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.

Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over (ECM 2581)

Far From Over

Vijay Iyer Sextet
Far From Over

Graham Haynes cornet, flugelhorn, electronics
Steve Lehman alto saxophone
Mark Shim tenor saxophone
Vijay Iyer piano, Fender Rhodes
Stephan Crump double bass
Tyshawn Sorey drums
Recorded April 2017 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Nate Odden
Mixed May 2017 by Farber, Eicher, and Iyer
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Vijay Iyer’s fifth record for ECM is the pianist’s most engaging yet. Over ten scenes, Iyer directs an original storyline with his freshly-cut diamond of a sextet. Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn, electronics), Steve Lehman (alto), Mark Shim (tenor), Stephan Crump (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) are not only actors playing multiple roles; they’re also real-time producers, editors and sound designers.

“Poles” and “Threnody” provide opening and closing credits. Both nurture storms of activity from raindrops, as if celebrating the end of a draught. They also balance the mutual extremes of locking and unlocking. In the latter vein, the leading horns take turns in “Down To The Wire” and in the title track, revealing the underlying irregularities that make this music so exciting. Like oranges, Haynes, Lehman and Shim’s solos are at the peak of flavor when juiced. No wonder, when their bandleader has given them so much soil and sunshine in which to ripen.

Iyer’s clairvoyance smiles across the delightful “Nope,” breathes to fullest capacity throughout “Into Action” and expands on South Indian beats in “Good On The Ground.” The latter two are masterstrokes—thematically and in execution. The rhythm section understands that being sportive can be serious and Sorey digs especially deep. Haynes also has his monologues in “End Of The Tunnel” and “Wake,” both of which work in the cerebral tendrils of his electronics.

Far From Over is a call to listening. More importantly, it’s listening to a call, as most evident in “For Amiri Baraka.” Here the core trio of Iyer, Crump and Sorey teaches the hard lesson shrouded by all this enjoyment. Baraka himself said it best: “There cannot be any apprenticeship for freedom.” Jazz may be heard as a genre of emancipation, but Iyer understands that freedom is illusory until actualized, that communal action is the embodiment of humanity’s reach for its flame and that music is one way to keep us from getting burned in the process.

(This review originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Smith/Taborn/Maneri: The Bell (ECM 2474)

The Bell

The Bell

Ches Smith drums, vibraphone, timpani
Craig Taborn piano
Mat Maneri viola
Recorded June 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: January 15, 2016

After sideman appearances with Robin Williamson and Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, percussionist Ches Smith presents a bounty of original compositions on his first ECM album as leader. In the hands of his cosmically capable bandmates and label stalwarts—pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri—Smith’s material behaves as exactly that: a substance to be formed and reformed with cymatic detail.

The title track opens the album, appropriately enough, with chimes. Microtonal harmonies from Taborn and barest caress of viola strings build anticipation over resonant vibraphone touches. From the piano arises a sweeping cinematic landscape as the mist resolves into clearer bow lines and forceful drumming. This piece shares breath with other such delicacies as “Isn’t It Over?” and “I Think.” In both, Smith treats grooves like rocks in his shoe—which is to say, as ephemeral yet memorable. And in these metallic core samples, striations of exactitude are unnecessary. As if in response to an underlying declaration of freedom, Maneri works his songcraft like a master boatman who has lost his oar but not his sense of propulsion, moving along the water with ease by power of thought instead. The effect is such that by the time Smith brings traction, the shoreline has already been confirmed as an illusion. Whether in the microscopy of “It’s Always Winter (Somewhere)” or the angular reverie of “For Days,” each member of this trio paints a halo of deference around the others’ heads, so that even the mischievous “Wacken Open Air” emits a near-palpable blast of respect.

The Bell Trio
(Photo credit: Caterina di Perri)

“Barely Intervallic” is the first of the album’s two deepest wells. This one is Maneri’s knot to unravel. The combinatory textures of Smith and Taborn allow every note from the violist a chance to speak. The monochromatic color scheme of “I’ll See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth,” on the other hand, is Taborn’s chamber of intimacy. Maneri and Smith are minimal here, the latter’s tracery is especially poignant as a lunatic origami ensues at the fringes of cohesion. In this medieval blues, distilled from the future to meet in the blessing of the here and now, Smith and his bandmates forge new understandings that suggest themselves by their very coexistence.

