepest convergence in two variations of “Song Of The Phoenix,” in which the trio clears a path for Trovesi’s transformation from roaming to mourning. His rougher bending of pitch enhances the emotional gravity at hand. Wang and Schneider reveal themselves to be so much more than a rhythm section, but a listening organ attuned to every gradation. Which is not to say their individual talents are not forthcoming. In the trio-only “It’s Your Song,” Schneider’s drumming is remarkably fluent, moving with the insouciance of an Olympic ice-skater, while Wang’s kinetic solo lends the scene some much-needed heat.

It’s impossible for me to experience such gestures without reading biographical impulses behind each tune. The beauty of this record, as with all of them, is that Fort allows more than enough space for individual interpretation:

“I think that’s how I usually treat my music, or how my music treats me, I should say. It’s a very personal thing. I could even call it a private universe, which of course I’m trying to share by playing and putting out there. This recording is different for having so many short pieces, which wasn’t something we planned to do. But as [producer] Manfred [Eicher] and I started mixing it together, we did more editing than I’ve ever done. It clearly needed to be a story of vignettes. That was a surprise for me, and something that the music initiated, and which we answered collaboratively. As I say in the promo video, the music will convey its own story if you let it.”

Listening to what the music was saying led to Fort to add two improvised piano solos: “First Rays” and “Sun.” Added at the last minute, these became the first and last tracks of the final mix. Within this frame, the album is better able to balance color and monochrome.

On that note of production, Birdwatching marks the first time Fort has worked with Stefano Amerio at the Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI studio in Lugano, Switzerland, thus completing her unintended tour of ECM’s heavyweight engineers, rounded out by Jan Erik Kongshaug in Oslo (And If) and James Farber in New York (A Long Story).

“Each of these experiences has been great,” Fort admits, “and Stefano has a great ear. It was very special to record at the RSI studio, because you record live, setting up on a stage in a very small auditorium without headphones or dividers. It’s really unique to do it that way, and he knows how to record so that it feels live but also clean enough to be crafted.”

One can hear this especially in “Meditation For A New Year,” which boasts some of Fort’s most soulful playing on record, but keeps its expansiveness within reason in search of a major chord. Like “Milarepa,” of which only the first of three parts appears on this album, it indicates a new phase of self-expression, a turning of the ear toward the self to know what may become of love.

Interview with Levon Eskenian, director of the Gurdjieff Ensemble

As part of a recent feature on the new ECM album by the Gurdjieff Ensemble, featuring the music of Komitas, for RootsWorld online magazine, I had the fortune of interviewing the ensemble’s director, Levon Eskenian. The article also includes a review of the album by Erik Keilholtz. My own review of the album, soon to appear on this site, will feature others parts of that same interview not included for being more specifically related to ECM. In the meantime, click the cover below to read on.

Komitas

Live Report: Made in Chicago at Cornell

Made in Chicago

Made in Chicago
Live at Bailey Hall, Cornell University
October 4, 2015
8:00pm

In 2013, a year after being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, drummer Jack DeJohnette was asked to perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Given a free choice of bandmates, he convened reedmen Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and bassist Larry Gray on far more than a whim. Their connection runs back to the early 1960s, when DeJohnette was making a name in his hometown of Chicago. Abrams and company would go on to found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM, from whose ranks would arise the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago. By that time, DeJohnette’s career was already taking off in New York City. Still, he never forgot those formative spaces, where Chicago cats would play together for hours on end in the city’s legendary “loft” concerts, performed in musicians’ homes. As frequent host Mitchell recalls elsewhere, “Every time I get together with musicians from the AACM it’s like we are just picking up from wherever we left off.” And so, despite having never recorded before as a quintet, an organic unity abounded when the historicity of the 2013 gathering was captured as Made in Chicago, released this past January on the influential ECM Records label.

