Oded Tzur: Here Be Dragons (ECM 2676)

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Oded Tzur
Here Be Dragons

Oded Tzur tenor saxophone
Nitai Hershkovits piano
Petros Klampanis double bass
Johnathan Blake drums
Recorded June 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Jean-Guy Lathuilière
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 14, 2020

Born in Tel Aviv and based in New York, tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur could not have found a more suitable home than ECM for his gentle brand of jazz. His uniquely tonal approach to the instrument, channeled through a rare melodic purity, make for a powerful combination. Heavily schooled in Indian classical music, he treats each tune as a raga in and of itself, and uses likeminded structures in distinctly jazz-oriented parallels to unleash the inner life of every motif. Ensuring that nothing goes to waste are his trusted crew of pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Johnathan Blake.

After a tender yet angular introduction, “To Hold Your Hand” ushers in a dimly lit performance that relies more on the contour of sound than on the sound of contour. Tzur lends an ear to both internal and external travels, and gives the listener over to possibilities of metaphysical experience. His saxophone, despite being rooted in the body, seems without one, taking on instead the skin of a cosmic animal stealth-walking through constellations—bending but never breaking the shapes we’ve come to interpret.

The emotional beauty of Tzur’s playing reaches its zenith in “20 Years,” which marks the period of time since his father’s death. As Tzur notes in the CD booklet, “I could feel that my father was somehow present in the room, and it was as if I was having a conversation with him.” In this respect, he converses not only with the dead but also with the living. Blake’s brushwork is exquisite in the trio section. Klampanis and Hershkovits intertwine as equal partners while Tzur drops into Child’s Pose for a spell. By the time he resurfaces, his solo is so attuned that every inhalation and exhalation is matched to the contractions and expansions of its surroundings.

The band shifts with barely a forethought between three solo “Miniatures.” The first, played by Hershkovits, is a balance of sparkle and shadow. The second, by Klampanis, is contemplative and touched by grace. The third, from the bandleader, sings like a flute carved from an ancient tree. This leads us to the masterstroke of “The Dream.” Despite being upbeat, a certain embrace of shadow prevents it from being a dance. Hershkovits is particularly ebullient and gives voice to love, while Blake adds a traction so tactile it makes one want to hold on to it. Just as the preceding tunes give robustness to gentility, so does this one give airiness to strength, as embodied in the continuous energy linking every note from Tzur’s lips. At last, we touch down in a surprising landing strip called “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Made famous by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, it brims with nostalgia. Though undoubtedly familiar, it takes on a life of its own, divorced from popular association and remarried to the listener in real-time ceremony.

It is worth noting that the album’s title refers to HIC SVNT DRACONES, a Latin phrase that once marked uncharted territory on medieval maps. Tzur has indeed set out on a voyage into dangerous waters, understanding the risks of never seeing that which is confirmed only in myth. Such spirit is evoked with gentility in the eponymous track that opens the set, working its way into the center of our humbled attention. Even when the waves pick up, bringing with them hints of the unknown, Tzur relies on his bandmates to keep the sails hoisted and the deck free of debris, so that only they and their integrity may set foot upon shifting sands at landfall.

Jean-Louis Matinier/Kevin Seddiki: Rivages (ECM 2617)

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Jean-Louis Matinier
Kevin Sedikki

Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Kevin Seddiki guitar
Recorded April 2018, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Mixed by Lara Persia (engineer) and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 29, 2020

Following one of my favorite productions of this century alongside nyckelharpa virtuoso Marco Ambrosini, accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier returns with another duo, this time sharing Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI studio with guitarist Kevin Seddiki. In the past, Matinier has contributed vitally to ECM sessions with Anouar Brahem and Louis Sclavis, but in the here and now of Rivages cultivates some of his most heart-to-heart playing yet. Because this marks Seddiki’s debut for the label, however, many ears will be on him. As a student of guitarist Pablo Márquez, he brings classical precision and emotional fluidity to the program, which draws on ten years of friendship and collaboration. After refining their rapport and repertoire alike, they put together a mix of in-house compositions, improvisations, and arrangements of material they love.

