Marcin Wasilewski Trio/Joe Lovano: Arctic Riff (ECM 2678)

2678

Marcin Wasilewski Trio
Joe Lovano
Arctic Riff

Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double bass
Michal Miskiewicz drums
Recorded August 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 26, 2020

Too much time, it seems, has passed since pianist Marcin Wasilewski and his trio with bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz graced the studio for our privileged scrutiny, and as soon as “Glimmer Of Hope” tickles the ear drum, we are reuniting with old friends. A glimmer is exactly what we encounter in Wasilewski’s pianism, which opens this tender vision with a play of light and shadow such as only he can render. In turning these movements into song, he opens a new portal through which to step on our way toward musical discovery. But then a new companion in Joe Lovano joins the shoulder-link of arms to block any who would even dream of passing across the double line of expectation. And so we trail behind, absorbing the language of their traversal. Three more selections by the bandleader, including the flowy sojourning of “Fading Sorrow” (a yielding stage for Kurkiewicz’s soloing) and the sparkler-to-fireworks groove of “L’Amour Fou,” along with Lovano’s “On The Other Side,” complete the in-group compositional picture. The latter tune unfurls a veritable tapestry from the tenorist’s bell and pictures the synergy of ears and fingers required to pull off this collaboration. Carla Bley’s “Vashkar” gets two treatments thereby. In keeping with its ever-deepening roots, and nourished by five decades of interpretation, the quartet taps into its historical embeddedness.

If these are the album’s bricks, then its mortar is mixed in freely improvised material. The nine-minute “Cadenza” is the most cohesive of the bunch, metaphysically speaking. Its balance of gentility and strength is downright beautiful, as is the linear unfolding of “Arco.” Where one moment might breed shimmering near-stillness and the next a fibrillation of darkness, neither mood dominates. Instead, the musicians follow where they are led without struggle. One hears it just as vividly in the nocturnal slink of “Stray Cat Walk” as in the restless leg syndrome of “A Glimpse.”

2678_Wasilewski Lovano_PF1

What really distinguishes this record, however, is the apparent gap between the trio’s interlocking poetry and Lovano’s hard-won prose. What at first may seem to be a disjunction actually opens up a space that can only be filled by the listener. By inserting ourselves into the equation, the proof becomes clear: our presence has been desired from inception to execution, our variable the final piece. And with that completion, we emerge on the other side of the equals side having carried the one of experience.

Scofield/Stewart/Swallow: Swallow Tales (ECM 2679)

Swallow Tales

John Scofield guitar
Steve Swallow bass
Bill Stewart drums
Recorded March 2019, The James L. Dolan Recording Studio at NYU Steinhardt, NY
Engineer: Tyler McDiarmid
Cover photo: Max Franosch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 12, 2020

Over 40 years of friendship and collaboration exist between guitarist John Scofield and his mentor, bassist Steve Swallow. But everything that happens here is in and of the moment. Playing the room with drummer Bill Stewart, they slowly unwrap one candy after another in the form of Swallow’s own timeless compositions. About them, Scofield says in this album’s press release: “They’re grounded in reality with cadences that make sense. They’re never just intellectual exercises, and they’re so melodic. They’re all songs, rather than ‘pieces.’ They could all be sung.” And sing the trio does in its own wordless way, drawing out less obvious nuances from familiar melodies and vice versa.

Between the laid-back groove of “She Was Young” and the slicker lockstep of “Radio,” an understated allure wiggles its way into the heart and nods to every beat. Along the way, each musician lays out a personal reflection of his métier. Scofield abounds in contrasts, bringing a hardened edge to the shadows of a ballad like “Away” just as comfortably as he dances light-footedly across the terrains of “Falling.” The latter is also a showcase for Swallow’s unerring sense of purpose and Baroque approach to syncopation, as is “Hullo Bolinas,” in which his soloing embraces retrospective charm.

Scofield Trio

But while the guitarist and bassist are true masters of their craft, it’s Stewart who holds my attention most throughout this swiftly realized session (the result of only four hours in the recording studio). The drummer’s glittering cymbals and rustic snare strike just the right balance, catching every detail of “Portsmouth Figurations” and extending its effect before it fades, luxuriating in a decaf version of “Awful Coffee” (a normally peppier tune), and bringing freshness to “Eiderdown” (the first tune Swallow ever wrote). But his grandest slam is in the opening breaks and leaping denouement of “In F”—a performance only decades of experience could yield.

