Momo Kodama/Seiji Ozawa: Hosokawa/Mozart (ECM New Series 2624)

Momo Kodama
Seiji Ozawa
Hosokawa/Mozart

Momo Kodama piano
Mito Chamber Orchestra

Seiji Ozawa conductor

Recorded December 2006, Concert Hall ATM, Art Tower Mito
Engineer: Yoshinori Nishiwaki
Balance engineer: Suenori Fukui
Cover photo: Max Franosch
An ECM Production
Release date: April 12, 2021

After making her ECM New Series solo debut with 2013’s La vallée des cloches, followed by Point and Line in 2017, pianist Momo Kodama belatedly presents a finely articulated diptych of compositions. Under the baton of Maestro Seiji Ozawa, she joins the Mito Chamber Orchestra for this live recording from 2006, which saw the premiere of the opening work, Lotus under the moonlight, by Toshio Hosokawa. Written for Kodama, this homage to Mozart for piano and orchestra resulted from a commission that same year by the Norddeutscher Rundfunk, for which Hosokawa chose a favorite Mozart piano concerto and wrote this companion piece. Using the F-sharp minor slow movement as inspiration, it begins suspended before subtle disturbances, like the fluttering of butterfly wings, waft through the air. Paintings in moonlight on watery canvas take shape, turning darkness into speech and speech into song. There is patience gently asked for—and returned—by the willing listener, whose ears may finesse the scene with details unknowable through any other sensory organ. Music like this needn’t ask for breath because it is breath incarnate. It inhales silence and exhales shifts in climate activated by the kind of touch that skin cannot evoke or experience. It is, instead, an experience of the soul, which trembles and prays. There are moments of absolute sublimity, as when the piano scales downward and upward beneath gossamer strings. Siren-like cries reach quietly overhead, linking their verses through the clouds, ending in windchimes of an otherwise forgotten past.

In the wake of that internal gesture, the externality of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, shines like a blast of refined light, moving through its motifs at the shake of a bough in morning light. With barely a nod to the dream that came before, we emerge onto sunlit pasture, hand in hand with the solstice. Kodama’s entrance is likewise imbued with spectral awareness. Every arpeggio is as legato as it is staccato and points our attention to a time when joy was of central artistic concern. That said, there is great mystery in this music still, coaxing from our hearts an awareness that is anything but chronological. The Adagio flips this world upside down. A ponderous quality pervades. It is cautious yet all the more alive for it. Faith is restored in the Allegro assai, flowing with blessed assurance but also a lightness of step that never fails to smile. Those looking for a thrilling Mozart will not be able to punch their ticket here. Rather, one will encounter a regard for pathos: a worthily prosaic shade to include in the spectrum alongside Hosokawa’s poetry.

Orchestras tend to be seen as the context into which a soloist is placed. Then there is Kodama, who plays with such generosity that this recording feels the other way around: she provides the landscape across which the orchestra may travel. Ozawa makes sure that every nomadic step is faithfully documented for posterity. Despite aging in the ECM vaults for 15 years, we are invited to feel the presence of its creation here and now.

Terje Rypdal: Conspiracy (ECM 2658)

Terje Rypdal
Conspiracy

Terje Rypdal electric guitar
Ståle Storløkken keyboards
Endre Hareide Hallre fretless bass, Fender Precision
Pål Thowsen drums, percussion
Recorded February 2019 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Martin Abrahamsen
Mixing: January 2020 by Manfred Eicher, Terje Rypdal, and Martin Abrahamsen (engineer)
Cover photo: Woong Chul An
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 11, 2020

For his first studio album in twenty years, Norwegian guitarist and composer Terje Rypdal convenes the talents of Ståle Storløkken (made familiar to Rypdal fans by his contributions to Vossabrygg and Crime Scene) on keyboards, Pål Thowsen (whose association with ECM dates back to Arild Andersen’s projects during the label’s first decade) on drums and percussion, and the youngest recruit, Endre Hareid Hallre, on fretless and Fender Precision basses. Known collectively as Conspiracy, they map territories that are at once well-trodden and uninhabited.

