Anouar Brahem: Souvenance (ECM 2423/24)

Souvenance

Anouar Brahem
Souvenance

Anouar Brahem oud
François Couturier piano
Klaus Gesing bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Björn Meyer bass
Orchestra della Svizzera italiana
Pietro Mianiti conductor
Recorded May 2014, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineers: Stefano Amerio and Michael Rast (RSI)
Mixed in Lugano August 2014 by Manfred Eicher, Anouar Brahem, Stefano Amerio, and Michael Rast (RSI)
Executive producer RSI: Alissa Pedotti-Nembrini
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Following a six-year silence, master oudist Anouar Brahem returns to ECM Records with his most personal, yet somehow selfless, project yet. During the revolution that gripped his native Tunisia at the turn of 2011, Brahem experienced a creative drought and spent the following years gathering enough water to nourish the seeds that would become Souvenance. The title means “remembrance,” but the music looks resolutely forward, drinking in uncertainty as if it were the only sustenance visible from atop the rubble of uprising. Though Brahem claims no direct correlation to these events, their echoes remain, needing to be heard.

Brahem

Souvenance brings together a new assemblage for Brahem, who situates his rosette within a quartet completed by François Couturier on piano, Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, and Björn Meyer (formerly of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin) on electric bass. One further layer finds realization in the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, under the empathic direction of Pietro Mianiti. Given the size of this gathering on paper, one might expect what the record’s press release describes: “The strings have a glowing transparency and fragility in these pieces, often providing shimmering texture against which the contributions of the quartet members—and, above all, Anouar Brahem’s unique oud-playing—stand out in bold relief.” But this is precisely what you won’t get. The strings are anything but fragile. They bind the very strength of resolve that brought Tunisians through civil unrest with spirits intact. As for Brahem’s oud, it is one of many elements feeding a uniform sound and therefore more content to recede than stand out. This is what gives the album its glowing transparency. Its virtuosity is to be found not in relief but in restraint, atmospheric integrity, and melodic truth. Here is none of the youthful exuberance of 1991’s Barzakh (his ECM debut) but something more like the reflective countenance that shades Brahem’s 2006 trio effort Le Voyage de Sahar. This project shows him at the height of maturity.

Despite boasting an 11-part suite spanning 90 minutes over two discs, Souvenance makes no pretentions of capturing an era or politic. The listener is invited neither to grieve nor to celebrate, but to contemplate what causes any strand of the human loom to snap. This would seem to be the message behind retrospective titles such as “Improbable day,” “Deliverance,” and “Like a dream.”

Couturier runs threads through them, but does so not to anchor but to reveal an underlying elasticity. With a gradualness than can only be described as pathos, the strings expel their breath to yield the organic oud. Within this collective snaps the large rubber band of Meyer’s bass, which goads the ensemble into acts of surprising lucidity and shines like the sun to Brahem’s moon. Between these signposts stretch the unanswered questions of an “Ashen sky” and “January.” Both would seem to reference the album’s cover photograph (taken on the streets of Tunis by Nacer Talel on January 18, 2011) and its pluming curtain of smoke.

Melodies are the lifeblood of Souvenance, and nowhere more so than in the title track, of which the modal pianism barely hints at sea changes in the air. As the program’s thematic heart, it percolates even more deeply than the rich surroundings of “Tunis at dawn” or “Youssef’s song.” In the latter, Brahem paints aftermath from a distance—a city in flames which barely appears to move and betrays nothing of the violations committed in its walls. Here and there, as the music flows toward closure, a bass line or reed motif will intertwine with some other branch of the tree. Homogeneity prevails, reaching cohesion in “Nouvelle vague,” a pulsing tune reprised from 1995’s Khomsa and arranged here for strings by Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits.

Do we fight for a world drunk at the wheel or do we jump from the vehicle before it drives off a bridge? This seems to be the conundrum faced by victims of injurious political agendas around the globe. With so much disgrace to (mis)understand, it’s all we can do not to separate ourselves from it. Bound as we are to fundament by stem and stalk yet reaching for firmament by leaf and petal, the test before us is whether or not to accept these things as a part of the human fabric, to remain standing even when all that we know is uprooted. Brahem, I dare say, shows us one possible path toward balance: the plectrum as fulcrum. In less uncertain terms, music is the answer to difference because its questions are greater than all of us put together. Sometimes “world music” exists in its own bubble, funneling cross-cultural influences to enliven self-awareness. Not so with Souvenance, which looks within to understand what transpires without. It’s not a statement, a manifesto, or a critique. It is pacifism at its utmost.