If the album can be said to be a feather in the cap of DeJohnette’s already vast output, then by now that same cap could surely unfurl wings and soar of its own accord. His discography reads like a Who’s Who of modern jazz, ranging from untouchables like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman to the brightest stars, among them bassist Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, of the here and now. Although his integrated style is recognizable across a spectrum of genres and cross-cultural collaborations, his open-door policy with ECM has yielded some of the finest projects of his career. Whether in the Gateway Trio with bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John Abercrombie or the pet project known as Special Edition (which included pioneers Baikida Carroll, Chico Freeman, and Rufus Reid), to say little of the enduring Standards Trio with bassist Gary Peacock and pianist Keith Jarrett, DeJohnette has consistently brought an exhale of soul to every inhale of heart that imbues whatever musical organism he touches. All this and more was in clear evidence on Sunday night as Made in Chicago kicked off this year’s Cornell Concert Series on the Bailey Hall stage.

Before a single gesture of the band went live, I had the rare privilege of interviewing Mr. DeJohnette in an open Q&A session the previous afternoon. I asked him about his association with AACM musicians and how it shaped his musical identity. “Back then, we were cultivating an original approach to improvisation,” he told me in his thoughtful yet humble manner. “AACM’s motto was to establish the serious intentions of everyone that came out of its ranks. Jazz wasn’t simply improvisation, but a continuation of improvisation, creation through a process by which everyone and everything in the multiverse is hardwired to do. That concept fuels me and this combination of players that I got together. To play spontaneously is a challenge. You are exposed. The ability to compose on the spot, to create motifs and rhythms and communicate those not only to the other musicians but to the audience … It’s more like soundscapes, painting in sound.”

I asked DeJohnette whether he felt that hanging out with the AACM crowd allowed him to explore spontaneity in ways he hadn’t before. “Definitely,” he agreed. “Chicago prepared me for New York. It was my school. You practiced at home, but you played and developed your consistency to create and improvise fluidly on the instrument by performing. I don’t like the term ‘free jazz,’ because it’s not really free. The real freedom is in the choices we make. That’s why I always prefer to think of it as spontaneous composition.”

Indeed, we do well to remember that DeJohnette is a composer at heart, crafting — whether off the cuff or with more forethought — melodic and intervallic structures with the ease of a lifelong painter at the canvas. The analogy is not ill-chosen, for it is one that DeJohnette shares in reference to his own craft. “I’m not just a drummer,” he said of the capacity in which fans are more likely to understand him. “I’m a colorist who paints and participates in the music both harmonically and rhythmically.” He likewise cites the piano as a central component of his sonic upbringing. It was his primary instrument and one to which the drums were a later addition.  “I used to spend three to four hours a day on each instrument, because I wanted to bring the drums up to the level of my piano playing. The piano helped how I heard the ensemble, tuned the drums and how I approached the cymbals. If you listen to cymbals closely, they have a gong-like resonance, a higher frequency. Both piano and drums, of course, belong to the percussion family, so for me the two instruments have always overlapped one another.” This idea of overlapping is immortal in DeJohnette’s musical worldview, by which the growth of his art comes across with that much deeper inherency.

Where in the latter vein DeJohnette brought the wisdom of history, Abrams brought the wisdom of process when, following the Q&A, he led a master class for the Cornell University Jazz Band. Since co-founding the AACM, Abrams has had a formidable career of his own not only as a musician but also as a bona fide composer, his String Quartet No. 2, for one, having been premiered in 1985 by the Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Hall. It was from beneath the shadow of this hat that Abrams addressed the young musicians with poignant, if dense, nuggets of advice. “I’m interested in what you don’t know about yourselves,” he told them. “Allow your imagination to go inside.” Simple words on paper, to be sure, but difficult to embody in practice. In his sagacious, patient manner, Abrams worked through moments of confusion and revelation with equal attention, encouraging students to “give it presence” here or “create however you want to play it” there whenever hesitations manifested themselves. All of this was meant to bring across a central point: Evolving jazz artists feed not on the carrion of others, hunt not for things that have been found. Rather, they dig within and give us something we can carry on into the future.