Indeed, love is on tap when the flotation of “Schumannsko” opens its eyes. Its marriage of a Bulgarian folk tune to a theme by Robert Schumann establishes a tone of mutual regard and open-ended communication that sustains itself to the album’s very end. The accordion’s purchase lends itself to the guitar, which itself allows melody to flourish unimpeded by the creeping vines of expectation. Clearly, flow is the default mode for this duo. Other original material upholds such virtues with consistency, illustrating each image, thought, and word with the care of a calligrapher. “Après la pluie,” for one, begins with Matinier drawing air through the bellows without a single note, evoking a breeze after a quiet storm, while Seddiki regards every earthward droplet from its leafy perch. “Rêverie,” for another, builds a conduit between dreaming and waking or, as in “Sous l’horizon,” between childhood and adulthood. The more virtuosic “In C” treats ecstasis not as hedonic pleasure but as a form of communication between realms.

Arrangements of enduring gems, by contrast, show Matinier and Seddiki at their gentlest. Where the traditional “Greensleeves” reveals darker shades and a fresh, jazzy quality, their take on Gabriel Fauré’s “Les berceaux” is an astonishing example of how a relatively straightforward presentation can reveal something new. The same holds true of “La chanson d’Hélène.” This classic song by French film composer Philippe Sarde is transformed. Such is the power of letting things grow until they are mature enough to shine on their own. Even in the duo’s colorful improvisations, of which the retrospective “Miroirs” is a highlight, they recognize the simple yet profound fact that neither an origin nor a destination mean anything without drawing a line of travel between them.

Jon Balke: Discourses (ECM 2648)

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Jon Balke

Jon Balke piano, sound processing
Recorded December 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo, RSI Lugano
Engineers: Stefano Amerio and Laura Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 15, 2020

Not so much following in the footprints of 2007’s Book of Velocities and 2016’s Warp as pouring plaster into them, grinding the hardened results into dust, and throwing them into the winds of change, pianist Jon Balke refashions his solo space with frequencies more attuned than ever to the pulse of our zeitgeist. First inspired by the 24-hour news cycle and its emotional rollercoaster (and by the rhetorical lines used to draw boundaries between stories, who tells them, and the events they describe), the pieces of which this latest album is comprised took an even starker turn as the politics of 2019 unleashed their bipolar mind games for all to scrutinize. If nothing else, this backstory helps us understand the subjective interplay of electronics, field recordings, and instrumental treatments woven throughout. Said treatments—what Balke calls “reflections from the room”—have a self-generating quality, arising only as necessary, and even then as an echo of something implied.

The track titles, as evocative as the music, are but stepping stones to answers that supersede their questions: we can read conflict into the gnarled contours of “the first argument” and “the second argument” just as we can open ourselves to possibility in “the why” and “the how.” But for me the greatest value of these markers is an attendant opportunity to forget them. For while there’s a suitably fragmentary quality to “the self and the opposition,” all of that goes away once the sustain pedal goes down, and the fluidity between those identities warms us with promises of another entirely. But this dream is short-lived, because reality has too much to say to a world in lockdown. And in any case, “the certainties” is the least certain of them all. As its pianism moves from one cerebral island to another, a leviathan breathes just below the surface, following in wait to strike.

It’s difficult to extract and uphold certain moments over others, but I would direct the listener’s attention to “the facilitator” as an especially haunting instance of Balke’s aesthetic concerns. The piano may be foregrounded, but its ghosts are drawn from drone (most likely a manipulated cello but sounding for all like bowed piano strings). Another worthwhile focal point is “the container,” wherein electronica lie in wait—only not to pounce, but creep into awareness like a rising sun pulls itself up by curling its fingers over a mountain ridge.

The album ends with three “afterthoughts,” ranging from watery percussion and internal string plucking to hints of technology without imposition. The last is an alarm for birds to fly away and for trees to uproot themselves in search of a new planet where their symbiosis may thrive. This leaves only broken human beings—their hearts unfurled like children’s play mats and beset with toy cars, weathered streets, and enmeshed topographies—to wander their halls of mirrors, wondering when they took the first wrong turn.

Benjamin Moussay: Promontoire (ECM 2659)


Benjamin Moussay

Benjamin Moussay piano
Recorded January/August 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 29, 2020

After multiple appearances as sideman for Louis Sclavis, the timely Characters on a Wall most recent among them, pianist Benjamin Moussay for quietly dominates the marquee of an ECM album cover. In this program of original solo material, he shows himself to be a genuinely focused player who values not only melodies but also the spaces in which they breathe. What began as more fully fledged compositions have grown more open-ended over time, whittled away to whispering motifs and suggestive chords.