While Rypdal intended to use the group as a platform for reexamining old tunes, it became entity unto itself, yielding the six new cuts (many first performed for the first time here) included on the present disc. Foremost among them is “As If The Ghost… Was Me!?” As enigmatic as its title suggests, it opens with crisp cymbals before Rypdal’s unmistakable crooning snakes into frame. This clarion call to (and of) the creative spirit recalls the fishing lines cast into the waters of If Mountains Could Sing. Storløkken’s washes bring temperance to Rypdal’s fire, while Hallre’s bass dances without ever severing its roots.

The production yields organic details throughout. The buzz of Rypdal’s amp in “What Was I Thinking,” for example, is a bright comfort in an otherwise nocturnal hymn. In the face of such introspection turned into song, there’s hardly a lyric that would fit it. The keyboard swells are like breathing—so natural and automatic that we barely think of it. Not all is mist and gloom, however, as the rock-leaning title track attests. Even so, Rypdal’s painterly sensibilities are no less impeded by the harder canvas. 

Hallre absorbs the spotlight of “By His Lonesome,” wherein his flexible tones take low flight, surveying the landscape set before him with careful regard. Although such rounded topographies might be impossible in reality, save for the windswept dunes of faraway deserts, they sculpt a mountain with its own songs to sing. “Baby Beautiful” submerges its heart in a pool of liquid mercury. Cohering groovily halfway through, riding the tails of brushed drums and Hammond organ, it suggests rather than declares. The waves are dynamic but short-lived, content with never knowing another shore. And as “Dawn” crests with bowed tones and gongs, it signals the transformation of immobility into nomadism.

Conspiracy offers much to celebrate and admire for the longtime listener. Licks and atmospheres will go down as easily as favorite comfort foods. What shakes the boughs of expectation a bit, however, is the music’s clarity of purpose, which can only be born of experience. Gone are the 20-minute jams of his Odyssey days. In their place are concise yet dense short stories that parse nothing to convey their characters’ inner worlds, each a wayward blush with which we are privileged to share this leg of the journey.

Keith Jarrett: A Biography

The late Ian Carr’s Keith Jarrett: The Man and His Music long stood as the most complete portrait of its subject, who turns 76 this month. Being a product of 1991, however, the book begged a companion this side of the second millennium. In 2015, German music editor and biographer Wolfgang Sandner answered that call. Five years later, Jarrett’s youngest brother Chris, who lives and teaches in Germany, offered this superbly rendered, expanded and updated translation into English. The result, Keith Jarrett: A Biography, retreads some of the pianist’s formative milestones while stringing through them artful observations, interpretations and connections. 

We find ourselves transported back to Jarrett’s upbringing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Sandner credits Jarrett’s mother for not putting her son on the pedestal that has separated so many young prodigies from the possibility of a normal childhood. This may be one reason why his genius was able to flourish so organically—untainted by the bane of expectation, he built a career on transcending it. 

We sit in the audience during his first solo recital at the age of seven—a mélange of classical and original compositions—waiting for the moment when jazz will enter the soundtrack of his past. We cling to the wall like proverbial flies as, in a mere five-year span, he joins forces with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis. Jarrett’s tenure with the latter, who convinces him to join after multiple overtures, goes largely unrecorded and survives only through anecdote. By the time Jarrett parts ways with the Miles, it’s 1971, just two years after the founding of ECM Records by producer Manfred Eicher, with whom Jarrett will forge a lasting relationship. Said relationship yields albums—80 between 1971-2020—that were made to exist, just as they exist to have documented a pianist who “had not really become a soloist—he had actually always been one” (pg. 88). 

Jarrett’s “musical syntax” is as recognizable as it is challenging to distill in words. Whether in his traversals of the Great American Songbook with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette or his recording of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (of which he characteristically remarked, “I was actually refusing more than I was giving”), the mosaic we think we know has revealed tile after unprecedented tile. 

