Admir Shkurtaj Trio: Gestures and Zoom

Gestures and Zoom

Admir Shkurtaj Trio
Gestures and Zoom

Admir Shkurtaj accordion, piano
Giorgio Distante trumpet
Redi Hasa cello
Released 2012 by SLAM Productions

One of the benefits of my sideline as a music writer is that I receive review copies of albums by artists I might not otherwise have discovered. Through my ongoing contributions to RootsWorld online magazine especially, I have encountered a wealth of fascinating music from all walks of life. One of the most intriguing of these so far is Admir Shkurtaj, an Albanian multi-instrumentalist and composer who first came to my attention when I was asked to review his solo piano effort, Mesimér, for the selfsame magazine. Where that album might be seen as a distillation of his diverse interests, ranging from folk to the avant-garde, this from the same year attests further to his ability to interact, listen, and guide. The dynamic of Gestures and Zoom—for which Shkurtaj is joined by trumpeter Giorgio Distante and cellist Redi Hasa—is markedly different, not only for the flexibility of its means but also for its distinct methodology.

Shkurtaj elaborates on the title concept: “Gestures and Zoom is constructed from a plurality of musical gestures proposed by each of the instruments, in chaotic order. A musical ‘gesture’ means a cell or musical object. In theatrical terms, we would say that a musical gesture is a character within the scene. Each one has/is its own character, fleeting as it is. After several exposures, the ‘zoom’ factor fixes the target of a single gesture to view it more clearly, or, in more musical terms, to develop it in order to enhance its characteristics.” From this dance of physicality and visualization, Shkurtaj and his trio spin a wild photometry indeed.

Despite the delicate madness that follows it, the album’s introductory piece is duly exploratory. Shkurtaj’s tinkering pianism seems to deconstruct as much as it builds. The insightful processes therein foil the slalom course of “Disegni” and “Olmi,” which respectively showcase the tremendously expressive abilities of Distante and Hasa. “Improntrio” is another spiraling ride—the DNA helix as roller coaster—and reaches some dizzying heights of pitch, a ghostly conversation in fast-forward. Moments of deep familiarity do, however, come to the fore, most notably via Albania’s popular traditions as they materialize in “Danza” and “Victoria.” These nodes of locality stand out for their precision. Shkurtaj and Hasa, both of Albanian extraction, carry out the most delicate surgery, while Distante, who hails from Italy’s Apulia region, introduces their stark themes and from them spits out a full speech.

Gestures and Zoom balances improvisation and composition with great skill. Shkurtaj makes it obvious where one begins and the other ends, and so on until the resulting blend finds solidity in an emerging narrative. “The themes of the compositions,” he clarifies, “are structurally similar to jazz standards but have a chamber music character (I am writing for chamber ensembles in a contemporary classical environment). Improvisation is free and based on complex rhythmical frames, such as derivatives of the rhythmical cell 3 + 2/8 (Olmi – Victoria), and sometimes on particular musical gestures decided right from the start (Gestures and Zoom – Disegni).” Whether or not the listener has such vocabulary to make sense of the designs, the blend of their spinning remains clear.

What is challenging yet also enjoyable about this record is the detail of its fire. Nowhere is this clearer than in the title track. In bubbling voices and instrumental scrimshaw, an explicit liberation begins to take shape, making such programmatic gems as “Shi” all the more effective for their simplicity. Shkurtaj: “‘Shi’ in Albanian means rain. I have always listened in silence to the sound of rain. When it falls on metal surfaces it becomes even more interesting. I tried to imitate this through rhythmic counterpoint on the prepared piano.”

Shkurtaj’s is biological music that treats its motives as Petri dishes in which to culture a balance of attunement and free wandering. Between the intriguing little “Duetto” and the culminating “Conduction” the listener may feel a switch flipped at the mitochondrial level. Of this microscopic aesthetic, Shkurtaj says, “For the most part, with the possible exception here of ‘Improntrio,’ the music I write is mono-gestural. The songs are built on a single element or musical idea. This lends itself to feelings of narrow space.”

That said, there’s plenty of room to run around.

Admir Shkurtaj: Mesimér

Admir Shkurtaj

Admir Shkurtaj piano
Released 2012
AnimaMundi Edizioni

In the modest liner notes to his first solo piano album, composer/accordionist Admir Shkurtaj cites Béla Bartók (1881-1945) as a vital influence. The parallel is closely fetched, for each has mined the land of tradition for melodic ore and fashioned from it something altogether his own. Shkurtaj began his musical training in the Albanian capital of Tirana, but relocated to Salento—the heel of Italy’s boot—in 1991. There he studied composition (further under Alessandro Solbiati in Milan), even completing a degree in electronic music, and began exploring the local culture by way of his roots at the intersection of Balkan and jazz trajectories. The combination lends an archival air to this smattering of compositions by him and others among a hearty selection of folk song arrangements.

One can hear Bartók loud and clear in the Tarantella del Gargano. Its robust and complex flavors are all the more so for Shkurtaj’s delightfully jazzy touches, which also permeate Σeλφω (Selfo). The latter comes from Epirus, a region of northwestern Greece that borders Albania to the north, and in the present rendition yields a whimsical sound palette by threading scraps of the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto through the piano’s strings. Kali nifta undergoes similar preparation, using candles and fingertips to trace a jangling Balkan rumba. To to to is the album’s most poignant and recalls the work of Eleni Karaindrou, if not the other way around, while Comu è bellu cu bai pe’ mare and Cuccurucù lend oceanic playfulness. These experiments reach their pinnacle in the self-styled “musical screenplay” of Pizzica di San Vito. There is something of a tinkerer’s aesthetic in Shkurtaj’s playing that comes out especially in this piece. Like a child before a toolbox and a broken toy, he dismantles the music and puts it together in his own working fashion. The quality of his touch is also in strong evidence, perhaps bearing the torch of accordion virtuoso Giandomenico Caramia, to whom San Vito is dedicated.

Hyrje is the first of two originals and opens the disc resonantly. It is the compass for what follows, pointing to a world of intensely focused emotion. Pizzica di Santa Lucia is another fascination: random acts of pianism seek out the traditional Salentine dance that ends it. Works by two lesser-known composers round out the proceedings. Salvatore Cotardo’s are exuberant and crackling, approaching moth-like grace in the provocative dance of Aspro to chartí. Daniele Durante’s Luna otrantina trims the wick of nostalgia, trembling with contrasts as it fades with an impressionistic sigh.

Mesimér reminds us that tradition does not belong only to the past, as if we were somehow cut off from it over time. By virtue of its name, it continues through the reinterpretations of dedicated artists who recognize that where they’re going has everything to do with where they’ve come from. Performance is the most engaging form of preservation, and by virtue of his own Shkurtaj opens many doors. Such music is more than just another stamp for our internal passports. It is itself the journey such a stamp represents.

(See this review in its original form and hear samples at RootsWorld.)