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

Stephan Micus: Panagia (ECM 2308)

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Stephan Micus
Panagia

Stephan Micus Bavarian zither, dilruba, chitrali sitar, sattar, 14-string guitar, nay, voice
Recorded 2009-2012 at MCM Studios
An ECM Production

Panagia may be heard as the divine counterpart to Stephan Micus’s earthly album Athos of two decades before, and revisits the Greek peninsula that inspired its predecessor. As with all Micus projects, the focus here is crystalline and spiritual in a way that shuns any specific label or dogma. That being said, one can surely feel the personal histories that go into the many instruments with which he births his universal sounds, their ties to places rendered frozen by time. Micus’s magic—his rite, if you will—is to blend those variant histories into a singularity that few world travelers have ever translated so nakedly into the language of music.

Micus 1

Micus demonstrates this personal ethos in a brief album statement: “Throughout the world people have put their trust in a female goddess. In Greece she is called Panagia,” thus invoking an all-encompassing goddess even as he locates her within a particular faith. According to Evy Johanne Håland in her book Rituals of Death and Dying in Modern and Ancient Greece, Greek orthodoxy calls her Ē Prōtē (The First) and places her at the pinnacle of sainthood. Hence the seventh-century Byzantine prayers to Panagia of which Micus sings his verses, and in which Panagia is called, among other things, “Virgin Mary,” “blissful swallow,” “radiant cloud,” and, in Christ-like fashion, “the joy of the distressed, the guide of the blind and the refuge of orphans.” Where normally Micus falls into the histrionics of his own phonetic language, here a certain thematic vividness of worship lends his singing fresh anchorage.

Through its 11-part traversal, the album shuffles vocal tracks into instrumentals. The former are songs of praise, as indicated by their liturgical titles, while the latter are analogic poems in and of themselves. “I Praise You, Unfading Rose” and “I Praise You, Cloud of Light” open and close the circle with Micus accompanying himself on the Bavarian zither. The zither’s sparkle, in combination with the words, draws flesh from vibrational frequencies. It is as if the world were cradled in a giant hammock and swung from soul to soul like a pendulum of fate, leaving the solitary voice to twist like knots of meditation where tether meets tree. “I Praise You, Shelter of the World” is also bifurcated, only now we encounter 10 voices accompanied by Chinese gongs in a tangle of vapor and vine. In “I Praise You, Sweet-Smelling Cypress,” Micus adds to that number of voices his custom-built 14-string guitar, 8 dilruba (a bowed Indian instrument similar to the sarangi and prominently featured in Desert Poems), 3 sattar (Uyghur violin), and 5 Egyptian nay flutes for a thoroughly spectral palette. Two further tracks—“I Praise You, Lady of Passion” and “I Praise You, Sacred Mother”—feature 22 voices and 20 voices, respectively. Both are deeply hymnal.

Micus 2

The rebec-like sonority of 3 sattar in “You are like Fragrant Incense” (3 sattar) adds new timbres to Micus’s sound-world. With only their wordlessness to reckon with, the listener can feel their shape in a performance that travels like a pheromone: just below the radar of perception yet overflowing with connectivity. Whether doubled and joined by 2 Chitrali sitar in “You are Full of Grace” or with one sitar and 6 dilruba in “You are the Life-Giving Rain,” their topographical consistency attends to every leaf and branch and reveals the love necessary for self-enclosure. In a different stroke, both “You are the Treasure of Life” and “You are a Shining Spring” engage the same instrumentation of Tibetan chimes, Burmese temple bells, Zanskari horsebells, and 2 dilruba. The contrast between bell dust and dilruba soil mirrors that between sleeping and waking.