All of which serves to validate Sandner’s decision to view jazz through a hypermodern lens, framing its latter-day developments as a recalibration of space among the rubble of the Second World War. And there, in the middle of it all, Jarrett spans the ocean like a bridge between the forward march of Americanism and the traumatic retrogression of the continent. This may be why Sandner concedes in his foreword: “Most of all, though, this music should be heard.” For a musician of Jarrett’s caliber, the best biography remains the discography.

(This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Zeena Parkins: Interlacing

(Photo credit: Claire Paul)

It’s tempting to draw a connection between ancient meanings and modern practice. In the case of LACE, an ongoing project from harpist Zeena Parkins, such connections become more tangible than any etymology ever could be. The word “lace” is derived from the Latin laqueum, meaning “a noose, a snare,” but any negative connotations of such parlance turn to a cloud of dust that Parkins draws, particle by particle, into light. LACE began with an invitation in 2008 from the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio as part of its “Music Mondays” series. “There was an impending deadline,” she recalls, “and most of my compositions at the time would have taken months to learn. I had collected fabrics over the years and I just grabbed some graphic-looking pieces of lace and made conditions for improvisers to read each piece as a score. It worked.”

Since then, she has created an action card-based game piece, recently recorded by percussionist William Winant, a project for her band Green Dome—with Ryan Sawyer (percussion) and Ryan Ross Smith (piano and electronics)—based on transforming the lace knitting patterns from the Shetland Islands into scores and a fourth movement, entitled “Stitchomythia,” performed on an anamorphic carpet designed by Nadia Lauro. If anything, Parkins does not tie snares but unravels them in hopes they might reach the soil of the ear and grow without forsaking their precise comfort.

Such impulses have been a running thread of her ethos since 1993’s Nightmare Alley. Across the terrain of that formative album, a near-catharsis unfolds, as if the very zeitgeist from which it arose were crying in search of change. Parkins cites it as an important turning point in her career. “I felt a need to do a solo record, lay my gauntlet down and take a place. It’s not like I had a manifesto, but I was really at the beginning of a process of determination to do something that I hadn’t heard exactly the way I was doing it. My mission was to do something with the harp that was unfamiliar to me.” To be sure, it was just as unfamiliar to the audience who came to hear her play at New Langton Arts, curated by visual artist Nayland Blake in San Francisco in the summer of 1991. “I hadn’t done that many solo shows and they didn’t have an acoustic harp available, so I played with my electric harp. The gallery had rake seating fanning out from the center—and it was packed. I was in a state of shock. Inspired and excited, I just improvised. That’s when Table of the Elements approached me and asked if I would be the first artist on the label. It was a special way to start.”

Besides introducing listeners to a voice that needed hearing, Nightmare Alley revealed the harp’s multifaceted potential. Though the credits list “electric and acoustic harps” as its material resources, the album was a revelation of immaterial forces that betrayed next to nothing of their origins: “I’m very connected to the harp,” notes Parkins, “but not in a way meant to convey technical virtuosity.” Trained in the rigors of classical piano yet aware that it wasn’t the path she wanted to follow, she encountered the harp while attending Cass Technical High School in Detroit. “They took pity on us pianists for being isolated in our practice rooms, so they assigned us orchestral instruments to get us out there performing. The school had many orchestras and I was willing to give it a try. Walking into a back room without windows and seeing eight concert harps was the most unexpected situation I could ever have imagined myself in. I totally fell in love with the instrument; it made total sense to me physically. When I realized that I was really going to seriously be involved with harp, I trained privately knowing I wasn’t ever going to play it live in a classical setting.” Out of that training emerged a musician who understood the corporeal math needed to bring forth a sound that translated her inner equations into a language that we on the outside could understand.

It wasn’t long before her interest in developing that language opened a portal into the harp’s very soul, pulling from that formless void a second heartbeat in electric form. The earliest version of her electric harp was built by late cellist and Skeleton Crew bandmate Tom Cora and visual artist Julian Jackson in 1985. The following year, it was remade by luthier Ken Parker as a freestanding instrument allowing her to play standing up. Next, sound artist and clandestine instrument builder Douglas Henderson added, among other things, new pickup placements and an ebony strip along the whammy bar side, which Parkins praises for a certain physicality, noting that it “profoundly changed the instrument, creating a fingerboard-like environment for me to develop different kinds of playing techniques.”

