Elina Duni: Partir (ECM 2587)


Elina Duni

Elina Duni voice, piano, guitar, percussion
Recorded July 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard (mastering)
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 27, 2018

We are all departing, bound to be torn away,
one day or another, from what we love.
Here are scenes of departure sung in nine languages.
All we are left with is the unknown ahead of us.

So does Elina Duni describe this intimate new collection of songs. As on her previous outings for ECM, if by different register in being alone, the Albanian singer grabs hold of her roots and squeezes them until tears of personal significance drip into the vessels of her guitar, piano, frame drum, and voice itself.

Domenico Modugno’s “Amara Terra Mia” (Bitter Land of Mine) opens as many doors as the song has words. It’s a film reduced to a single camera and actor, a memory that finds its protagonist severing the umbilical cord of her ancestral home in favor of itineracy. But while there’s as much to be gained as lost from this endeavor, the uncertainty of it all looms over her like a cloud of darkness, her only companion the guitar that gives her a ground upon which to place her vocal step.

On the surface of this and all songs to follow there is a fracture, from which issues a ribbon of nostalgic patterns and color schemes, but which in its unraveling signals an end to things. Such mortality is felt with deep urgency in Alain Oulman’s “Meu Amor” (My Love) and Duni’s own “Let Us Dive In.” In the latter, she holds the piano close to her chest, as if to transfer some of her heartbeat to its material assemblage in the hopes of illuminating something common to both. In the fleshly conflict of Muhammad Abd al Rahim al Masloub’s “Lamma Bada Yatathanna” (When He Was Swaying) and solace-seeking litany of Jacques Brel’s “Je Ne Sais Pas” (I Don’t Know), she dismantles façades of expectation to expose the shadows slumbering behind them. With these she dances in defiance of human contact.

The album’s most resonant chambers house its traditional selections, intersecting with cultural touch-points in Kosovo, Armenia, Macedonia, and Albania. From the separation anxieties of “Vishnja” (The Cherry Tree) and “Lusnak Gisher” (Moonlit Night), both of which share metaphorical affinity with Philip Laskowsky’s “Oyfn Veg” (On the Road), to the dolorous strains of “Vaj Si Kenka” (How) and fleet images of “Schönster Abestärn” (Beautiful Evening Star), Duni broadens her wingspan to ensure total protection when night falls. But few beats of those feathers are as powerful as those sung without accompaniment in “Kanga e Kurbetit” (The Exile Song). Therein, her illustration of exile is itself a form of exile, dividing the self into as many components as possible before putting them together anew, minus the broken pieces.

John Surman: Invisible Threads (ECM 2588)

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John Surman
Invisible Threads

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet
Nelson Ayres piano
Rob Waring vibraphone, marimba
Recorded July 2017 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Peer Espen Ursfjord and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 19, 2018

John Surman is one of those rare reed players whose tone is so recognizable that it contributes to an ever-expanding autobiography with every aural stroke. In this unusual new trio, he joins forces with pianist Nelson Ayres, who he met while recording in Brazil, and vibraphonist Rob Waring. The program consists largely of material written for this studio occasion, and by its dovetailed aesthetic renders one image after another of cinematic integrity. The most vivid tracks in this regard include “The Admiral” (a dream of maritime proportions), “Pitanga Pitomba” (the marimba of which reveals a Southeast Asian influence), and Ayres’s folky “Summer Song” (the only track on the ballot not written by Surman). The pianist adds even deeper grooves to “Autumn Nocturne,” a picturesque scene that glides easily into the soul. He dashes Latin flavor into the music’s broth, thereby encouraging a fragrant symbiosis of ingredients.