And while each track comes preloaded with its own history (“She Was Young” being originally sung by Sheila Jordan on 1980’s Home and “Portsmouth Figurations” dating back to 1967’s Duster by Gary Burton), they make new history here in the present arrangement. And here we are, sitting on what feels like the wrong side of the fence, trying to make things right by holding on to that which shines a light on the inside. Thankfully, music like this hands us a match, already lit and waiting for our attention to lend it a fuse.

Oded Tzur: Here Be Dragons (ECM 2676)

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Oded Tzur
Here Be Dragons

Oded Tzur tenor saxophone
Nitai Hershkovits piano
Petros Klampanis double bass
Johnathan Blake drums
Recorded June 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Jean-Guy Lathuilière
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 14, 2020

Born in Tel Aviv and based in New York, tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur could not have found a more suitable home than ECM for his gentle brand of jazz. His uniquely tonal approach to the instrument, channeled through a rare melodic purity, make for a powerful combination. Heavily schooled in Indian classical music, he treats each tune as a raga in and of itself, and uses likeminded structures in distinctly jazz-oriented parallels to unleash the inner life of every motif. Ensuring that nothing goes to waste are his trusted crew of pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Johnathan Blake.

After a tender yet angular introduction, “To Hold Your Hand” ushers in a dimly lit performance that relies more on the contour of sound than on the sound of contour. Tzur lends an ear to both internal and external travels, and gives the listener over to possibilities of metaphysical experience. His saxophone, despite being rooted in the body, seems without one, taking on instead the skin of a cosmic animal stealth-walking through constellations—bending but never breaking the shapes we’ve come to interpret.

The emotional beauty of Tzur’s playing reaches its zenith in “20 Years,” which marks the period of time since his father’s death. As Tzur notes in the CD booklet, “I could feel that my father was somehow present in the room, and it was as if I was having a conversation with him.” In this respect, he converses not only with the dead but also with the living. Blake’s brushwork is exquisite in the trio section. Klampanis and Hershkovits intertwine as equal partners while Tzur drops into Child’s Pose for a spell. By the time he resurfaces, his solo is so attuned that every inhalation and exhalation is matched to the contractions and expansions of its surroundings.

The band shifts with barely a forethought between three solo “Miniatures.” The first, played by Hershkovits, is a balance of sparkle and shadow. The second, by Klampanis, is contemplative and touched by grace. The third, from the bandleader, sings like a flute carved from an ancient tree. This leads us to the masterstroke of “The Dream.” Despite being upbeat, a certain embrace of shadow prevents it from being a dance. Hershkovits is particularly ebullient and gives voice to love, while Blake adds a traction so tactile it makes one want to hold on to it. Just as the preceding tunes give robustness to gentility, so does this one give airiness to strength, as embodied in the continuous energy linking every note from Tzur’s lips. At last, we touch down in a surprising landing strip called “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Made famous by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, it brims with nostalgia. Though undoubtedly familiar, it takes on a life of its own, divorced from popular association and remarried to the listener in real-time ceremony.

It is worth noting that the album’s title refers to HIC SVNT DRACONES, a Latin phrase that once marked uncharted territory on medieval maps. Tzur has indeed set out on a voyage into dangerous waters, understanding the risks of never seeing that which is confirmed only in myth. Such spirit is evoked with gentility in the eponymous track that opens the set, working its way into the center of our humbled attention. Even when the waves pick up, bringing with them hints of the unknown, Tzur relies on his bandmates to keep the sails hoisted and the deck free of debris, so that only they and their integrity may set foot upon shifting sands at landfall.

Cyrillus Kreek: The Suspended Harp of Babel (ECM New Series 2620)

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Cyrillus Kreek
The Suspended Harp of Babel

Vox Clamantis
Jaan-Eik Tulve conductor
Marco Ambrosini, Angela Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Anna-Liisa Eller kannel
Recorded April 2018, Transfiguration Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Margo Kõlar
Recording supervision: Helena Tulve
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 8, 2020

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
Psalm 137:1-4

Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) is the latest member to be welcomed into ECM’s congregation of Estonian composers, and on this album we encounter a program of his choral music. Though a teacher by trade, Kreek spent decades transcribing nearly 1300 folk songs, three quarters of which he arranged for choir. These settings comprised a choral touchstone in Estonia and inspired such composers as Veljo Tormis and Tõnu Kõrvits in their own creative pursuits. Interpreted by Vox Clamantis and guided by director Jaan-Eik Tulve, these pieces constitute a worthy introduction for listeners outside Estonia to a composer who dedicated his life to the revitalization of local cultures. Joining these voices are Marco and Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa) and Anna-Liisa Eller (kannel), whose preludes, postludes, and intertextual commentaries render just enough connective tissue to channel our attention into the meaning of every word we hear.