As in my review of Avishai Cohen’s Into The Silence, I feel compelled to note the beauty of seeing this trio at the 2016 New York City Winter Jazzfest, and how much more attuned I felt experiencing its wonders in a live setting. Perhaps it’s the blush of first exposure, but I would encourage anyone reading this to seek out the trio in person wherever and whenever possible. Not that the studio album is unworthy—just that, like a perfume, there’s only so much you can learn about its scent through the hearsay of this or any other review before getting a bottle of it to your nose.

Sinikka Langeland: The Magical Forest (ECM 2448)

the-magical-forest

Sinikka Langeland
The Magical Forest

Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Trygve Seim
 soprano and tenor saxophones
Anders Jormin double bass
Markku Ounaskari percussion
Trio Mediæval
Anna Maria Friman vocals
Berit Opheim
vocals
Linn Andrea Fuglseth
 vocals
Recorded February 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: August 5, 2016

On The Magical Forest, Norwegian kantele virtuoso Sinikka Langeland reconvenes her “Starflowers” quintet (with saxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer-percussionist Markku Ounaskari), adding to that quilt the patchwork of voices known as Trio Mediæval. Any of these names will be familiar across the spectrum of ECM followers, but their shared love for Scandinavian folk music has never been so clear as in this latest project.

In contrast to previous albums, the kantele is a largely supportive presence, almost airy in its backgrounded-ness. This gives Langeland’s unaffected singing—and, more importantly, the imagery laced into it—room to roam. Of central significance in that regard is the sacredness of space. Not only in the immaterial sense, but also in the physical landscapes of nature at large and their shaping of reality as we’ve come to understand it over millennia of spiritual seeking.

The album’s opening trifecta sets its thematic charge as the rising sun ignites the day into breaking. “Puun Loitsu” (Prayer to the Tree Goddess) is based on a rune song text from the Finnskogen, or Forest Finns, whose migratory settlements in Norway and Sweden have become reliquaries for creation myths and other origin stories, glistening anew in the varnish of Langeland’s diction. The wiry strains of the kantele offer hints of song, which emerges first in monotone before being taken up in Trio Mediæval’s chanting response. “Sammas” crystallizes the running theme in its evocation of the “world pillar” (axis mundi), a column of infinite energy binding Heaven to Earth and circling around the North Star. The lyrics, with their Trinitarian framing, demonstrate one way in which Christian elements have found their way over the centuries into these mystical traditions. The light-bearing qualities of Henriksen’s trumpeting deepen these underlying messages, which “Jacob’s Dream” makes even more apparent. This retelling of the biblical Patriarch’s vision emphasizes the permanence of verticality over the fleetingness of horizontality. The “ladder,” then, is not climbable by the body but constitutes the body itself: a DNA helix spun from godly breath. Once the words are sung, the instrumentalists brilliantly unravel an improvisational second half. Seim’s tenor and Henriksen’s trumpet move in tandem, drawing rungs between them as they travel.

Trees continue to dominate the landscape in “Køyri” and “Karsikko.” The latter, which names a memorial trunk on which the names of the dead are carved, is based on a variant of the hymn “I Know of a Sleep in Jesus’s Name,” and Langeland’s communications with Henriksen make for some picturesque unfolding in both songs. “Pillar to Heaven” likewise strengthens an interconnectedness of things.

As so often happens on a Langeland album, animals figure heavily into the symbolism of The Magical Forest. “The Wolfman” recounts a man named Johan who, according to legend, lived as a wolf yet died as a man. The inseparability of soil and sky resurfaces, as Ounaskari’s cymbals seem to scale the clouds. “Kamui” takes a relatively documentarian turn in its depiction of Hokkaido, Japan’s indigenous Ainu, whose annual ritual killing of a bear cub is described in empathetic detail, while Trio Mediæval intones the titular “Kamui,” an Ainu word meaning “God” and referring to both the sacrifice and the deity honored by it. This leaves only the title track, an instrumental foregrounding the bird-like calls of Seim (now on soprano saxophone) and Henriksen while Jormin’s arco bassing slithers in the underbrush.