The interplay of the band is cosmic, as in the airy “Within The Clouds” and the more haunting “On Still Waters.” From the latter’s bowed vibraphone, Surman’s bass clarinet emerges as lava in search of a place to form an island, while the former spans the gamut from amphibian sermon to avian reverie and compresses the most beautiful parts of summer into five minutes of bliss. “At First Sight” is one among a handful of diurnal excursions in which Surman’s soprano cuts the air like a bird threading the needle of time. Both this and “Another Reflection” are built around the harmonies of “Byndweed,” an album highlight for the communion of Ayres and Waring, and Surman’s lilting poetry. His baritone (viz. “Concentric Circles”) flexes the broadest muscles of all and, not unlike “Stoke Damerel,” lushly reimagines memories of what came before.

As the album’s title implies, these threads may be invisible, but they’re nevertheless easy to detect in what amounts to one of Surman’s most vital sessions to date. Buy it now, and it will make up for whatever you spend on it a hundredfold in your first listen.

György Kurtág: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM New Series 2505-07)

Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

György Kurtág
Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

Natalia Zagorinskaya soprano
Gerrie de Vries mezzosoprano
Yves Saelens tenor
Harry van der Kamp bass
Jean-Guihen Queyras violoncello
Elliott Simpson guitar
Tamara Stefanovich piano
Csaba Király pianino, spoken word
Netherlands Radio Choir
Reinbert de Leeuw conductor
Recorded March 2013–July 2016 at Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Amsterdam and Philharmonie, Haarlem
Recording producer: Guido Tichelman
Engineer: Bastiaan Kuijt
Assistants: Matthijs Ruijter, Pim van der Lee, and Isa Goldschmeding
Mastered at BK Audio by Bastiaan Kuijt
Project supervision: Renee Jonker
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 23, 2017

December’s fervor, summer’s flailing hailstorm,
wild bird encumbered with clogs,
this and more I’ve been. Willingly I die.
–János Pilinszky, “Hölderlin”

When immersing oneself in the Four Capriccios that opens this three-disc compendium of György Kurtág’s works for ensemble and choir, it’s nearly impossible to feel that our perceptions of reality can be tactical endpoints of any trajectories through space or time. The Hungarian composer’s Opus 9 for soprano (a role masterfully filled here by Natalia Zagorinskaya) and ensemble—composed between 1959 and 1970, revised in 1993—doesn’t so much set the poetry of István Bálint as rearrange its molecules in a diorama of linguistic play. Hence the atmosphere of the program as a whole, which by ironic virtue of its cohesion unrolls a narrative of unfinished thoughts, micro-images, and instincts. Like the title of its third part, “Language Lesson,” it is as instructive as it is destructive. Kindred echoes further haunt the interstices of such quadripartite settings as Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova, Op. 41 (1997-2008) and Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op. 11 (1975). The latter’s performance by bass Harry van der Kamp treats slurred speech as antecedent to lived experience (if not vice versa), and mortality as an instrument of desire.

Years of careful study, rehearsal, and understanding went into these performances, recorded under supervision-at-a-distance of the composer. Notes conductor Reinbert de Leeuw of this process: “[T]he fact that you can finally witness the happiness of a composer stating that his music has been recorded as he intended it to sound is priceless and meaningful in an historical sense.” To be sure, we can hear Kurtág lurking ghostily throughout these meticulous assemblies, which by their innate desire to be heard reveal what de Leeuw calls “the constant search for the meaning behind what could not be notated in the score.”

It’s especially tempting to read hidden messages into this collection’s centerpiece. The near-aphasia of Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, Op. 30b (1991) reduces utterances to emotional caesura between mockery and exaltation while provoking insectile stirrings in a garden of failed vocabularies. Even the scoring for alto solo, voices and “chamber ensembles dispersed in space” reveals something of the philosophical blood running through its proverbial veins.