At the same time, there is a deeply metaphysical aspect to her work that has continued to evolve from one setting to the next. For Parkins, however, it’s less of a dichotomy than a spectrum: “The physical can become metaphysical because gesture and materiality are so important. It’s about presence, which is very much a part of how I am as a performer. Not just the body, but also one’s intention and absence of intention, desire, expectations, failures—all these things help.” A case in point is her latest album, Glass Triangle (released in February 2021 on Relative Pitch Records), for which she joins Mette Rasmussen (alto saxophone) and, again, Sawyer. Despite having played together only once at The Stone Series at Happylucky no.1 in Brooklyn, the trio made the studio its crucible. What ensued in the freely improvised session was reverse alchemy—not turning lead into gold but breaking down the latter into its constituent parts, each no longer precious alone yet all the more authentic for having been liberated. Thus, what begins as a fragmentary coalition gathers around the campfire of an intimately connected excursion. Sounding at times like an electric guitar, at others like a voice dying in its attempts to communicate from behind the wall of noise erected by recent politics, the harp hoists a protest sign for a generation woefully uncertain of the future, as if some gargantuan lie were morphing into truth. In this space, magic is outed as a restless muse that would sooner destroy its adherents than enable a miracle. Between dips into sustained beauty, one encounters the profundity of “The crystal chain letters,” a track that references Bruno Taut, whose legendary correspondences with kindred architects imagined a future in which urban planning welcomed rather than dictated human behavior. The letters were also, more importantly, a honeycomb around World War I, the traumatic effects of which begged not for utopia but for an ability to use the rubble of the past as material for mosaics of the future. This sensibility is broken and rubbed into the skin of Glass Triangle as if it were a necessary armor for the road ahead.

In light of this historical awareness, Parkins reflects on her beginnings as an artist as follows. “I was myopic then in thinking about the future, just living in the moment. Growing up with an immigrant father and a first-generation mother, I was encouraged to be practical, to be good in school, to do music on the side but focus on a career. But I just wanted to be in the world of music, to be surrounded by a community of musicians, to hear things I’d never heard before. I wanted every experience.” Under the current circumstances, one would be remiss to ignore this motivation. The need for community seems to have grown in proportion to the world’s tendency to fall down the rabbit hole of isolation. Such concerns were already on Parkins’ mind before the pandemic, when questions of safety and practicality prevented her from touring with the electric harp. The mindset of quarantine rekindled her relationship with the instrument. With the help of her partner, filmmaker Jeff Preiss, she began shooting solo performances as a means of reaching out. As she sees it: “You put a recorder up and instantly it’s more than just you in the room.”

Seeking other channels through which to foster a sense of community, including a virtual book group, has allowed connections that might not normally have crystallized to take root and flourish: “This situation we’ve been enduring is like a combination of patience and faith, but also the understanding that there need to be points of correction, a sense of urgency for transformation. It gives us a new way to look at our world with brutality and honesty, knowing that we are faced with a different kind of time.” What a sonic blessing, then, that we can wield the lanterns of her creations to show the way. As justice shines like a constellation above a horizon that only seems to recede the more we approach it, we need all the light we can get.

(This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Two New Releases from Marilyn Crispell

To say that pianist Marilyn Crispell, who turns 74 this month, has charted new territory would be an understatement. It would be just as accurate to say she has redrawn maps of old territory. At her hands, the keyboard leaps like a compass gleeful over its sentience, directing notes with the same force of intention that a seafarer would a ship carrying precious cargo. Whether solo or, as in the two discs presented here, in combination with others, she brings a reverent sense of space honed over decades. 