All of which makes me think that the album’s title is somewhat misleading. For indeed, what the listener encounters here is not a forest that is magical but a magic that is forested.

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

Avishai Cohen: Into The Silence (ECM 2482)

Into The Silence

Avishai Cohen
Into The Silence

Avishai Cohen trumpet
Bill McHenry tenor saxophone
Yonathan Avishai piano
Eric Revis double-bass
Nasheet Waits drums
Recorded July 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: February 12, 2016

Following his appearance as sideman on Mark Turner’s Lathe of Heaven, Avishai Cohen makes his leader debut for ECM Records. Bearing dedication to his late father, Into The Silence teams the trumpeter with a fantastic band of his own that includes tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Nasheet Waits. This effort marks the first time the band had, as such, stepped foot inside a studio, and the results hark back to the golden age of ECM in both texture and mood. From its spacious arranging and freely realized originals to its classical roots (the solo piano music of Rachmaninoff was a conscious inspiration) and cross-pollination of styles, Cohen’s musical identity speaks at once from without and within.

Through the six-sided prism of as many tunes, Cohen shines a light as only the darkness of mourning could yield. The muted lines of “Life And Death” feel as much celebratory as elegiac. Cohen thus asserts himself as more than a voice among the voiceless, as if the album’s titular silence were not the absence of sound but a personal choice to protect one’s dreams. Here, however, we are bathed in dreamlike qualities with such melodiousness that it’s all we can do to not imagine the many fates that must have convened to produce this patient bit of magic. Avishai’s pianism is another ripe fruit in the band’s gift basket. Morphing from barest comping to bluesy climatic shifts and sparkling tails, he is a comet in an already starry sky. The end of this opener, though a postludinal afterthought, is just as substantial as what comes before it.

“Dream Like A Child” only deepens the spell craft of its predecessor. Unmuted yet just as vulnerable, Cohen undoes the ribbon of this offering to reveal a melodic ocean just aching to crash on the listener’s shore. The pianism is majestic yet aptly proportioned, mirroring the underlying respectful altitude at every turn: just when you think it has gathered enough momentum to soar, it touches its feet to the earth. Though things do cohere in more groove-oriented ways as the rhythm section builds a higher and higher wall from which Cohen and McHenry must jump, there’s no doubt that the ground will hold its foundation through Waits’s textural reinforcements.

The title track expands on ECM’s evolving ethos of ritualistic jazz, as drums and microtonal harmonies in the piano interlock with downright spiritual patience. Again, the band flirts with groove but foregoes that sweetness for a cerebral savory. These strategies become more evident with repeat listens (for this is, indeed, an album you’ll want to return to time and again). Waits is an organic force here, moving from tumbling abstractions to tight snare rolls at the flick of a wrist, his plumage fully outstretched.

A Cohen

Somberness, however, is never far behind, and “Quiescence” bottles its fragrance like a master perfumer. Cohen’s trumpeting is the center of a vocal solar system, shining through planets forged in thematic space dust. Lengths of days and seasonal changes are determined by the gravitational pull of nostalgia, so that by the next track, “Behind The Broken Glass,” one knows that fragmentation is a universal law. Cohen proves that, in the wake of any emotional shattering, no effort of putting the pieces back together will produce a clean reflection, for it will always bear the scars of its undoing. The breadth of his inspirations has brought him to this humble (and humbling) realization in his career, and finds empathetic amplification in his bandmates that funnels in the solo piano reprise of “Life And Death” that ends the album’s journey.

Having seen this project with a different roster at the 2016 New York City Winter Jazzfest, I can attest to the raw, living power of its music. So much so that, following that experience, this studio date feels somewhat tame by comparison. So: see them in person if you can, but revel in the wonders of this “second best” all the same, for in them is a pilot light that ECM lit nearly five decades ago, and which continues to burn pure and warm despite the winds of change.