“I had the privilege of working with the great composers of our time,” de Leeuw admits, “sometimes even interpreting every single orchestral work of a composer like I did as a conductor with the works of Messiaen. So at one point you think you have a pretty good idea of what twentieth century music is about. And then comes the music of György Kurtág. That was a real shock for me, completely transforming my perception of music.” Case in point is Grabstein für Stephan, Op. 15c (1978-79, rev. 1989), for which guitarist Elliott Simpson strums open strings, as if turning the idea of mastery inside out until bacterial details emerge. In a profound exchange of tenderness and violence, wordless voices descend like ink through water before a grief-stricken explosion rends the air with catharsis.

De Leuww again: “One could say that in a way every note he has written, may have been written before. But merging this extremely rich heritage into one voice that is recognizable and unique is for me utterly fascinating.” We can hear this most clearly in the Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Op. 18 (1980-94), of which the brilliantly realized “Crucifixion,” chest-beating Mary Magdalene and all, rubs shoulders with mock folk motifs and other haunting minutiae. The Colindă-Baladă, Op. 46 (2010) for tenor solo, chorus and chamber ensemble also flirts with tradition through its Orff-like interplay. Like a recovered traditional song warped beyond recognition, it struggles to embrace a stable identity.

As Paul Griffiths notes of Kurtág’s music in his liner text, “Crucially important is the brevity of the texts, and their corresponding qualities of intensity and openness, both stimulating to music.” Nowhere is this so artfully evident as in Messages of the Late Miss R. Troussova, Op. 17 (1976-80), which threads 21 poems by Rimma Dalos like beads of internal life. Between the programmatic “Why Should I Not Squeal Like a Pig” and the self-deprecatingly erotic “Chastushka,” distinctions between instruments and soloist are of slightest degree. From the achingly beautiful flute of “You Took My Heart” to the mournful brass of “For Everything,” Kurtág upholds every sound as an opportunity—not a promise—of communication.

Griffiths goes on: “If we want to try to think of metaphors or analogies for György Kurtág’s music, we will likely find ourselves drawing them directly from the human voice and the human body: from what it feels like to be communicating vocally in some specific way, from what it feels like to be making a particular movement.” This is true even of the instrumental pieces. Whether in the descending piano and Ligeti-like meditations of …quasi una fantasia…, Op. 27 No. 1 (1987-88) or the Op. 27 No. 2 (1989-90), a double concerto for piano, cello and two chamber ensembles, pulses suggest a human body and the voice struggling to transcend it. As in the closing ensemble piece, Brefs Messages, Op. 47 (2011), we find ourselves lost not in a miniature landscape, but an entire planet to which we’ve been granted teleportational access.

Keith Jarrett Trio: After The Fall (ECM 2590/91)

After The Fall

Keith Jarrett Trio
After The Fall

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock double bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Producer: Keith Jarrett
Recorded live in concert
November 14, 1998
at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC),
Newark, New Jersey
Engineer: Alain Leduc
Mastering: Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 2, 2018

After playing his last concerts in 1996, documented as A Multitude of Angels, Keith Jarrett was stricken with a bout of chronic fatigue syndrome that kept his hands away from the piano for two years. Only after that period of mystery and debilitation did he try to revive his trusted band with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. After a few rehearsals in the studio, he decided it was time to take a chance on the concert stage, doing so on November 14, 1998 for a performance at Newark, New Jersey’s new Performing Arts Center. If not for a touch of restraint, one might never know the difference, as Jarrett unpacks a formidable intro to their nearly 16-minute version of “The Masquerade Is Over” to kick off the evening’s revival. In addition to his obvious joy, one can bask in Peacock’s buoyancy and DeJohnette’s flowering metronome. Jarrett’s fingers are even more alive in the Charlie Parker standby “Scrapple From The Apple.” With the blessed assurance of this longstanding relationship, Jarrett gives us metaphysical nourishment of the highest archival order.