Nowhere was this so aptly demonstrated as in the performance proper, in which the straight line paved by DeJohnette and Abrams yielded a downright ritualistic pentagon when Made in Chicago gave presence to 90 minutes of uninterrupted experience. No titles were given to the concert’s four long tunes, and perhaps any announcement thereof would have imposed on their continuity. The first piece, which felt more through-composed than improvised, opened where most jazz performances wouldn’t: with a cello solo. Gray’s bow was mellifluous yet robust, trailing a mournful shadow by its gait. Like so much of what followed, it catalyzed a play of frequencies, at once ancient and of the moment. One by one, the rest of the band followed suit. As Mitchell’s full-throated alto, DeJohnette’s selective contacts, Abrams’s starlit keys, and Threadgill’s incanting flute took shape, one could almost feel the molecules transforming in the room. It was, I would wager, a challenging introduction to those who were expecting to tap their feet to something recognizable. But as Abrams surely would have reminded us, it was all about sharing a search for the unknown.

How lucid this philosophy blossomed as the pianist himself introduced the second tune, rippling into Mitchell, whose alto proved a force to be reckoned with. His penchant for circular breathing and complex finger work led to some of the concert’s most arresting developments, contrasting beautifully with Threadgill’s halting pointillism. It was as if both were navigating a rift between dimensions, only one was trying to escape while the other was content to remain where he was. Gray and DeJohnette meanwhile played not so much off as through each other, shifting their densities to allow for Abrams’s extensions. Like a player piano gone haywire, his keys seemed to move of their own accord. From there the band whittled its way down to DeJohnette alone, crisply defining every hue with painterly intelligence, as he did also in the next tune, which found him exploring the possibilities of a full-contact drum synthesizer in a veritable rain forest of utterances, and in the final piece, recognizable as Mitchell’s “Chant” from the quintet’s recent album. Here Mitchell dominated on the shriller sopranino saxophone, keeping step with Abrams’s mounting speed. If anywhere, here was the potential of simplicity to the fullest, a difference through sameness that blew the candle flame of inspiration enough to keep it wildly dancing but unextinguished.

For its encore, the quintet proceeded whimsically, Mitchell (switching between three saxophones) and Threadgill (on alto) playing with expectations over the solid groove laid down by DeJohnette, who demonstrated himself, like the band as a whole, for all a peaceful commander. As the musicians turned on their last dime, strangely evoking a feeling of travel by way of suspension, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what DeJohnette had said the day before: “I just follow where jazz wants me to go, and where jazz wants to go depends on what humanity does with the challenges we face as a species. We have to adapt to our environment, and I think that music and art speak to that. I don’t know if you’re going to have any more John Coltranes and Miles Davises, but there will always be people addressing the times we live in through their music. The actual event of getting together and playing music together is vital. The people who come to listen are instruments, too.” Which is not to say that we as an audience were being played, but invited to join our notes of appreciation to theirs of generation.

Among the handful of albums in the DeJohnette catalog to which I find myself returning with especial frequency is his 1997 ECM effort Oneness. In addition to its moving progressions, this understated leader date boasts one of his most emblematic titles. Oneness is no mere throwaway concept, but a core tenet of this essentially ad hoc collective. It is an overarching expression for what DeJohnette and his peers can do, a testament to their quasi-spiritual quest for unity. As Abrams mentioned in his master class, musicians don’t need to be anywhere else than where they want to be, and neither did the fortunate listeners, as we sought purchase in the increasing density of their comet’s tail. They followed wherever the sounds wanted them to go and, despite the distant past implied in their advancing years, had nothing but the future in their hands.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Third Reel: Many More Days (ECM 2431)

2431 X

Third Reel
Many More Days

Nicolas Masson tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet
Roberto Pianca guitar
Emanuele Maniscalco drums, piano
Recorded August 2014, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Executive producer RSI: Paolo Keller
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

One might characterize multi-reedist Nicolas Masson, guitarist Roberto Pianca, and drummer Emanuele Maniscalco—a.k.a. Third Reel—as having carved a niche for themselves. Truer to say they’ve painted a context around that niche, which has taken shape from sheer formlessness into a tributary, emptying into a sea of shadows. Shadows, because the trio’s gestures seem to grow only darker with time, denying the convenience of light in favor of what can be felt in its absence.