Hommage à Eberhard Weber (ECM 2463)

Weber Hommage

Hommage à Eberhard Weber

Pat Metheny guitars
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Gary Burton vibraphone
Scott Colley double bass
Danny Gottlieb drums
Paul McCandless English horn, soprano saxophone
Klaus Graf alto saxophone
Ernst Hutter euphonium
Eberhard Weber bass (from tapes)
Michael Gibbs arranger, conductor
Ralf Schmid arranger
Rainer Tempel arranger
Libor Šíma arranger
SWR Big Band
Helge Sunde conductor
Concert organized and produced by Martin Mühleis, sagas productions
Recorded by SWR, January 2015, at Theaterhaus Stuttgart by Doris Hauser, Volker Neumann, and Boris Kellenbenz (technician)
Mixed at SWR Studio, Stuttgart, by Volker Neumann (engineer), Manfred Eicher, Eberhard Weber
Pat Metheny’s “Hommage” mixed in New York by Pete Karam
Mastering: Christoph Stickel at MSM Studios, Munich
An ECM Production in collaboration with SWR
Redaktion: Günther Huesmann
SWR Big Band Manager: Hans-Peter Zachary
U.S. release date: September 11, 2015

Bassist Eberhard Weber two-handedly defined a generation of sounds, resulting in some of the most iconic albums the ECM catalog has to offer. In recognition of his contributions to the arts of performance and recording, Weber received the Jazzpreis Baden-Württemberg lifetime achievement award on his 75th birthday, and was guest of honor at jubilee concerts held in January of 2015—proving that, despite the stroke that rendered him unable to play since 2007, Weber’s fire blazes on.

Among his illustrious torchbearers is guitarist Pat Metheny, who in a liner note for the album describes lasting indebtedness, having joined Weber on the classic Ring and Passengers (Weber also appeared on Metheny’s Watercolors). As one who has always made the most of technology to harmonious advantage, Metheny acknowledges the inspiration manifest “in the instruments that [Weber] had built to bring that sound into the air, crystallizing a sonic fingerprint that even all these years later remains as uniquely identifiable and fresh as it was on first hearing back then.” All of which makes it doubly celebration-worthy to see Metheny swimming again in ECM waters. His “Hommage” is, in fact, this disc’s centerpiece. A sprawling world unto itself, it includes its dedicatee as performer in the form of video footage of the improvising bassist projected onto a screen at stage rear, creating what the composer calls “my imagined virtual Eberhard.” The idea somewhat recalls the speech-to-melody experiments of composer Steve Reich, with whom Metheny has worked and whose influence can be felt here in certain passages throughout the half-hour-plus suite.

Germany’s SWR Big Band, backing a chain of venerable soloists, brings this and the other works on the program to a resurrected state, here supporting solos from the formidable Gary Burton (vibes), Scott Colley (bass), Danny Gottlieb (drums), and Metheny himself. The opening is everything that Weber’s music ever was and will be: verdant, atmospheric, and fully developed right out of the box. The videographic Weber is almost ghostly, but over time feels less like an avatar and more a viable player whose creativity shines with unquenchable force. Metheny navigates their virtual interactions deferentially at first before easing into fuller integration, while the band handles this transformation with grace at director Helge Sunde’s exacting touch. The latter’s consistency ensures that Burton’s soloing is both the vessel and the water keeping it afloat; that Colley’s bassing, while distinctly Weberian, also adds its own shades to the spectrum; that Gottlieb’s adornments feel like more than just that; that Metheny’s flights always have their shadow in full view; and that Weber’s archival reveries transcend the limits of space and time they’ve been allotted.

Before this, listeners are treated to a far more intimate introduction in Jan Garbarek’s “Résumé Variations.” Based on the album of the same name, this piece finds the saxophonist improvising in his cinematic, clarion way around prerecorded bass lines. The two instruments intertwine in a way that only years of collaboration could produce, as if two massive continents of time were coming together in the least destructive abduction imaginable.

On the other side of Metheny’s juggernaut is a string of artfully pruned evergreens. “Touch” evokes the golden age of Yellow Fields. Featuring solos by Burton and Ernst Hutter on euphonium, and arranged by Ralf Schmid, this timeless jewel floats on a bed of vibraphone, moving in breezy fashion across its landscapes with the redolence of an old film magically restored. Its reach is matched by “Maurizius,” here arranged by Michael Gibbs and breathing with all the power, and more, of the original. Sharing solo duties with Burton is Paul McCandless, who carries his soprano saxophone to distant shores in this quintessential turn from Later That Evening. The same soloists carry over into an arrangement of “Tübingen” by Rainer Tempel, whose sense of flow meshes sympathetically with Weber’s. McCandless and Burton weave a carpet of textures through a stirring and complex sound that is equal parts somberness and joy.