Jarrett Trio

“Old Folks” dips his hands into a font of balladic wonders. As well in “When I Fall In Love” and Noel Coward’s “I’ll See You Again,” he builds emotional castles brick by meticulous brick, giving his all to the integrity of the entire proverbial kingdom. A characteristically luxurious take on the live staple “Autumn Leaves” offers 13 minutes of polished bliss. No signs of fatigue, physical or otherwise, can be read into this ecstatic rendition, especially as Peacock and DeJohnette offer surprises of their own in a brilliant triangulation of spontaneous invention. The concert’s upbeat excursions, in fact, offer some of its most head-nodding rewards. These include Bud Powell’s “Bouncin’ With Bud,” which unfurls a robust scroll of creativity; an exuberant take on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” in which DeJohnette and Peacock blaze around every corner; and a muscular interpretation of John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice.” Neither does Jarrett concede anything close to fatigue in the denser geometry of Sony Rollins’s “Doxy” or Pete La Roca’s “One For Majid,” in which the trio flies high and swings low. And Jarrett’s sensitivity shines as brightly as ever in Paul Desmond’s “Late Lament,” for which he opens another eye for every one that he closes.

No one could have known what this concert would bring, that it would usher in a freer, more unrestricted era, or that it would unshackle Jarrett’s chains in favor of rebirth. But with this piece now restored for all to place into the puzzle of their appreciation, we find proof that old endings are only new beginnings in disguise.

Marcin Wasilewski Trio: Live (ECM 2592)

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Marcin Wasilewski Trio

Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double bass
Michal Miskiewicz drums
Recorded live August 12, 2016
at Jazz Middelheim, Antwerp
by VRT-Vlaamse Radio en Televisie
Engineers: Walter De Niel and Johan Favoreel
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 14, 2018

When pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz stepped out onto Antwerp’s Jazz Middelheim stage on August 12, 2016, little did they know their performance was being recorded. Yet what a gift for those of us who couldn’t be there to experience the outgoing energy, ingoing consideration, and philosophical circuits thereof conducting electricity around this joyous music. Appropriate, then, that “Spark Of Life” should open the set with its expansive reasoning. The patience and willingness afforded by a live setting to let these tunes breathe (most exceed ten minutes) is unabashedly explored here, especially as the band phases into the inviting “Sudovian Dance.” In such a transition, one can hear exactly what makes this outfit click. In addition to the powerful arc of Wasilewski’s artistry, we find Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz attending to every architectural support with the attention of historical preservationists. As the first in a handful of Wasilewski originals, this dyad opens the door into a hallway of many mirrors, each of which offers a different shade of self-regard. We might therefore read “Three Reflections” as being as much about ourselves as about the thoughts of an unnamed other, whose distant experiences and desires detect us telepathically. In light of this four-dimensional turn, the linear journey of “Night Train To You” comes across with urgency. As one of the bandleader’s most masterful compositions, it’s primed to unfold grand wings in this freer setting. Wasilewski transforms the keyboard into an emotional express track, connecting heart to beating heart without looking back. And as the tender strains of “Austin” caress the ear, we know we’ve found a home away from home in the arms of someone whose only happiness is to ensure our own.

Along the way, Sting’s “Message In A Bottle” gets an uplifting treatment. The rocking bass line in Wasilewski’s left hand is satisfying to the nth degree, acting as a springboard for far-reaching improvisational gestures. Kurkiewicz basses like a storyteller who just can’t wait to share the ending with an eager audience, while Miskiewicz ensures that every punctuation mark holds integrity as a monument to inflection. And what an eager audience he must have, as the applause and cheers ride a wave of wonder superseded perhaps only by the musicians’ own.

Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” finishes with a tactile ride through rain-slicked streets and melodic due process. Every move feels as calculated as it does free: an enchanting dichotomy that lures us into every twist and turn until, like any great mystery, it falls into place in retrospect and gives us the pleasure of tracing our memories back to the start, where we can listen with fresh ears even before that final chord is struck with astonishing certainty.