For ConcertOTO, she planetarily aligns with Eddie Prévost (drums) and Harrison Smith (bass clarinet, saxophones) for a traversal of freely rendered terrain. Recorded live in November of 2012 at London’s Café OTO, the album documents most of what went down on that stage. On the one hand, it’s a study in contrasts. “An Exploratory Introduction” opens with just that, reacting to space as much as defining it. The “Finale” balances it with forthright exposition. At many points between them, however, something powerful happens—a magical kind of coalescence that only musicians who truly listen to one another can achieve. And so, whereas “A Meditative Interlude” is a dreamy combination of pianistic icicles, moonlit bass clarinet and hand-swept drums, its quiet moments are no match for the main concert portions flanking it. In those, one will find a veritable catalog of touchpoints linking chains around the ears. In this respect, Crispell is a master collage artist. Because nothing is planned, passages of exhale make the inhalations that much tenser and wilder with possibility. Prévost is a fabulous player, never losing track of the inner thread even when he severs it while Smith treats time as a physical dimension. Their occasional exchanges in absence of piano are just as visceral. An interesting coincidence that the club’s name is homophonous with the Japanese word for “sound,” as this is a gift articulated in that very medium.

Streams pairs Crispell with Yuma Uesaka (saxophones, clarinets), whose compositions constitute the set in its entirety. If ConcertOTO was about being in the moment, then this meeting of minds is about connecting moments as one would a constellation: each piece is minimally indicative of its title and, over time, seems to take on those characteristics as if by default. If anything connects the two projects, it’s a willingness to move wherever the winds of inspiration blow—this, despite the through-written nature of every melody Uesaka offers on the altar of improvisation. Hence the beautifully contradictory atmosphere at play. The title track and “Torrent” are exactly as they should be. The former feels like water that pools and eddies when blocked by fallen branches; the latter like a cannonball dive. Further dichotomies of description abound in the prophetic tinge of “Meditation,” in which a bass clarinet courts the piano’s deepest growls. Elsewhere, dialogues are pushed to extremes, each infused with equal parts catch and release, before funneling into “Ma / Space,” for which the duo welcomes Chatori Shimizu on the shō (Japanese mouth organ) for an added touch of sunlight through branches.

(This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Charlie Rauh: The Silent Current From Within

If Life must be so full of care,
Then call me soon to Thee;
Or give me strength enough to bear
My load of misery.
–Anne Brontë, “If This Be All”

In the soft yet indelible wake of The Bluebell, an acoustic solo album articulated around echoes of the Brontë sisters, guitarist Charlie Rauh reclaims a kindred power in his latest musical web, The Silent Current From Within, now joined by vocalist Ess See, drummer Ken Coomer, and bassist Jonah Kraut. Spinning his radii of inspiration via sister Christina Rauh Fishburne, Canadian poet Anne Carson, and Anne Brontë, whose words take nonverbal form through the capture spiral of these expanded readings, Rauh positions the listener as the anchor point of a pattern that has left its glyphs of fatigue on all of us in these times of social isolation.

The project at hand emerged when Coomer reached out to Rauh for a long-distance collaboration, adding Kraut for good measure as the songs took on new life. Thus were born three pieces around themes found in the work of Fishburne and Carson, each lending its own shade to the protracted dawn that is the album as a whole. The brush of a morning breeze is audibly felt in “A Marked And Mended Sign,” over the course of which the sun raises its eyebrow just high enough to clear a distant mountain range, while “Until The Charm Fades” crafts its light into a pair of hands pulling vegetation from the soil. “As Simple As Water” nourishes that crop with emotional nutrients, opening the sky like a heart primed to receive wisdom unfettered by the acrobatics of dead philosophies. Likewise, in these contexts, Kraut’s bassing and Coomer’s drumming don’t merely add to Rauh’s guitar, but rather draw out fruit from within it.

All of this is framed by the voice of Ess See, who guides an unaccompanied thread of improvisation through the title track and a multitracked choir with Rauh’s fretwork in the concluding “If This Be All.” In the latter, she unleashes cries at once born from and at odds with nature. She seems to question the tragedy of the pandemic even while bowing to its biological sovereignty. Such conflicts are central to the human condition, each standing like an abandoned building through which these songs have passed and left their fragrance, thus bidding the ears to inhale the incense of what came before. 

