Anouar Brahem: Blue Maqams (ECM 2580)

2580 X

Anouar Brahem
Blue Maqams

Anouar Brahem oud
Dave Holland double bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Django Bates piano
Recorded May 2017 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Nate Odden
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: October 13, 2017

If you’ve ever awoken from a dream with enchanting music on the brain, only to have it fade as the day wears on, Anouar Brahem’s Blue Maqamsmay just recapture the feeling of preserving it. The album is at once a return to form and a new direction for the Tunisian oudist, reuniting him with bassist Dave Holland (cf. 1998’s Thimar) and recording for the first time with drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates.

The introductory oud of “Opening Day,” solo but never alone, is a voice of pale light out of darkness, a careful witness of things just visible enough to understand. Holland listens from the periphery before locking step. DeJohnette feathers the edges, while Bates offers his gentle inclusions with the felicity of a poet. Thus complete, the quartet’s sound embarks as one body, lucid and self-aware.

Patience is the blood of Blue Maqams, as proven in “La Nuit.” Arpeggios from the keyboard are the nerves to Brahem’s soft impulses as deep notes flow duskily beneath. Only after six and a half minutes do bass and drums make their anchorage known, a formula replicated in “The Recovered Road to Al-Sham.” Such meticulously rooted stems produce ample flowers, and none so supple as the title track. Here Brahem and DeJohnette engage dialectically before a snaking theme works its way into the ventricles. Brahem’s cadenza—a thread of mournfulness in an otherwise peaceful weave—is the album’s conscience.

Bates delights in the duet “La Passante,” a tender segue into “Bom Dia Rio.” The latter is, along with “Bahia,” the smoothest joint of the set. A seamless ride through ocean waves and playful nights, it builds passion out of thin air and contrasts with “Persepolis’s Mirage,” in which we encounter something convoluted, emotional, emigrational. “Unexpected Outcome” closes the door by opening another. A steady rhythm section gives Brahem and Bates plenty of room to glide as the bandleader’s voice carries winged messages. Everything funnels into a final shimmer, making for one of the most stunning assemblages to ever graze its hands across ECM waters.

Kristjan Randalu: Absence (ECM 2586)

2586 X

Kristjan Randalu
Absence

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

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

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

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

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

Maciej Obara Quartet: Unloved (ECM 2573)

Unloved

Maciej Obara Quartet
Unloved

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

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

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

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

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

The Study of Touch

Django Bates’ Belovèd
The Study Of Touch

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

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

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

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

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Awase (ECM 2603)

Awase

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Awase

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Monder: Amorphe (ECM 2421)

Amorphae

Ben Monder
Amorphae

Ben Monder electric guitar, electric baritone guitar, Fender Bass VI
Pete Rende synthesizer
Andrew Cyrille drums
Paul Motian drums
“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Triffids,” and “Dinosaur Skies” recorded October 2010 at Sear Sound
Engineer: James A. Farber
“Tendrils,” “Tumid Cenobite,” “Gamma Crucis,” “Zythum,” and “Hematophagy” recorded December 2013 at Brooklyn Recording
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mixing Engineer: Rick Kwan
Produced by Sun Chung
U.S. release date: October 30, 2015

For his ECM leader debut, New York guitarist Ben Monder brings his improvisational destinations to fruition with respect for every musical step in reaching them. The album’s circle is opened and closed by two solo arcs: “Tendrils” and “Dinosaur Skies.” Where the former comes out of the woodwork as if after a long and melodic hibernation, the latter is a dragon’s breath turned into music.

Constellations fill the spectrum between as Monder sings through a variety of guitars and tunings. “Gamma Crucis” and “Zythum” triangulate with Pete Rende on synthesizer and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Both pieces are geological surveys of highest order. Monder and Rende release so much likeminded stardust, it’s all they can do to clarify that they’re two nebulae working independently of time. Cyrille’s tracery is the dark matter between them, a dimension in which concrete rhythms have no gravity.

Guitarist and drummer make art as duo on “Hematophagy” and “Tumid Cenobite.” In the absence of electronics, their language feels closer to home, each his own weather front blending into collaboration. Although the landscape below them is desolate, it wavers with memories of rivers and greenery. Monder’s stirrings are like those of a creature in the leaves of Cyrille’s reforesting. With each sunrise, they dissolve dust into breathable air.

Monder Trio

Poignantly, late drummer Paul Motian joins Monder for two further duets. First is a starlit take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” It’s beautiful indeed to hear Motian’s brushes, pulled as if from beyond some mortal curtain, springing to vibrant life of their own impulse. There’s something fully alive about this music—not only because of the tune, but also because of the way it rolls off the musicians’ proverbial tongues like a psalm. Recognition is not a precondition for enjoyment, however, as Monder’s ambience forges new relationships using familiar actors. His searing explosions make steam of ocean water, leaving lost cities exposed to sunlight for the first time in eons. Then there is “Triffids,” a spontaneous blush of tenderness that eludes capture by microphone and digitization. It is, rather, a force that knows us before we may consciously seek it out in the listening. Motian’s feel for internal rhythm is profound.