Florian Weber: Lucent Waters (ECM 2593)

Lucent Waters

Florian Weber
Lucent Waters

Ralph Alessi trumpet
Florian Weber piano
Linda May Han Oh double bass
Nasheet Waits drums
Recorded September 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 2, 2018

German pianist Florian Weber follows 2016’s Alba in the company of a fresh quartet. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi, with whom Weber has the longest association of those gathered, is a free and democratic spirit. Bassist Linda May Han Oh, here making her ECM debut, is a deeply grounded soul. And drummer Nasheet Waits, whom Weber had already admired and was suggested by producer Manfred Eicher, is a detailer of the highest order. Says Weber of the group: “It’s the first time I’ve had a band where what particularly interests me is the difference between the players and their approaches to improvising.” But while they do indeed have distinct voices, the music they play and its sequencing embody a masterstroke of interlocking associations.

Where most bands might wish to start off with a steel-toed shoe, “Brilliant Waters” finds the group improvising their way barefoot into frame, with only the tune’s title as suggestion. Weber’s pianism is a symphony of tactile blending, its flowering of purpose driven by volition. “Melody Of A Waterfall” opens an equally vulnerable door. Inspired by traditional Japanese drumming, it’s a gorgeous vehicle not only for Waits but also for Oh, who reveals a muscular lyricism, all while Weber cascades into the deeper waters of “From Cousteau’s Point Of View.” Inspired by the perspectives afforded him through oceanic diving, it at last introduces Alessi to the mix. Its rhythmic overlay is gorgeous and satisfying, the trumpeter’s tonal control gravity-defying, and the piano’s melodic currents enchanting.

“Honestlee” is a tribute to Lee Konitz, in whose venerable presence Weber has worked alongside Oh, and whose inspirations are felt as much in the spirit as in the song. Song being the operative word, as Weber hums his way through nearly every turn of this interpretive maze. His interactions with the bassist are symbiotic, resulting in an experience of crystalline proportions. Oh makes an even bigger emotional withdrawal from the creative bank of “Butterfly Effect,” across which Alessi marks his trail with fluid brushwork. Waits exposes a dramatic undercurrent before Weber and Oh weave the spotlight into their own blanket of revelation. To that tune’s spatial reality “Time Horizon” adds temporal fantasy in a trio highlight that gives the rhythm section all the fuel it needs to make its engine purr. In light of its unfolding, “Fragile Cocoon” speaks with the urgency of infancy yet in a language of near-stillness before the first wing, then the second, emerges into a dancing universe and leaves the delicate “Schimmelreiter” to mark our exit with breadcrumbs and flower petals—not so that we might find our way back but so that we might never forget where we’re going. Thus the album redraws its own circle, inviting us to link our own in a hieroglyphics of gratitude.

Masson/Vallon/Moret/Friedli: Travelers (ECM 2578)

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Nicolas Masson tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet
Colin Vallon piano
Patrice Moret double bass
Lionel Friedli drums
Recorded April 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 16, 2018

If the blood ties between jazz and beauty were ever in doubt, one would need only spin Travelers to restore faith in that very principle. Swiss reed player Nicolas Masson’s quartet is more than a plush setting for nine original compositions; it’s a veritable life in miniature with its own triumphs and stumbles. One could hardly imagine a more stunning outfit to don while walking down these hallowed halls. Along with pianist Colin Vallon, a formidable bandleader in his own right, Masson joins bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Lionel Friedli for a journey that is equal parts introversion and extroversion. This isn’t some ad hoc studio creation, however. It’s a band 12 years strong. I asked Masson via email what it meant for him to submit such a mature quartet to the engineering scalpel:

“We had already released an album named Thirty Six Ghosts in 2009 on Clean Feed Records but our music had changed quite a lot since and it felt like the right time to document the band at this moment of its evolution. The fact that we have such a long history together helped us get straight to the point in the studio.”

And how, I wondered, did the band come together?