Temporally speaking, these are vignettes, the longest of which falls shy of the three-minute mark. Spatially speaking, however, these are vast oceans in which vessels of possibility sail in every direction a compass can imagine. The only question that remains: Will we burn our bridges or rebuild them before they fall?

The Silent Current From Within is scheduled for a March 12, 2021 release on Destiny Records.

Archie Shepp/Jason Moran: Let My People Go

Living as we now do in a world that feels orphaned from its ancestral histories, there’s no more appropriate space to cry out for resurrection than the womb-like expanse of traditional Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Saxophonist Archie Shepp turns this melody inside out as salvific blood drips along the keys of Jason Moran’s piano. 

Thus, the duo establishes the rhythm of a hymn trapped somewhere between Earth’s crust and the magma churning beneath. If we don’t already feel the words coursing through our ears from the first note, we find them unraveled in Shepp’s own singing voice, of which hints of reed hang in the air like a signature fragrance, as also in Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and another traditional spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” In both Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” and Moran’s “He Cares,” the listener is greeted by truth while John Coltrane’s “Wise One” unfurls a territory limited only by our imagination to map it. Here, voices of the past hit the open air of the future, only to find they need oxygen masks just to inhale. Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” reminds us that only in the darkest hours can our thoughts churn in an ocean free of pollution—water for its own sake, primed for the vessels of our attempts to make sense of it all. 

In light of all this preaching of ebony, ivory and everything in between, it would be unwise to think of the album as a catharsis, for a catharsis implies that we have transcended the bonds that necessitate thoughts of escape. No. We must gaze upon the fetters and chains until they burn after-images into our brains, so that we may never forget what the world would have us deny: many had to die for us to stand here, poised on the cusp of a tide that could just as easily turn in our favor as against it. Though still a long way from home, we strive to see that candlelight in the window telling us: Just one more leg of this journey and the doors of relief will spread their wings to receive you. At least here, we have a feather to hold to our hearts as we press on. 

(This review originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Dezron Douglas/Brandee Younger: Force Majeure

As COVID-19 continues to occupy the foreground of our collective mind, even as its primacy is under threat by the tumult of political schadenfreude, bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger give us just what we need in this curated selection from their weekly collaborations, live-streamed throughout the pandemic as sonic scripture in a time of foolish doctrines. 

The duo dives into the swirling waters of Alice Coltrane’s “Gospel Trane,” throughout which schools of hopeful fish swim in synergy. This is the language of the here and now, wrung dry of all animosity and rehydrated with love, flipping the dynamic of social distancing to reveal a creative intimacy—fierce and inextinguishable—beneath it all. 

Subsequent repertoire spans the gamut from Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and Pharoah Sanders to Kate Bush, Sting and The Carpenters. With so much to chew on, we are reminded of how much beauty we’ve lost access to over the past year, not only in terms of sound but also in terms of national sentiment, dialogue, and, above all, listening. 

In tracks like John Coltrane’s “Equinox” there is an abiding sense of duality, slipping one hand out of our zeitgeist toward the past and another toward the future. Thus, each instrument brings its own histories to the table, hashing out the lingering oppressions of colonial and plantation mentalities until only indistinguishable molecules are left to dissipate in the air. 

Sanders-Leon Thomas’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan” is the heart of this quest, which by the end has only heart left to give. That same blessed hope is outwardly expressed in Joe Raposo’s “Sing.” If God is in the details, then here we are served one heaping plateful after another of them. While like-minded joy overflows its cup in Clifton Davis’ “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Toilet Paper Romance” (an original with which they ended every show), it bends a knee in the shadow of inward turns like Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” by validating the safety of dreams. 

It’s all there in the title, which in everyday usage means an irresistible compulsion yet which in legalese connotes unforeseeable circumstances preventing the fulfillment of a contract. If the latter doesn’t describe the moral loophole of 2020, what does?

(The article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)