Our introduction to Moussay’s sound percolates through the boulders of “127.” Inspired by 127 Hours, the 2010 biopic about Aron Ralston’s harrowing escape from Bluejohn Canyon, it comes to us fully formed. It so happens the theme of rock climbing is a personal one, as Moussay is himself an avid outdoorsman. His cyclical notecraft evokes not the danger of the backstory but rather the hallucinatory state in which Ralston found hope to persevere. Thankfully, neither certain death nor a severed arm are necessary to enter that mental state through the vision presented here: a glimpse of hope at a point in history when our own survival feels more precarious than ever. Related topographies dot the album, from the all-too-real anxiety of “Don’t Look Down” to the cold stillness of “Monte Perdido.” The latter is entirely improvised, as is “Théa,” a spirited ode to his daughter.

The indeterminate weaves of “L’Oiseau d’Or” (which works a hymnal recipe from nostalgic ingredients) and “Chasseur de Plumes” (written for a cat fond of chasing birds) sit comfortably between the picturesque beauties of “Villefranque” (transcribed from his improvisation at a friend’s house in the eponymous commune) and “Sotto Voce” (my favorite for its expressive directness). If any of this feels cinematic in the listening, it’s not by accident, at least in the case of three tracks written as accompaniment for Jean Renoir’s 1926 Nana. Within this generally darker spectrum, the band of “Horses” stands out for its progression from the familiar to the unknown. The title track, too, belongs on a screen as much as on a record. Like the land formation after which it is named, we know it to be ancient and part of a story beyond measure. Thus, it gives us a bigger view of what lies beyond the horizon, and how the songs of a brighter future might sound when we catch up to them at last, ragged and thirsting for their nourishment.

Jon Christensen: Selected Recordings (:rarum 20)


Jon Christensen
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

It is through a lingering veil of mourning that I regard this final :rarum compilation, bearing dedication to Jon Christensen. As of this writing, the seemingly omnipresent Norwegian drummer, backbone of more ECM sessions than I can count, passed away only three months ago. Thankfully, he left a literal lifetime’s worth of material to revisit, some of the best of which is included here. Once again, we are immersed in the era-defining sound of 1975’s Solstice. Having heard its opening “Oceanus” on preceding compilations, encouraged to focus on guitarist Ralph Towner and saxophonist Jan Garbarek, we are now reminded of how much of its expansiveness was due to Christensen’s drumming. From that same album we are also treated to “Piscean Dance,” a funkier duet with Towner on 12-string that showcases his ability to set and maintain a tone.

And what a tone he sets in “Glacial Reconstruction” from 1993’s Water Stories. Beneath pianist Ketil Bjørnstad, guitarist Terje Rypdal, and bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr he splashes with childlike wonder. And in Rypdal’s “Per Ulv” (Waves, 1978) he renders an unnecessary drum computer obsolete by the fullness of his groove. Even fuller are his contributions to pianist Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet, of which three exemplars are offered. The title tracks of 1989’s Personal Mountains and 1978’s My Song bear especial testament to his depth of color and evocation. His cymbals are themselves instruments of revelry and never let go until the music stops. From lyrical float to gravitational romp, as in “The Windup” (Belonging, 1974), his pacing is unforcedly appropriate.

Christensen was also a master of detailing, as evidenced in the quieter turns of “Tutte” from bassist Arild Andersen’s 1986 Bande À Part, as well as Bobo Stenson’s 1998 War Orphans, of which the title tune by Ornette Coleman turns his delicate restlessness into a language with its own grammar, syntax, and idioms. A language that only he could speak and which others may only hope to translate with fidelity.

As this is the final stop on the :rarum journey, you may also find it as part of a boxed set containing Volumes IX-XX, released in 2004. And while I do have my top picks from the series (this one included), it’s worth having all of them if you’re relatively new to ECM. Each is its own portal into the living and the dead, and a reminder that neither state of being means anything without the infinity between our ears to give meaning.

Rarum IX-XX

Arild Andersen: Selected Recordings (:rarum 19)


Arild Andersen
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

What can one say about Arild Andersen that hasn’t already been articulated by the bass that defines his significance in the world of jazz? Perhaps this worthily compiled foray answers that question better than any other album could. Not only because it offers the grandest possible conspectus of his recorded odyssey in a single disc, but also because like the most cohesive :rarum entries it emerges from the past with a new and futureward narrative.

The furthest back we travel is to his early quartet days, when “305 W 18 St” (a personal favorite from 1975’s Clouds In My Head) and “Sole” (Green Shading Into Blue, 1978) captured the young bassist at his most sunlit. This particular phase in his musical development is unique for its recasting of urban cool as something beyond careless glamor but rather as an openness to possibility. In combination with the nostalgic flute and tenor saxophone of Juhani Aaltonen, as well as the drums of Pal Thowsen, Andersen’s bass stands as a lightning rod of intuition.