If pressed for a comparison, I would say that Panagia resembles Japanese classical gagaku in its arrangement and color, even if it is devoid of gagaku’s exclusivity. Rather, it makes of this big blue ball a royal court where we live not as servants but as purveyors of destiny. Its play of light on reflective surfaces makes it one of the best-recorded albums in the Micus catalogue. It is the meta-statement of a meta-statement, an expression of Gaia through cycles of human thought.

(To hear samples of Panagia, click here.)

Stephan Micus: Koan (ECM 2305 804 SP)

Koan

Stephan Micus
Koan

Stephan Micus shakuhachi, zither, gender, sarangi, rabab, bodhran, angklung, kyeezee, Burmese bells, guitar, voice
Recorded 1977 in Cologne
An ECM Production

Wayfaring multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus began his ECM journey with this five-part album of characteristic rituals, now digitally restored for posterity. The Zen Buddhist kōan, often misunderstood as a riddle without answer, is more rightly experienced as a path to openness, and it is this path that Micus has walked since he first committed his sounds to disc. In denying an effect for every cause, the kōan opens both the questioner and the questioned to the possibility of possibility—which is to say, beyond the duality of things. Like the music contained on this eponymous recording, it is not meant to be solved but discovered for what it is. Micus’s music is thus an ongoing kōan, for despite the fascination of his array and technical adjustments thereto, an awareness of infinity prevails.

If we discover anything from the shakuhachi solo that is Part I, it’s that Micus’s unaccompanied sojourns are as multitudinous as his multi-tracked assemblages are singular. For while that hollowed stalk of bamboo, itself a voice without breath, finds accompaniment in the form of zither, gender (Balinese xylophone), and guitar in Parts II and V, in those group settings it feels more like the reflection than the reflected. Each instrument embodies one element in an organic picture, leaving the unsung song to trace its slow-motion arc across the sky, a comet on its way toward slumber. In the final wave, the zither offers itself percussively: the string as skin. Micus’s breath, simple and serene, meanwhile blots the torch of every star until the darkness becomes an expression of light.

Parts IIIa and IIIb feature the rabab—an Afghan lute, which sounds like a resonant shamisen and has both rhythmic and melodic functions—and the deeper sarangi. A translucent shakuhachi marks the first half, but gives way to a Mongolian-influenced sound, scraped like barnacles from the earth’s crust. This leaves only Part IV, in which Micus sings over a congregation of Burmese bells.

In this sound-world, instruments never compete. Nothing “solos,” per se, but coheres by means of an undying spirit, to which only the master musician may attend through a lifetime of rare creation. As one of Micus’s most meditative sustains, Koan enables a microscopically visceral experience that is forever new because it is the very picture of regeneration.

Marc Sinan/Julia Hülsmann: Fasıl (ECM 2076)

Fasıl

Marc Sinan
Julia Hülsmann
Fasıl

Marc Sinan guitar
Yelena Kuljic vocals
Lena Thies viola
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double-bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums, percussion
Recorded March 2008 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Guitarist and composer Marc Sinan, recently of the (sadly) European-only release Hasretim, made his ECM debut with Fasıl, an album of enduring originality and refinement. The title refers to a suite form used in both classical and modern Ottoman ensemble music, and which here would seem to nod in both directions. It’s almost unfortunate that the Turkish word should so closely resemble the English “facile,” for the music here is anything but superficial. By way of comparison, one might pair it with Jon Balke’s SIWAN, as Balke illuminates and draws out likeminded ethnomusical connections with care.

Siwan’s own fasıl tells the story of ‘Ā’ishah bint Abī Bakr (613/14-678), youngest and favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad. In this fresh musical context, her sentiments twirl and float by turns along a river’s current of rhythmic libations. Librettist Marc Schiffer weaves into those sentiments influences ranging from the Qur’an to ancient Persian poetry in search of common ground. Pianist Julia Hülsmann’s trio with bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling—the subject of such later albums as The End of a Summer and Imprint—flexes the project’s instrumental spine. They are joined by violist Lena Thies, Sinan on guitar, and the Serbian-born, Berlin-based singer Yelena Kuljic in the role of ‘Ā’ishah.