If Third Reel’s self-titled ECM debut was the sun, then Many More Days is its corona, a dream to the former’s waking and a push toward those regions of the psyche wherein eddy fresh rhythmic motives. Days thus feels distinctly microscopic compared to its predecessor, even as it seems to travel farther. “For the first album we deliberately chose to almost never play a strict tempo,” Masson tells between sound and space, “we wanted to explore different ways to play in a very organic, non-linear way. For the second album, we wanted to keep the idea of short pieces, the same basic approach to interacting together, the same flow but with a more defined contour.” Along with the album’s temporal coming of age is the internal addition of Maniscalco’s pianism, which, Masson notes, hints at a chamber music aesthetic that sheds a few layers of jazz toward an art form less interested in genre than in generation.

Maniscalco yields a sizable share of the album’s compositions, ranging from the strangely comforting aneurysms of “Afterwards” to the burnished sounds of “Two-Part Chorale.” Such titles indicate a reflexive naming process. And yet, wherever they might fall into their respective slots, one knows the sacredness of their urgency, which apportions equal value to density and dissolution. Relationships between clarinet and piano or tenor saxophone and drums treat the album’s nervous system as a map to be rewritten. Pianca’s spider-veined chords in “Fourth Reel” and surface tensions in “Gilberto Stimmung” enhance the anatomical aspect, receding but never gone, even in the quiet foray of “Strand.” Each note is an eye in search of a face.

Although the two albums are different, I tell Masson they share a common approach to performance, which feels “bacterial,” as if every composed theme were a culture in a petri dish allowed to germinate and grow until it becomes its own unexpected entity. Though he agrees with this analogy, he cautions against painting Third Reel with a single brush:

“Most of the written material has no preconceived scenario, can be used for different musical purposes, and can take various forms according to the needs of a set or simply the inspiration of the moment. We’re trying to maintain an instinctive approach to the interpretation of our compositions, which are conceived with this idea in mind from the beginning. We’re all writing music for the trio, so I’m only speaking for myself, but in fact many times the idea I had in mind when composing was quite different from the results. We’re trying to leave enough space in our compositions to allow for multiple interpretations and developments. It is true that some pieces have a life of their own—we bring a few dots on a piece music paper and we just let them grow as we play. However, we don’t restrict ourselves to a single concept. If a tune feels complete by just reading it from top to bottom, without improvisations or variations, it’s also fine.”

While such openness might lead to chaos and wildness in the hands of others, in theirs it blossoms in thoughtful radiation. Masson’s own compositions, in particular the emblematic “Simple,” are self-deciphering codes—in other words, pieces that ask nothing of us in return for their admissions except our willingness to hear them as they are. Masson’s writing frames an organic triptych lodged in the album’s center. His “White” was inspired by Masabumi Kikuchi’s Sunrise, to which one may liken a kindred contemplation, while the title track follows clearer peaks and valleys. The same combination of drums, guitar, and saxophone graces Pianca’s “Happy People,” which nestles itself between them in a mosaic of endearing immediacy. Masson observes in retrospect how these three pieces “mark a turning point in the album’s dramaturgy, from the more intimate, chamber music-like pieces to the more expressive, lyrical pieces,” and the attentive listener is sure to feel this shift in visceral spades.

Between the parabolic “Hill” and the galactic compressions of “Fast Forward,” Masson’s pieces underscore Third Reel’s commitment to let the music go on only as long as it wants to. Each track, no matter how short, precludes the need for elaboration or reduction. I asked Masson whether any given performance of a particular piece influences its duration in real time, or where the band has a sense about how long a piece should go beforehand, to which he responded:

“The performance and the moment has a direct influence on a given piece’s duration, whether it is 2 or 20 minutes long. When we play live, we often connect compositions with open improvisations and therefore what is written becomes part of a bigger piece, like musical crossings to change direction and explore new territories. In the studio, however, we approached the material more with the idea of playing miniatures, each one of them being like a microcosm belonging to a bigger system or characters in a story. The studio in which we recorded both albums also played a good part in the outcome. We recorded at Swiss Radio’s Auditorio Stelio Molo in Lugano, Switzerland. The studio is actually a large wooden concert room designed primarily for classical music. It has beautiful acoustic qualities, with lots of reverb. This room is very inspiring, and the sound so detailed there, that it made us extremely cautious of the slightest changes in dynamics and sound textures. It definitely helped us being focused on the balance of each song. We tried to play only what we felt was necessary.”