If we were to continue chronologically, our next stop would be the two tracks courtesy of Andersen’s Masqualero outfit. In “Vanilje” (Bande À Part, 1986) and “Printer” (Aero, 1988), his dialoguing with drummer Jon Christensen and saxophonist Tore Brunborg balances ice and fire, respectively, without ever letting go beneath it all. A few clicks forward, and we end up in 1991’s Sagn. Two excursions from that proper leader date signal an evolutionary leap in Andersen’s sound, as he began weaving more drones and electronics into the tapestries at hand. It’s a dynamic most beautifully fleshed out on 1997’s Hyperborean, from which “The Island” finds its way here like a message-bearer of great importance, but not before shining through the prism of 1993’s If You Look Far Enough, a special onetime collaboration with guitarist Ralph Towner and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. In the absence of a larger ensemble, his creativity blossoms with astonishing liveliness, treating the solo as a form of storytelling in “Svev” and, in duet with Towner’s classical guitar on “For All We Know,” flipping through the soul as a lyrical diary. (On that note, don’t miss this collection’s other duet with guitarist Bill Frisell, “Shorts,” from 1983’s In Line.) Beyond that open clasp we also find “She’s Gone” and “A Song I Used To Play” from 2000’s Achirana. In these profound triangulations with pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and drummer John Marshall, he sings as if loosed from a large improvisational egg, cracked over a pan of inspiration and cooked low and slow to omelet consistency. Yet this isn’t music to be eaten, but rather absorbed through the lungs as air inhaled for survival.

Eberhard Weber: Selected Recordings (:rarum 18)


Eberhard Weber
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

While Eberhard Weber was as fine a composer as he was a bassist, his entry into :rarumterritory pays tribute to his latter capacity in some of ECM’s most significant productions. It all begins with 1975’s Solstice, which may just be the most frequently referenced album in all of the label’s compilations. Throughout “Nimbus,” in combination with Jon Christensen on drums and Ralph Towner on 12-string guitar, he gives saxophonist Jan Garbarek more than enough thermals to glide without so much as a momentary fear of falling. It’s equally comforting to hear him as an interpreter of Pat Metheny, whose “Oasis” (Watercolors, 1977) and “The Whopper” (Passengers, 1977) benefit from the synovial fluid of his bassing. Here, as in almost any context in which we might encounter him, Weber’s tone is never merely supportive but rather a foregrounded actor. This is particularly true of his collaborations with Garbarek. Whether in the traveling song of “Gesture” (Wayfarer, 1983) or the scrolled landscapes of “Her Wild Ways” (RITES, 1998), his presence is felt even when he isn’t playing.

We do, of course, get plenty of Weber’s composing to chew on, working our way from the title track of 1978’s Silent Feet to “French Diary” from 2001’s Endless Days. In either bookend, the pianism of Rainer Brüninghaus is like that of Lyle Mays to Metheny: which is to say, the cloud to every drop of rain. The second tune is especially wide in scope and a personal favorite for feeling like Weber despite its lack of bass. On the road between, he rideshares with guitarist Bill Frisell and vibraphonist Gary Burton on 1979’s Fluid Rustle, as well as with Paul McCandless (soprano saxophone) and Michael DiPasqua (drums) on “Maurizius” from 1982’s Later That Evening. In these contexts, arpeggios are life itself and allow him to exhale with assurance in “Closing Scene” from 1993’s Pendulum. This raga-like meditation for multitracked basses is a morning glory opening and closing to the rhythm of the day—for if anything, Weber’s is a circadian sound, attuned to shifts of light beneath the sky of a grander order.

Tomasz Stanko: Selected Recordings (:rarum 17)


Tomasz Stanko
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

As wonderful as they are, not every :rarum release is designed to show an artist’s evolution per se, but in the case of Tomasz Stanko I would be hesitant to regard it as anything but a shuffled timeline of progress. It’s as if the Polish trumpeter held on to the same physical instrument since his ECM debut, 1976’s Balladyna, of which “Tale” reveals a bandleader already committed to quality over quantity, all the way to this collection’s most recent intersections with 1998’s From The Green Hill. Such bands of vessels only could have been made visible by virtue of the lighthouse kept burning by label producer Manfred Eicher. If Balladyna’s title cut was his thesis statement, then Hill’s “Pantronic” is a substantial body paragraph drawn from the vocabularies of violinist Michelle Makarski, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer Jon Christensen. Makarski’s fluid charm, in combination with Jormin’s thick bassing, hangs a backdrop for Stanko’s liminal explorations, while in “Quintet’s Time,” which replaces violin with the bandoneon of Dino Saluzzi and bass clarinet of John Surman, he renders a crisp interlocking of voices. In this context, his tone takes on a more rounded quality, as incisive as it ever was yet somehow tempered by maturity’s waning interest in the vagaries of the world. Instead, he retools the sharper edges of youth into a weapon of expression without words.