The album begins, as does any fasıl performance, with an instrumental “Peshrev,” which lowers us gently into the waters of this emotionally dynamic world. It is a world of comfort and challenge, a quilt of geographical distances made immediate by design. Other traditional movements include iterations of the taksim, an improvisational interlude which unspools purple braids from Hülsmann’s interpretive fingers. Through these run the finer threads of Sinan’s flamenco-esque strumming and Thies’s spirited bowing. Sinan augments these with two movements based on transcriptions of an imam (Islamic cantor) he recorded while conducting research for this project in Turkey. “Sure 6/51” and “Sure 81 Taksimi” revolve around Hülsmann’s rhythm section, guitar and viola taking respective turns in the lead.

Yet it is by virtue of Kuljic’s portrayal of ‘Ā’ishah that the album comes into its own. Beginning with the drawing of desire that is “This Bloody Day” and ending with the affirmative “You Open My Eyes,” her voice sheds light by which to see. She explores themes as wide-ranging as agency and politics (“Taking Leave”), the body as landscape (“The Last Night”), and, couched in the album’s most entrancing melody, the intertwining of lives under Heaven (“The Dream”). Sinan rocks a lovely fulcrum in the latter through a smooth, jazzy core, and lends his flexible architecture to “The Struggle Is Over,” carving a sliver of moon into the sky.

All in all, these are songs of holdings on and lettings go. The instrumental elaborations are thoughtful (and thought-provoking), unraveling richly dyed sacraments in sound. At their heart is a song entitled “The Necklace.” It is a pivotal moment, both in the lives of its characters and of this cycle as a whole. It refers to story recounted in the Qur’an, in which ‘Ā’ishah, during one of Muhammad’s desert raids, is mistakenly left behind when she goes looking for a lost necklace and returns to camp to discover that her caravan has departed without her. She is found by a nomad under Muhammad’s employ named Sufwan and taken to the next campsite, only to be met with gossip of infidelity. Unbelieving of these rumors, Muhammad takes his wife’s word on faith (albeit after a revelation from Allah confirms her innocence), and her accusers are summarily punished. It speaks volumes about a woman whose strength thrived in her resolve, in her resistance to a world of men, and in her refusal to let her integrity fade into the dunes.

Marc Sinan: Hasretim – Journey to Anatolia (ECM 2330/31)

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Marc Sinan
Hasretim – Journey to Anatolia

Marc Sinan music, guitars, idea, concept and production
Traditional musicians from Turkey
Mustafa Boztüy
darbuka, framedrum
Güç Başar Gülle oud
Ömer Can Satır kaval
Onur Şentürk kemençe
Erdem Şimşek bağlama
Traditional musicians from Armenia
Araik Bartikian duduk, zurna
Vazgen Makaryan duduk, zurna
Andrea Molino arrangement, conductor (DVD only)
Jonathan Stockhammer conductor
Markus Rindt idea, concept and production
CD recorded live July 2011 at Schleswig Holstein Musikfestival by Volker Greve and Holger Schwark
“Prolog” recorded December 2012 at MIAM Istanbul by Can Karadogan
Mastering: Volker Greve
DVD recorded Ocobter 2010 at Festspielhaus Hellerau
An ECM Production

Classical guitarist Marc Sinan, born in 1976 to a Turkish-Armenian mother and a German father, has over the past two decades attracted increasing demand as a soloist and collaborator, and dedicates his output to softening divides between genres, eras, and cultures. Hasretim represents the most significant evolutionary leap in his career as a composer. The result of a commission by Hellerau – European Center for the Arts Dresden and the Dresdner Sinfoniker, this video-musical journey traces Sinan’s heritage along the Black Sea coast to the Armenian border. More than that, it’s an invaluable archive of life and song on the Anatolian plateau, which he explored together with Dresdner Sinfoniker artistic director Markus Rindt in 2010. During the trip, Sinan was saddened to find that the preservation of folk music so prevalent elsewhere (viz: the Baltic states, Hungary, and Greece) was lacking in Turkey. Consequently, he took Hellerau’s commission as an opportunity to address the discrepancy, pooling a storehouse of traditional musicians and incorporating their art into a large-scale, contemporary piece of his own design. “I was quite nervous,” writes Sinan of the recording process. “Unlike musical field research, our project demanded much more than simply documenting the current state of the Turkish musical tradition regardless of its artistic merit. We were on a treasure hunt and would only rest once we stumbled upon something truly special.” As connections grew, so too did the availability of choice musical talent and the opportunity to capture it for posterity. Once satisfied with his bank of original recordings, to them Sinan introduced what he calls “decisive, subjective elaborations” in the form of both through-composed and improvised material.