Two reimagined songs from Pendulum close out the program: “Notes After An Evening” and, available as an exclusive bonus track via digital download, “Street Scenes.” Both are masterfully arranged by Libor Šíma, who gives them a certain heft. Burton and McCandless reappear, with alto saxophonist Klaus Graf adding his nocturnal lines to “Notes.” McCandless’s English horn, by contrast, burns like the sun in “Scenes,” balancing out cooler blasts from the band at large with energetic forecasting.

Given that Weber will never play again, one can’t help but find something bittersweet about these performances, built as they are on a legacy that, while nominally retired, lives on, their poignancy like a pair of lips pursed to a candle flame—yet which, instead of puffing it out, contributes to its glow.

Hommage Photo
(Photo courtesy of ECM)

Be sure to check out the DVD of these performances, available from Jazzhaus, which I have reviewed here.

Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano (ECM New Series 2470-72)

Liaisons

Anthony de Mare
Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano

Anthony de Mare piano
All pieces were commissioned expressly for The Liaisons Project, Rachel Colbert and Anthony de Mare, Producers.
Producer for The Liaisons Project: Rachel Colbert
Recording producer and engineer: Judy Sherman
Additional engineer and editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis
Recorded 2010-2014 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, and Greenfield Recital Hall, Manhattan School of Music, New York.
Backing tracks for “Birds of Victorian England” engineered by Kevin Boutote
“Johanna In Space” backing track provided by Duncan Sheik
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Steve Lake at MSM Studios, Munich
An ECM Production

Listen to that old piano roll play.
When I hear that old piano roll play,
I just gotta dance,
And what I mean is dance with you.

In her exhaustive biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest shares the story of an adolescent Sondheim’s encounter with the 1945 film Hangover Square, and within it a piano concerto written by scorer Bernard Herrmann. The music’s bold mix of romanticism and Americana captured Sondheim’s imagination and was to become part of the origins of his intersections with the dramatic stage.

Sondheim has always composed at the keyboard, charting out his scores in great detail, to be orchestrated by (since 1970) esteemed collaborator Jonathan Tunick. Broadway has relied on this formula, which over the decades the duo funneled into surefire productions, but the project lovingly packaged in this three-disc collection from ECM takes Sondheimania to a new level through the intervention of rigorously trained note-smiths, each occupying a band along a spectrum of collaborations from a distance.

The roster of composers, who the behest of new music champion Anthony de Mare wrote new variations on the theme of Sondheim, reveals a depth and variety equaled by the songs they have re-imagined, as William Bolcom, Nico Mulhy, Steve Reich, David Rakowski, Eve Beglarian, Jason Robert Brown, Duncan Sheik, Eric Rockwell, Wynton Marsalis, Derek Bermel, Fred Hersch, Annie Gosfield, Jake Heggie, Kenjie Bunch, Ethan Iverson, Ricardo Lorenz, Paul Moravic, Frederic Rzewski, David Shire, John Musto, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Phil Kline, Bernadette Speach, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Andy Akiho, Ricky Ian Gordon, Nils Vigeland, Rodney Sharman, Gabriel Kahane, Thomas Newman, Jherek Bischoff, Mary Ellen Childs, Peter Golub, Tania Leon, and de Mare himself put a personal spin on the Sondheim songbook that is as true to life as it is to art.

Though Sondheim has historically been averse to being interviewed, in this collection we hear him speaking through the hearts of every composer who has felt his influential hand. In an album note, he himself describes these pieces not as “decorations” but “fantasias” of his songs. Indeed, Sondheim’s recognizable voice has been reworked with such fidelity—one original inspiring other originals to create new originals—that one need hardly peel away any layers of obfuscation to find him. Above all, however, it’s his scarcely rivaled gift for pastiche that resonates by virtue of de Mare’s encyclopedic flair.