Jumping back in time to “Together,” an original tune off 1977’s Satu, we find that flutist Juhani Aaltonen, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Edward Vesala are happy to write a letter to the cosmos for which the composer does barely more than sign off. On bassist Gary Peacock’s “Moor” (Voice From The Past – PARADIGM, 1982), he matches the rawness of Jan Garbarek’s soprano saxophone with a fortitude that would also develop its own patina over time. Hints of such character spot the surface of 1995’s Matka Joanna, a masterpiece from his quartet with pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Jormin, and drummer Tony Oxley. Stenson’s fearless lyricism proved to be a most suitable partner for Stanko’s own, which allows grief to stir the soul in “Tales For A Girl, 12” and “Cain’s Brand.” In the second of those two, Oxley falls down a dark stairway, making sense of things along the way, while Stanko barely breathes. His quartet unravels further wonders in 1997’s Leosia, wherein flashes of brightness come to the fore through the lenses of “Die Weisheit Von Le Comte Lautréamont” and “Morning Heavy Song.”

To my ears, however, “Sleep Safe And Warm” (Litania, 1997) will always be a touchstone in my regard of Stanko’s output. Not only was it my introduction to Stanko; it was also my introduction to Krzysztof Komeda and the formative influence the Polish composer had on the young trumpeter. I’ll never forget finding the album at a used CD shop in Burlington, Vermont not long after its release and listening to it on my Discman while riding a bus home as the city resolved into summer greenery. Its subliminal melodies will forever be the soundtrack to that sequence of memory, linking up to my present self as I write this, unknowing of what the future will sound like.

Paul Motian: Selected Recordings (:rarum 16)


Paul Motian
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

People writing about Paul Motian (myself included) are quite fond of saying that the drummer liked to “play around the beat.” But after revisiting the material he chose for his own :rarum compilation, I have begun to rethink that assessment. For one thing, it implies a Platonic beat hidden in the music to begin with, as if it were (even in the absence of its overt articulation) always there to be served. But might it not also be possible that Motian redefined what the beat meant to begin with? For another, it risks pigeonholing him as a sketch artist. But might not his organisms be mature by the time they reach us? Listening, for example, to “One In Four” (from the Paul Bley Quartet’s 1988 self-titled album), one can hardly deny that his brushes explore the kit as anything less than a painter’s own brushes would a canvas, such that every portion of the emerging image—from background to foreground—requires its own rhythm. Otherwise, the heavily reverbed soprano saxophone of John Surman might not feel so sentient, nor the piano of Bley himself so grounded in self-reflection. Such seeds were already sown in the soil of 1973’s Conception Vessel, the title of which defines itself as an instrument of adaptive truth. So, too, in verses fished from the waters of the Paul Motian Band’s 1982 Psalm. In both “Fantasm” and “Mandeville,” he plays flowing string games with the guitar of Bill Frisell as if it were a tangle of synapses just waiting to complete a thought or action.

Yet the deepest end into which we are granted diving rights is compassed by the Paul Motian Trio in its various iterations. On 1978’s Dance, he uses the title track as a means of filling in the mosaic of bandmates David Izenzon (bass) and Charles Brackeen (soprano saxophone). And while it may seem that he is deconstructing the very idea of a dance—or, in its companion track “Asia,” the very idea of geography—if anything he is showing us that ceremony is improvisational at heart and that without listening before speaking, the sacred would never catch us in its net. Further selections from 1979’s Le Voyage, replacing Izenzon with Jean-François Jenny-Clark (another bassist who would leave us too soon), “Folk Song For Rosie” and “Abacus,” are masterful examples of Motian’s ability to uncover the plasticity of configuration. Brackeen’s soprano flows through the former tune’s landscape like a spontaneously formed rivulet in search of an end, whereas his tenor revels in the latter tune’s flora, which grows faster than he can cut it. In light of all this, it makes sense that in “It Should’ve Happened A Long Time Ago,” Motian’s 1985 masterpiece with Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, the drummer is barely there, for if we dare characterize his sound as reaching us from another dimension, where everything comes into being through music, then it is only logical that he should return to that same realm, leaving us to parse his echoes with fallen words.