Video from the CD release concert at Scnaffhauser Jazz Festival:

In the context of the Lugano studio, we can thank and acknowledge engineer Lara Persia, who may or may not be the subject of “Lara’s Song.” Either way, this piece, written by Pianca, does have something of the technician’s presence about it, the lone silhouette at the mixing board, her hands moving about the knobs and buttons to bring out the moment of the moment. It is therefore, and above all, a song of trust, an opening of newborn eyes, a quiet resignation into being in the world and its many purposes of living.

Behind it all, of course, is producer Manfred Eicher, whose tireless commitment to new music is expressly realized in this project. Indeed, Masson credits Eicher and ECM for playing no small role in the band’s evolution. “Working with Manfred Eicher as a producer is a unique experience,” he says, echoing many others in the sentiment, “and I think he helped us reveal a part of our musical personality and take it to the next level. However, playing live is still another story than making a studio recording, we stretch out more in concert, we’re taking more risks. We’re still experimenting but our musical identity got stronger and I personally feel more confident in what I have to offer.” That said, there is plenty of confidence in the dramaturgy of Days, proceeding as it does with such unhurried graciousness. With it, Masson and his bandmates have assured their place in the label’s history, from which key records by Paul Motian, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, and many others have fed into Third Reel’s dedication to liberty and abiding integrity of sound.

(To hear samples of Many More Days in its studio form, click here.)

Sheppard/Benita/Rochford: Trio Libero (ECM 2252)

Trio Libero

Trio Libero

Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Michel Benita double-bass
Sebastian Rochford drums
Recorded July 2011, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizerra, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Putting on Trio Libero’s self-titled debut is like putting on a cashmere robe: it feels that good.

The level of comfort shared by saxophonist Andy Sheppard, bassist Michel Benita, and drummer Sebastian Rochford bears out from the first moments of opener “Libertino” with a looseness that never loses sight or hold of things. The themes are forthcoming but never insistent. An early solo from Benita trades off with some beautiful blowing from Sheppard, who unwinds a kite string toward cloudless sky. “Slip Duty” fronts Rochford’s limber bodywork as it traverses the landscape of his kit. To this percolating core Benita and Sheppard contribute structurally thematic elements in a variety of densities. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” features Sheppard on soprano. Despite the whimsical title, it describes a world of honest reflection. The two-part “Spacewalk” indeed balances gravity and buoyancy, an alterity of pathos that breathes melody and ends with a nebular cry for solidarity. “Dia da Liberdade” opens with an almost mournful bass solo, a lullaby for the fallen that trips the pulse of Sheppard’s wood-planed entrance. At times one can hear Paul Motian speaking through the drumming (he would pass away only four months after this album was recorded), only with a moth’s added murmuring. “Land of Nod” features more astuteness from Rochford in step with bass and piano. Don’t let the title fool you. It is one of the album’s livelier tracks and ripples beautifully at Sheppard’s fingertips as might a pond’s surface at the touch of a leaf. “The Unconditional Secret” is by far the most beautiful statement of the album. Its diurnal collage unites dreams and realities in a collage of transparencies. “Ishidatami” begins with another lovely bass intro, now with a sopranism as lithe as a tightrope walker bounding from anchor to anchor. The title, it bears noting, is a Japanese term for paving stones used to maintain navigable pathways in erosion-prone mountain passages, and serves well as a metaphor for the band’s unity. “Skin / Kaa” sustains a rubato flow into the modal tributary of “Whereveryougoigotoo,” the latter distinguished by its masterfully legato tenoring. “Lots of Stairs” is a weary but never wearying traversal. Under guise of balladry, “When We Live On The Stars…” concludes with a promise that the people and pleasures we adore will still be waiting for us when we wake.

Nowhere within these relatively brief tunes will you find demonstrative solos or waving of virtuosic flags. That said, it requires a special kind of virtuosity to carry off such music so humbly, and with a spirit that is as naked as the day all of us were born. This is the art of the trio, liberated.

(To hear samples of Trio Libero, click the image below.)

Trio Libero Photo

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