According to Mark Eden Horowitz’s extensive liner text, the composers chose their songs based more on the lyrics and their stories than the melodies sung around them. And so, one can listen assured that de Mare’s consummate touch makes room on his metaphorical suitcase to display every sonic sticker of his travels. His dramatic, romping, emotional rollercoaster ride through A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the  Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), and Passion (1994) accordingly dwells as much on differences as similarities, bringing to fruition a “global” sound.

Not surprisingly, Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd gets the most nods of the program, in addition to yielding a lion’s share of its highlights. One of those is Sheik’s “Johanna in Space.” This atmospheric gem opens with the chimes of a clock emulated on the piano and stretches itself over an electronic backdrop à la Tim Story. Todd’s ill-fated daughter is further subject of Brown’s “Birds of Victorian England,” which requires no small amount of heavy lifting from de Mare. As can be expected, Sweeney Todd engenders ample opportunity for over-the-top dynamics, epitomized in the spiraling density and fluent outcries of Bunch’s “The Demon Barber.” Other fine examples of the protagonist’s crushing pessimism abound, whether through the intimate knowledge of Newman’s “Not While I’m Around” or, in a satirical turn, Lorenz’s “The Worst [Empanadas] in London.” The latter requires a performer of de Mare’s chops to pull off the feel for rhythm and energy on which it subsists. De Mare welcomes the listener by shouting, “A customer!” as if in throwback to the speaking-singing pianist genre of which he was such a foundational proponent through his premiere of Rzewski’s De Profundis. It’s only natural, then, that Rzewski should have a piece included: the elegiac “I’m Still Here.” This and other selections from Follies, such as Wynton Marsalis’s Jelly Roll Morton-infused take on “That Old Piano Roll”, imply a bygone age with plenty of style to spare.

Company inspires a handful of homages as well, including Rakowski’s impressionistic “The Ladies Who Lunch,” through which Sondheim’s love for Ravel shines (as also in Bermel’s “Sorry/Grateful”); Rockwell’s tangible “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” in which the composer “imagined a pianist trying desperately to catch the attention of rowdy patrons at a cabaret with as wide ranging a series of pastiches as possible”; and Roumain’s “Another Hundred People,” which invokes the troubled crooning of a Kurt Cobain or Thom Yorke.

A Little Night Music lifts its story from the Ingmar Bergman comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, and its comic touches are duly noticeable in Speach’s “In and Out of Love” (a personal album favorite), which shuffles the harmonies of “Send in the Clowns” (see also Iverson’s whimsical take on the same) into a balladic “Liaisons.”

Sunday in the Park gives us Muhly’s minimal yet expansive “Color and Light,” which embodies the pointillism that so fascinated the play’s subject, Georges Seurat. Muhly’s feel for the piano as a textural toolbox translates superbly. Reich’s more compact “Finishing the Hat” is scored for two pianos (de Mare multi-tracks himself) and links a brief yet persistent chain of chords. Sharman’s “Notes on ‘Beautiful,’” on the other hand, originally a duet between Seurat and his mother, no becomes a conversation between the living composer and his deceased mother. De Mare’s rendition of “Sunday in the Park – Passages (encore)” opens a lifeline to possibilities, and makes us feel connected to our own.

Shire’s “Love is in the Air” puts a delightful spin on the original opening number of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, underscoring de Mare’s abilities to evoke the past in a language of the future, while Bolcom’s “A Little Night Fughetta” references Anyone Can Whistle, pushing Bach through a jazzy filter of development. Pacific Overture is another of the less represented but no less effective source texts. Gosfield’s “A Bowler Hat” displays a meticulous feel for deconstruction, while Kline’s “Paraphrase (Someone in a Tree)” paints the first meeting between American and Japanese officials in 1853 with unexpected colors. Merrily We Roll Along gives us León’s “going…gone,” another remarkable highlight that, along with Akiho’s “Into the Woods” is perhaps the most technically demanding of the program. Hersch’s “No One is Alone” is another ode to Into the Woods, this one pentatonic and alliterative. And let me not neglect Beglarian, who pays tribute to Passion in her “Perpetual Happiness.” This striking piece is as real as the music gets on Liaisons, and builds its wings one feather at a time, until flight is achieved.