“I was working at the time with my first band, featuring Russ Johnson on trumpet, Eivind Opsvik on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. I wanted to have a band in Switzerland as well (I had just moved back from New York) and was also exploring different styles of music which required a different sound. So I started the band with Patrice Moret, Lionel Friedli, and a guitar player that was soon to be replaced by Colin Vallon on Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. To me they were the best musicians available in the country for the music I had in mind, and they still are! But more than that—and most important in the end—is our connection on a human level. I feel like we grew up as a band at the same time as we grew up as human beings, and we became that unit. It’s as if the musical concept was replaced over time by the band itself.”

This band-as-bond aesthetic is easily perceptible in the set’s opener, “Gagarine.” In its constantly shifting air currents, the saxophone feels like an extension of itself, sustained by song. This feeling is magnified in “Fuchsia,” wherein synesthetic pleasures unfold with a welcoming combination of precision and freedom. Vallon is a wonder here, his every note the reflection of Masson’s shimmering moonlight.

If descriptions of this music lend themselves so effortlessly to visual analogues, that is perhaps because Masson is also an accomplished photographer. One of his images, in fact, adorns the cover of this album, in addition to a handful of other ECM sleeves.

“Photography always occupied a very important place in my life, a passion surpassed only by music. At one point, I never went to a concert without my camera. It helped me understand music on a different level, through a different prism. At first I wasn’t really familiar with the musicians I was photographing: Randy Weston, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Archie Shepp, Dewey Redman, The World Saxophone Quartet, John Zorn, Tim Berne, Miles Davis (yes!)…and it helped me get intimate with the making of the music. I was observing each of their movements, each eye contact, each interaction happening through my lens, while I was intensely listening. Then I felt I needed to make a choice between music and photography, so at 19 years old I boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway in Moscow and spent almost six months in Asia, taking as many images as possible. These long months away from music were fantastic, but I missed my saxophone too much, so I took a flight from Singapore to Geneva, grabbed my horn, and left for New York City! Over time music and photography became inseparable from each other. I need photography to feed my musical imagination and my musical experiences to guide my eye when I’m away from my instrument. Sometimes I like to think that I hear images and see sounds. Now regarding ECM, it also makes total sense to me since so much care is given to the visual side of any of their productions. It has to be a complete experience.”

Said completeness is made possible by Masson’s attentive bandmates, each of whom brings polishes his own facet of a holistic jewel, and for whom he has written compositions with particular souls in mind. There’s the painterly journey of “The Deep,” which dedicatee Friedli renders a beautiful struggle against the passage of time, and “Wood,” for Moret. The latter’s abstract yet rooted turns are indicative of the bassist’s oceanic sensibilities. Vallon, for his part, is a color mixer and blender whose palette exceeds the bounds of its own habitation, especially in the title track, a masterful duet with its composer. Each of these trusted friends nurtures Masson’s themes as seeds of unexpected growth. The saxophonist himself digs into deepest emotional reserves on “Philae,” a touchstone for its superbly articulated tenor, piecing together a landscape of monochromatic integrity.

To my ears, this music is deeply connected to memory. Masson agrees:

“I do rely on memories to find inspiration: visual, aural, olfactive, light, shapes, past experiences, sensations of places I’ve been to, people I’ve known, and so forth. I’m not exactly sure why, but it’s true that when I write music, most of the time a reminiscence is at the root. Maybe that’s common with people who have lived through indelible experiences early on in their lives.”

In these respects, both “Almost Forty” and “Blurred” seem to play with the idea of recollection and its way of filling in the gaps when reality cannot quite fully be captured. The first of these is a tender ballad that pushes the blood flow of Friedli’s cymbals through Moret’s thick arteries as the life force behind Vallon’s transformation of the keyboard into canvas, while the second finds the clarinet paving the way for a softer landing.