Hasretim was originally conceived as an installation piece, with videos of these unrecognized Turkish troubadours (many of whom must balance their musical lives with working ones) projected onto five towering vertical screens at stage rear. Before them plays an assembly of European classical musicians augmented by traditional specialists from Turkey and Armenia. The latter bring their expertise to a veritable portrait of Asia Minor in sound as the oud, kaval, kemençe, bağlama, duduk, zurna, and frame drum hold their own alongside strings and winds. It is to ECM’s credit that its release should encompass both the audio on CD and the visual on an accompanying DVD. For while the music stands alone as a welcoming experience, to see the musicians (live and recorded) in their element, along with segues of candid scenes from Istanbul and beyond, brings out the project’s reach in most immediate terms. Both versions feature essentially the same personnel, with the notable exception of conductors: Jonathan Stockhammer directs the CD version, recorded live at the Schleswig Holstein Musikfestival, while Andrea Molino, also the project’s musical arranger, handles the DVD performance, recorded at Festspielhaus Hellerau.

As indicated by the title, which means “I’m yearning” or “My desire,” Hasretim is a search for roots. Yet it’s also a spray of new foliage in the towering branches, nourished by Sinan’s unique ear for montage. The album is bookended by a “Prolog” and “Epilog.” One is a menagerie of harmonics, blips, and whispers that tightens like a spring, while the other pieces together footage of nearly all the recorded musicians in a chain of reprisals, ending as it began: with an attunement that spans multiple geographies.

Within this frame are five distinct “Tableaux,” each named after a Turkish city or, in the case of “Tableau II – Yayla,” for the mountain pastures where an old man (Haci Ömer Elibol) plays the end-blown kaval while his sheep animate the background. His call, for that is what it becomes in Sinan’s contextualization, inspires some upbeat interweaving. In contrast to the dark fiddling of “Tableau I – Ordu,” which details the face of singer Asiye Göl across all five screens, it more fully includes itself in the musical goings on.

Indeed, voices resound clearest throughout the program, even if certain instrumentalists do stand out for their charisma. There is Hüsseyin Altay on the tulum (Turkish bagpipe), joined by droning brass; the unforgettable Ismail Küçük, who sings and bows his kemençe in “Tableau III – Trabzon” from the back seat of a car, thus underscoring the film’s road movie feel; the duet of Ömer Parlak on kaval and Mesut Kurt (along with Göl, the youngest of those featured) on kemençe; and in “Tableau IV – Erzurum” the rhythmically savvy Aşik Eminoglu accompanying himself on the bağlama to invigorating effect. This same Tableau also cradles “In Memory of Vahide,” a 10-minute duduk duet that interpolates shadows into light. All of this buoys “Tableau V – Kars” as the most compositionally unified vision of live elements (especially in the percussion) and descriptive archival work.

In absence of any background information, one might never know that Sinan witnessed firsthand a loss of connection among contemporary Turkish musicians to their rich heritage, or that their art needed recovery in this regard. Neither was the counterpoint lost on him between the boisterous people and their peaceful, sometimes dreary, settings. Such contrast of medium and message informs every frame and staff of this multimedia treasure trove. Although awarded a special prize by the German Commission for UNESCO for its “inspiring and experimental confrontation between different cultures,” Hasretim is less about experiment than experience and anything but a confrontation. Rather, it is a book to which each new witness adds a page.

(See the article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine, where you may also hear samples.)