Doing justice to all of the composers and pieces represented here would be a futile, wordy exercise. Suffice it to say there isn’t a single sour note to be found, and as a whole the album demonstrates that, while Sondheim’s music may sometimes play hard to get, it will love you through and through if you let it, because that’s all it wants to do.

Nils Økland Band: Kjølvatn (ECM 2383)

Kjølvatn

Nils Økland Band
Kjølvatn

Nils Økland viola d’amore, Hardanger fiddle, violin,
Rolf-Erik Nystrøm alto and baritone saxophones
Sigbjørn Apeland harmonium
Mats Eilertsen double bass
Håkon Mørch Stene percussion, vibraphone
Recorded June 2012, Hoff Church Østre Toten, Norway
Engineer: Audun Strype
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 8, 2016

Since his 1996 solo debut, Blå Harding, Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland has charted a range of melodic waters, always docking at the intersection of traditional and contemporary music. His relationship with ECM has produced a series of artistic statements, each more cohesive than the last. His first for the label was 2009’s Monograph, a solo album of great scope that led to 2011’s Lysøen, in duet with Sigbjørn Apeland. And now we have Kjølvatn, for which he has assembled a full band under his own name. Apeland rejoins the fray, here playing harmonium, along with saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and percussionist Håkon Mørch Stene. Each has lived in that gray area between folk, jazz, and classical, and funnels his unique experiences into Økland’s sound-world like grains of sand through an hourglass.

Having worked with these musicians for years in some configuration or another (all except Nystrøm played on Bris, released in 2004 on Rune Grammofon), Økland revisits a trove of older material with special familiarity. A look at even a few of the tunes shows the breadth of his network. He wrote “Mali,” for instance, after attending a concert by Swedish rapper Timbuktu. The band’s profiles cohere evocatively in this opening piece, as in the album’s title track, a retroactive score for the 1933 Scottish silent film The Rugged Island. “Undergrunn” (Underground), too, feels quite integrated, arising as it did from a collaboration with the London Sinfonietta around folk motifs. Such diversity of origins suggests that Økland’s influences are as complex and fragmentary as life itself.

NOB
(Photo credit: Ellen Ane Eggen)

Økland employs a variety of open tunings on the album, each of which has its own special name. The “dark blue” tuning (D-D-A-D) is heard on the processional “Drev” (Drifted), wherein are bolded Stene’s percussive colors, and “Start” the so-called “troll tuning” (B-E-B-D#). In the latter, Økland combines ancient structures and modern minimalism, both of which he sees as relying on short motifs multiplied to form larger structures.

Økland has been increasingly inspired by the viola d’amore, which like his mainstay instrument has extra strings that vibrate sympathetically beneath the main four, and on tracks “Puls” and “Skugge” (Shadow) he draws a darker soul from this cousin. In the former piece, the heartbeat is evoked by Stene on kettledrum, while Eilertsen explores kindred frequencies. Over this, a flight from Økland’s bow touches the ocean with a wingtip in search of nesting territory.

Location matters a lot in Kjølvatn, which was recorded at the Hoff stone church in the countryside of Norway’s Oppland county. Økland’s go-to engineer, Audun Strype, captures the church’s resonant bounce, allowing the rougher, more organic aspects of the performance to exude clarity. One may hear this especially in “Fivreld” (Butterfly), an alluring piece of ambience in which the harmonium breathes like sunlight through foliage. Made for a ballet performance at Haugesund Theater in Økland’s hometown, it veritably dances.

Other references to Økland’s past are found in “Blå harding” and “Amstel.” Earlier versions of both appeared on the aforementioned debut. The first is something of a blues dedicated to his Hardanger fiddle teacher Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa, while the second, which closes out the album, is greener, its organ-like harmonium reminding us of where we are.

Kjølvatn rarely bubbles beyond a simmer, but its flavors are all the purer for it. It’s a significant move in Økland’s career, and exemplifies an artist who, despite denying any underlying message, understands the value of careful construction. And in a way, that is its practice: to create art for its own sake, devoid of political baggage and free to roam in search of new and welcoming ears.

(See this review as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)