Such clarity of storytelling makes ECM an ideal home for this band, as in the nocturnal shading of “Jura.” It’s a solemn yet trustworthy way to end the day, kissing the present moment goodbye to welcome slumber. Says Masson of working with producer Manfred Eicher in this context:

“It’s such a privilege to let someone so uniquely gifted and experienced tell us if we’re going in the right direction or if we should try to expose things differently. It feels like working with one of the greatest filmmakers. You bring the story, the dialogues, and the actors, and he takes you on location, brings the cameramen, the lights, the right lenses and cameras, and offers his vision to help you realize your project. He keeps you on the right track and isn’t afraid to tell you when you’ve overplayed something. I feel very fortunate to have had the privilege to work with him, I am certainly looking forward to next occasion.”

And so are we, on the other side of the screen.

Stefano Scodanibbio: Alisei (ECM New Series 2598)

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Stefano Scodanibbio

Daniele Roccato double bass
Giacomo Piermatti double bass
Ludus Gravis Ensemble
Tonino Battista conductor
Recorded February and March 2014 at Pitch Audio Research, Perugia, and Studio Controfase, Roma
Tonmeister: Gianluca Ruggeri
Engineers: Daniele Roccato, Luca Mari Burocchi, and Tommaso Cancellieri
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 12, 2018

Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) was introduced to ECM via 2013’s Reinventions. Whereas that program documented the Italian double bassist and composer’s passing of Bach’s Art of the Fugue through a loom of Spanish and Mexican influences, here the focus is on what might just be Scodanibbio’s most personal work. Personal, too, is the liner note by Daniele Roccato, who describes hearing Scodanibbio perform for the first time at a Paris festival in 2008: “For me, it was an epiphany. The performance of a shaman, evoking an unprecedented world of sound, one he commanded with boldness and determination.” So began a mutually respectful partnership between two creative souls who shared a love for the lowest of the strings, and by that love opened doors of perception not simply closed but so well hidden that none even knew where to look until now.

The 1986 title composition for solo double bass is emblematic of an implosion-oriented approach. Its harmonic inventions, drawn from within, expose the willingness of a composer to listen to his instrument in the deepest possible sense. In addition to its organic genesis, it emits an industrial aura: the whine of grinding machinery and a human voice in agony rolled into one. Another solo piece, Due pezzi brillanti (1985), lends crosswise insight into the double bass’s split personality, in which the rhythmic and the textural serve as conduits of emotional stability. Like a microscope through which one may observe the inner workings of one’s own body, it implies an eternal braid of regard. Jagged yet interlocking, it fits into place by questioning the place itself.

The album features two premiere recordings. In Da una certa nebbia (2002), rhetorically scored for “double bass and another double bass,” the latter instrument is seen as, as Roccato puts it, “a sort of ‘misty veiling’ over the suspensions of the main double bass, in a temporal articulation which pays implicit tribute to the musical thinking of Morton Feldman.” In that role, alongside Roccato, is Giacomo Piermatti, whose gentle persuasions are indeed translucent. In this largely arco suspension, pizzicato gestures feel like punches, gentle as they are. The Ottetto (2011) was the result of a dream to write a piece for eight double basses that would unlock even graver secrets. Partly inspired by the ensemble of double basses featured here as Ludus Gravis, and partly by the efforts of two friends to see their muse spread its wings like never before, the piece is a meditative self-examination of sentient objects. Every moment of its 30-minute duration is imbued with intent. Whether conventionally or unconventionally bowed, treated as voice or percussive actor, each instrument takes on an aspect of nature from which it feels indivisible. Sometimes-insectile vibrations breathe the same air as subcutaneous twitches, while aboveground gestures feel like rituals in search of gods. In light of Scodanibbio’s death, which prevented him from seeing its first complete performance, implications of the Ottetto’s final drone exhale with mortal significance.

Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies (ECM New Series 2600)

Pärt Symphonies

Arvo Pärt
The Symphonies

NFM Wrocław Philharmonic
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded August 2016 and October 2015 (Symphony No. 3)
Main Hall of the National Forum of Music, Wrocław
Engineers: Andrzej Sasin and Aleksandra Nagórko
Mastering: Christoph Stickel, MSM Studios, München
An ECM Production
Release date: April 20, 2018

Following the release of his Symphony No. 4 in 2010, it was perhaps only a matter of time before a compendium of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s symphonies would also come to light on ECM. And what a light we can enjoy through the prism of all four, newly recorded by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonicunder the direction of Pärt’s untiring messenger, Tõnu Kaljuste. What these works, separated by decades of time and soul-searching, lack in duration (given that they all fit snugly onto one CD) they make up for in their dynamic and textural scope. In the album’s liner note, music critic Wolfgang Sandner writes: “To study and listen to symphonies is, in essence, to read and comprehend a biography in notes.” In this respect, symphonies are aesthetic snapshots of a composer’s life at those times. Like stencils applied to the past, they filter out anything extraneous to the meaning at hand, funneling our attention into particular shapes and therefore boundaries of possible interpretation.

In listening to the Symphony No. 1, penned almost half a century before his Fourth, we hear what Sandner refers to as the “jagged caesuras” of Pärt’s inner landscape: deeply personal snapshots from a time when composers under the Soviet flag were forced to weigh idiosyncrasy and conformity on a scale of creative expression. Pärt was willing to take the risks that came with upending that scale altogether, and was summarily banned as a composer when, in 1968, he professed Christian faith via his Credofor piano, mixed chorus and orchestra. Five years earlier, the First Symphony was already in genesis. Dubbed the “Polyphonic,” it bears dedication to Heino Eller, his professor at the State Conservatory in Tallinn. Constructed around a twelve-note row (E-F-F#-B-Bb-G-A-Eb-D-Ab-Db-C), it is divided into two movements. “Canons” is a thick slice of serial pie, and like the proverbial desert reveals delectable combinations of starch and sweetness with every bite. The “Prelude and Fugue,” by contrast, begins with lighter strings before jumping into a pastoral interlude and, in conclusion, an insistent cluster of rhythmic and tonal artifacts.

Although the Symphony No. 2 (1966) is also cured around a twelve-note row, it feels less constrained by formula. Its brevity (the symphony barely crests the ten-minute mark) is its strength. At this time, Pärt was working in what he called a “collage” technique, by which resolution was reduced to a petty dream in favor of metamorphosis. Its first movement is a kaleidoscope of motifs, atmospheres, and collisions by which is rendered not a mosaic but a centrifuge of philosophy. The block chords of the second movement are urgent, thrown by their own weight into a black hole of identity reformation. The third and final movement, percussive minutiae and all, glimpses the mind of a composer reaching for something more than what reality has to offer, as indicated in his quotation of “Sweet Dreams” from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. It ends as if unresolved, stepping into the pastures of the future.

By the 1971, when Pärt was writing his Symphony No. 3, he was well into a period of self-reflection that led him to declare a Russian Orthodox conversion. This symphony is the first breach of that spiritual watershed—both musical and personal—that cut the umbilical cord of the avant-garde. Dedicated to conductor Neeme Järvi, this tripartite monument touches upon the prayerful unfolding that now characterizes the mature composer. In the second movement especially, a familiar lyrical nature struggles to break through the soil of political nurture, pulled from its reasoning by a force that would otherwise refute it. The final movement describes the old flesh wrestling with the new, eventually giving over to a medieval polyphony and blast of hope.

If the Symphony No. 4 (2008) sounds more choral, that is because it overflows with voices: of history, of experience, and even of persecution. Bearing dedication to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian mogul once jailed for his critical outspokenness, it wears decidedly liturgical clothing. The pizzicato textures of its second movement are the stirrings of a soul wanting to be heard, while the coda breathes in hope and exhales caution, never letting go of the rope in its hand. And attached to the other end that rope? A vessel of the past on which has been loaded the cargo of our sins, which one way will be unloaded, weighed, and accounted for.