Stephan Micus: Snow (ECM 2063)

Snow

Stephan Micus
Snow

Stephan Micus douss’n gouni, duduk, maung, gongs, tibetan cymbals, bavarian zither, sinding, steel-string guitar, hammered dulcimers, charango solo, nay, bass duduk, voices
Recorded 2004-2008 at MCM Studios
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For his 18th ECM meditation, German multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus goes deeper into his travels, into his technique, and into himself. Among his usual bevy of means, the Armenian double-reed duduk—last heard on Towards the Wind—is now a central energy field, its song a balance to the cold. “I’ve always regarded snow as the essence of magic,” notes Micus in this album’s press release, and his impressionistic view of one of nature’s most enigmatic phenomena shines through with a glow all its own. The title track likewise harbors many warm bodies, despite the wintry theme. Two doussn’gouni (a West African harp that Micus debuted on Desert Poems), along with various gongs and cymbals, give the duduk a gentle berth for travel. Guided by breath, not oar, its intense presence rides toward frosty shores, singing of the ice as gateway and kissing the land with its solemnity. Also retained from Desert Poems is the sinding, another West African harp that blends with steel-string guitar, hammered dulcimers, and an ever-growing chorus of voices in “Sara.”

The duduk continues its tender mission across a “Midnight Sea” (accompanied here only by Bavarian zither) and into the arms of “Madre.” The latter speaks further in the language of strings and mallets, and both mix the reeds spatially, so that notes scale from left to right as they ascend. The album’s final track, “Brother Eagle,” features the bass duduk. Along with two sinding and fifteen voices, its near-ghostly sound feels spun from the very earth of which it chants. This marriage of glitter and darkening cloud, of moonlit sailing and glorious dream journeying, advances its subterranean walkabout lead by shadows toward the promise of sunrise.

Making its debut at Micus’s fingertips is the charango, an Andean double-stringed ukulele popularized by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla. “Nordic Light” is a solo for the instrument, which in this context sounds more like some miniature koto that evokes its aurora with understated flame. Another solo begins “For Ceren and Halil” before being joined by seven more charangos, duduk, nay, sinding, and five hammered dulcimers in an eddying current of leaves and time until they reach the waterfall that makes one of them all. The album’s sole remainder is “Almond Eyes” (11 voices, steel-string guitar, maung), which offers some of Micus’s most impassioned singing yet.

It bears noting that the cover of Snow was painted by father Eduard Micus (1925-2000), a gestural painter who shaped his medium as his son shapes sound. It’s a naked glimpse into the musician’s upbringing, and proof that life is indeed a river that, once frozen, simply awaits the thaw of another realm.

Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico: Songs Of An Other (ECM 2057)

Songs Of An Other

Savina Yannatou
Primavera en Salonico
Songs Of An Other

Savina Yannatou voice
Kostas Vomvolos qanun, accordion
Yannis Alexandris oud, guitar
Kyriakos Gouventas violin, viola
Harris Lambrakis nay
Michalis Siganidis double-bass
Kostas Theodorou percussion, double-bass
Recorded October 2007 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Yannis Baxevanis
Edited and mixed by Manfred Eicher, Yannis Baxevanis, Kostas Vomvolos, and Savina Yannatou
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Songs Of An Other marks the third point of contact between Greek singer Savina Yannatou, along with Primavera en Salonico, and ECM. The program is more geographically varied than ever and emphasizes the interpretive prowess of its musicians. Much of that prowess breathes through Primavera’s superb control, for while the album boasts moments of sportive extroversion, it upholds the music first and foremost as a model for emancipation.

Indeed, Songs Of An Other, shows this collective at both its most animated and its most delicate, oftentimes within the same song. Both the slack-stringed “Za lioubih maimo tri momi,” which comes by way of Bulgarian Macedonia, and “Radile” (from Greece) run the line of straight-up folk and all-out jam. In the latter vein, two new tunes based on Greek sources add another line to the project’s résumé. “O Yannis kai O Drakos” is a dragon-slaying song replete with fanciful colorations, paroxysmal gasps, and subtly frenetic bassing. “Perperouna,” a call for rain, explores the gravelly pits of Yannatou’s voice, embraced by the windy brine of nay and kalimba, all moving in a Celtic knot of rhythm toward an adlibbed comet’s tail. Even the “Albanian lullabye” becomes a ritual of ululations and incantations, honing a mysterious and strangely accessible edge.