Motian

Monder navigates the paths before him with confidence because he defines them as he goes along. Leaving behind uncertainty, he uses gentility as fuel for a strong spirit. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the track titles recall the histrionic wordplay of the Cocteau Twins, for with likeminded boldness he does away with consensus articulations in favor of the emotional resonances beneath.

Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet: Eight Winds (ECM 2407)

2407 X

Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet
Eight Winds

Sokratis Sinopoulos lyra
Yann Keerim piano
Dimitris Tsekouras bass
Dimitris Emanouil drums
Recorded April 2014 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: January 15, 2016

Sokratis Sinopoulos is a master of the lyra, a bowed instrument whose lilt has polished a handful of ECM gems, including soundtracks of Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou (notably, The Weeping Meadow) and the Athens Concert of Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri. Despite its small size, the lyra is capable of painting holistic landscapes, and none so sweeping as those at Sinopoulos’s touch. After years of being a vital yet overshadowed sideman, Eight Winds finds the virtuoso making his debut as leader. Although the lyra comes preloaded with centuries of tradition, the music produced by the quartet assembled here— rounded out by pianist Yann Keerim, bassist Dimitris Tsekouras, and drummer Dimitris Emmanuel—is resolutely forward-looking. For this recording, as special in the listening as it was in the making, I sense a unity of purpose beating in the hearts of everyone involved. This is demonstrated by the album’s title alone, which charts not only the cardinal directions, but also the twin cross bisecting them. In each of the album’s 12 original tunes, the navigational freedom of those winds is palpable.

The title track opens with the bandleader’s distinctive sound. His lyra, as obvious to anyone tasked with analogizing it, has a distinctly vocal quality. Even before the jazz trio configuration in which Sinopoulos has situated himself becomes apparent, like a singer he has tasted the theme at hand and savored it to the brink of dissolution. All I can find myself thinking while absorbing the results of this collaboration in kind is that this is a first in jazz, an album that only Manfred Eicher and ECM could produce with such integrity of vision.

Sokratis Portrait

Much of this album moves at a pace of lives no longer lived. One strain of “Yerma” or “Lyric” is enough to reveal the folk roots feeding each improvisational leaf. Whether interacting with Keerim’s piano or Tsekouras’s bass, Sinopoulos puts his trust at the center. The melodies are so developed that they sound like ancient motifs rescued from obscurity, conjuring up images of a past you never knew was in you. In this respect, “Aegean Sea” is the most inviting tune of the set, if also for depicting an important location for its composer. Emmanuel’s hand-drumming brings it to an even earthier level.

Because the lyra is associated with dancing, tunes like “Street Dance” and “In Circles” inspire and energize. These are balanced buy “21st March” and “Forever,” which take stock of brokenness and find harmonies beneath its dissonant rubble. In both, Sinopoulos shows us just how many feathers his instrument has, while touching on the Byzantine musical interests of his formative years.

His delicacy is artfully supported by his bandmates. At no point do they drown out his whispers (a feat for which both musicians and engineer are praiseworthy). As the title track variation that ends the album, everything that precedes it is a gradient of oneness: an asymptote conquered by faith.

David Virelles: Gnosis (ECM 2526)

Gnosis

David Virelles
Gnosis

David Virelles understands that to make music of the future, one must delve into the past. Somewhere in the middle we find Gnosis. On his third album as leader for ECM, Virelles polishes the mirror of his Cuban roots, also as a prism of the chamber music sensibilities that informed his training under such composition teachers as Henry Threadgill. One couldn’t dream of a better assembly of musicians than the brotherhood of rhythm makers and guiding voice of poet/percussionist Román Díaz to bring these wonders to fruition. Bassist Thomas Morgan, flutist Allison Loggins-Hull and a modest string section complete the puzzle.

Each of the album’s 18 originals could be the start of another album. In this context, they work as one body. Whether in Virelles’ six solo piano pieces—including lyrical “De Ida y Vuelta I” and delicate “Dos” (arranged by Threadgill)—or in ensemble forays such as “Del Tabaco y el Azúcar” and “Tierra,” Virelles renders every dissonance an initiation into life. His pianism, especially in “Fitití Ñongo,” is ecstatic yet ponderous and speaks of an artist who understands the preciousness of time.