For much of the album, however, the musicians tread a delicate path, adapting to every dip in Yannatou’s tightrope along the way. From the dulcet “Smilj Smiljana” (Serbia) to the Italian olive-harvester’s song “Addio amore,” they emote lucidly. Combinations of flute, violin, and accordion cloud like ink in water in “Sassuni oror” (Armenia); dances take the night by the hand in “Dunie-au” (Kazakhstan); and the 16h-century Yiddish traditional “Omar hashem leyakoyv” is practically translucent in sentiment.

The greatest accomplishment of Songs is the fullness with which it romanticizes, as is clear in “Sareri hovin mermen” (Armenia). Given the “Eastern” feel, one might easily read into it an alluring sway. Likewise, “Ah, Marouli,” a Greek song about sponge-divers on the island of Kalymnos, sashays with seeming invitation. And yet, these arrangements are so emotionally (and physically) complete that they hardly need even these words to convey to the uninitiated listener the magic of their self-assurance. And that’s the thing: every step and element of this audible alchemy is as lucid as the light that illuminates the talents of these fine instrumentalists, Yannatou tracing them all the while as a wave might shape an Aegean breeze.

Tsabropoulos/Lechner/Gandhi: Melos (ECM 2048)

Melos

Melos

Vassilis Tsabropoulos piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
U. T. Gandhi percussion
Recorded June 2007, Auditorio Radio Svizzera
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The second album from Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and German cellist Anja Lechner, would seem to be a sequel to Chants, Hymns and Dances, but is in many ways a restructuring of that same cosmos rather than a parallel universe to it. The music of G. I. Gurdjieff again provides the heliocenter around which the compositions of Tsabropoulos and fragments of Byzantine hymns coalesce into planets and satellites, respectively. Drummer U. T. Gandhi, making his sophomore ECM appearance following his label debut with the Dino Saluzzi Group on Juan Condori, adds new colors to the project.

The title of Melos refers to the arrangement of notes into a discernible tune (hence: melody), and in this respect its contents succeed beautifully. The title track starts the album with an all-encompassing embrace. Lechner navigates Tsabropoulos’s delicate ostinato in such a way that, even as the pianist continues exploring the ripple effect of her measured silence, when the cello reprises the theme, it does so newly fortified with sacred energy. This feeling of chant, meditation, and return suffuses all that follows, so that mellower songs (for that is indeed what they are) and livelier dances become yin and yang to the program’s overall equilibrium. At its most heartbreakingly lyrical, as in the two so-called “Songs Of Prosperity” and “Song Of Gratitude,” the music retains a bright antiphony throughout. Even “Simplicity,” a piano solo of great solemnity, shines with life force.

Tsabropoulos’s notes often rise like smoke from the swinging censer of Lechner’s bowing, growing especially animated in “Reflections” and its counterpart, “Reflections And Shadows.” At around two minutes each, these lively miniatures compresses an entire history’s worth of joy into vibrant, spinning cores. Such characterization holds truer in the trios, where Gandhi’s contributions feel wedded to every underlying impulse. His cymbals crest ebony waves in the exquisite “Gift Of Dreams,” expand to a broader percussive palette in “Promenade,” and attain broadest harmony in the jazzier “Vocalise.” For “Tibetan Dance,” the first of three strategically positioned Gurdjieff tunes, he adds a distinctly soft touch, and likewise imbues “Sayyid Dance” with the delicate propulsion of a Manu Katché joint. “Reading From A Sacred Book,” on the other hand, unfurls a percussionless banner, pointing to Keith Jarrett’s own reading on the seminal Sacred Hymns, making it all the more appropriate that the present album should end with the title “In Memory,” in which is encoded a shaded smile of gratitude.

The atmosphere of Melos should be of particular interest to fans of The Sea and, even more so, The River. Not because this album has a particularly aquatic feel, but because its combination of sounds and textures yields comparable atmosphere. In addition to its clarity of engineering, Melos is notable for the ordering of its tracks. Just when the music becomes too pretty, it recedes into a shadow or twisted cavern (cf. “Evocation”), where it meditates on the irregularities of life and this fragile world supporting them.

(To hear samples of Melos, click here.)