Morgan and Loggins-Hull are key players, balancing the pull and push of anchor and sail. Like a ship, Gnosis indeed needs water to give it purpose, even as those same oceans pose the constant threat of drowning. Virelles’ awareness of this tension sets his music apart by way of an organic postcolonial philosophy. Through it all, Díaz is the voice of land when sky is all we’ve ever known. His call and response in the ambient “Erume Kondó” is one of the profoundest things to grace these ears in a long time and speaks to what Díaz himself calls the “reciprocal language” of secrecy. According to Virelles, the album’s title “in this context refers to an ancient collective reservoir of knowledge.” Here, then, is the light of a star that died long ago but whose patterns are still perceptible, rewoven under a new name as an offering to the unborn.

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

Mette Henriette: s/t (ECM 2460/61)

2460|61 X

Mette Henriette

Mette Henriette saxophone
Johan Lindvall piano
Katrine Schiøtt violoncello
Henrik Nørstebø trombone
Eivind Lønning trumpet
Sara Övinge violin
Karin Hellqvist violin
Odd Hannisdal violin
Bendik Bjørnstad Foss viola
Ingvild Nesdal Sandnes violoncello
Andreas Rokseth bandoneón
Per Zanussi double bass
Per Oddvar Johansen drums, saw
Recorded 2013-2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed November 2014 in Oslo by Manfred Eicher, Mette Henriette and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 20, 2015

Norwegian saxophonist and composer Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg enters the ECM universe with a self-titled album of doublings. First, as a two-disc affair, it is among the most formidable debuts for the label in recent years. Second, it is a union of contrasts, balancing composition and improvisation, declaration and whisper, with a straightforwardness that is Mette’s métier. Moreover, the album is a chain of coupled voices, as instruments converge and diverge in an alternating chain of what she calls “elongations” and “miniaturizations.”

Although the trumpet was Mette’s first instrument, in an interview for this album’s press release, she waxes fatefully about her switch to saxophone: “I knew that this was what I’m meant to do. […] I have to tell my stories, and early on I had a feeling of how I was going to do that. […] Soon I would also enjoy disappearing into the theoretical aspects of music but at the beginning it was something more primitive, a response to an inner urge.” For demonstration of this autobiographical concept, we need listen no further than the first disc, simply titled o. Featuring a trio comprised of Mette on saxophone, Johan Lindvall on piano (and who also contributes original compositions), and Katrine Schiøtt on cello, it is a veritable chess board of thematic impulses.

Mette

Immediately noticeable is the crackle of Mette’s saliva across the reed, which gives the saxophone textural authenticity as an apparatus of musical translations. In that technique is proven not only Mette’s patience in letting notes awaken, but also the personal associations imbuing those notes with meaning. The nocturnal calls of “.oOo.,” for instance, are meant to evoke the call of an owl (one of the first sounds she remembers hearing), while the breathiness of “3 – 4 – 5” conveys a menagerie of emotions so tender they cannot be broken. By the time we encounter the first full-throated notes of “all ears,” the listener has been primed with a fullness of register and physicality comparable to Mette’s own.

The logic of her sound is that such shorter pieces feel the most expansive while the longer ones feel compressed and circular. In either case, one feels this music growing in real time, as if every cell of its body were genetically acquired.

Despite knee-jerk comparisons to other free jazz greats such as Evan Parker, Mette had no such musicians in mind when developing her musical language. Her primary inspirations are more nature than nurture, as made clear in the second disc, given the enigmatic title Ø. Here we have a “sinfonietta” for which the trio is absorbed into a 13-piece band that includes drummer Per Oddvar Johansen (of the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble) and the Cikada String Quartet. Individual track titles are even more suggestive of their composer’s inner life, a storybook dusted off from attic storage and rebound through interpretation.

The addition of musicians enhances intimacy tenfold. The wind-through-leaves snare of “passé” makes for a fitting introduction, and bassist Per Zanussi adds a deeper element to this chemical mixture as strings produce a crispier layer of shine. All of this elicits a grittier side in Mette’s playing. The Cikadas lend a cinematic touch to occasional interludes, as painterly as their titles (“veils ever after” being a quintessential example). The build of “wildheart” from whisper to shout is a highlight of this disc, as are the relatively aggressive turns of “late à la carte.” As with the first, however, some of the most compelling tracks are the shortest, like the one-minute blush of piano and strings that is “this will pass too.” And if “off the beat” is the most urban tune, then “wind on rocks” is an atmospheric free dive into the wilderness.

Mette Henriette is a story written in lowercase, whose genesis is one for the pages of ECM lore: “One Saturday night in Oslo I saw a poster for Dino Saluzzi at the Cosmopolite. I thought: I should hear this, especially because I’m also writing for bandoneon in my ensemble. When is the gig? Oh, it’s today. When does it start? In twenty minutes! OK! So it was a very quick walk to Cosmopolite. It was packed, but I found a place on the stairs, and by chance I was next to where Manfred Eicher was sitting. We spoke in the interval and I told him about my project. He had been recording at Rainbow, and listened to some of my music.”

And now, we too can join hands with fate in listening to this constellation appear from first star to last.