The tender clarity of Kreek’s style lends itself authentically to the album’s many folk hymns, thus establishing a sacred baseline for all else that surrounds. Structures vary from the dancelike Mu süda, ärka üles (Awake, my heart) to the supplicating Kui suur on meie vaesus (Whilst great is our poverty), from the flowing Kes Jumalat nii laseb teha (He, who lets God prevail) to the prophetic Ma tulen taevast ülevelt (From heaven above to earth I come), in which the nyckelharpa shines through verses like the light of Bethlehem’s star. To my ears, however, the most powerful of these is Jakobi unenägu (Jacob’s dream), an Estonian runic song from Kanepi parish that moves through visions of crucifixion and lamentations of persecution by way of two solo voices: one singing, the other chanting in prayer. Such division mirrors the battle of flesh and spirit that every believer knows all too well. It also transitions into the Psalmnody of Kreek’s Õhtune jumalateenistus (Orthodox Vespers), from which two blessings are offered. His combined treatments of Psalms 135 and 136 show both his ability to restructure texts with humility of consideration and to compose by inspiration.

Beyond the Vespers, other Psalms emanate from his scores with supernatural purpose. The album’s title can be pieced together between the lilting hallelujahs of Paabeli jõgede kaldail (By the rivers of Babylon), thus hinting at God’s infinite nature through its picturing of the ephemeral. Another wonder to be cherished herein is Issand, ma hüüan Su poole (Lord, I cry unto Thee), a deep dive into Psalm 141 that enhances the folly of David’s doubting heart. As through the ache of Kiida, mu hing, Issandat (Bless the Lord, my soul) and the women’s voices of Päeval ei pea päikene (The sun shall not smite thee), images are born with an apparent age: a universe without precedent destined to prove the existence of eternity.

After the lively yet reflective Viimane tants (The last dance) from the Ambrosinis, we end with another Estonian hymn, Oh Jeesus, sinu valu (O Jesus, Thy pain), along with the song Dame, vostre doulz viaire by Guillaume de Machaut of 14th-century France. While the latter may seem an unexpected suffix in theory, in practice it is seamless. Moving backward, as if to remind us that time has neither beginning nor end, it pictures death, burial, and resurrection by the most fundamental element of them all: breath.

Jean-Louis Matinier/Kevin Seddiki: Rivages (ECM 2617)

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Jean-Louis Matinier
Kevin Sedikki
Rivages

Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Kevin Seddiki guitar
Recorded April 2018, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Mixed by Lara Persia (engineer) and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 29, 2020

Following one of my favorite productions of this century alongside nyckelharpa virtuoso Marco Ambrosini, accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier returns with another duo, this time sharing Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI studio with guitarist Kevin Seddiki. In the past, Matinier has contributed vitally to ECM sessions with Anouar Brahem and Louis Sclavis, but in the here and now of Rivages cultivates some of his most heart-to-heart playing yet. Because this marks Seddiki’s debut for the label, however, many ears will be on him. As a student of guitarist Pablo Márquez, he brings classical precision and emotional fluidity to the program, which draws on ten years of friendship and collaboration. After refining their rapport and repertoire alike, they put together a mix of in-house compositions, improvisations, and arrangements of material they love.

Indeed, love is on tap when the flotation of “Schumannsko” opens its eyes. Its marriage of a Bulgarian folk tune to a theme by Robert Schumann establishes a tone of mutual regard and open-ended communication that sustains itself to the album’s very end. The accordion’s purchase lends itself to the guitar, which itself allows melody to flourish unimpeded by the creeping vines of expectation. Clearly, flow is the default mode for this duo. Other original material upholds such virtues with consistency, illustrating each image, thought, and word with the care of a calligrapher. “Après la pluie,” for one, begins with Matinier drawing air through the bellows without a single note, evoking a breeze after a quiet storm, while Seddiki regards every earthward droplet from its leafy perch. “Rêverie,” for another, builds a conduit between dreaming and waking or, as in “Sous l’horizon,” between childhood and adulthood. The more virtuosic “In C” treats ecstasis not as hedonic pleasure but as a form of communication between realms.

Arrangements of enduring gems, by contrast, show Matinier and Seddiki at their gentlest. Where the traditional “Greensleeves” reveals darker shades and a fresh, jazzy quality, their take on Gabriel Fauré’s “Les berceaux” is an astonishing example of how a relatively straightforward presentation can reveal something new. The same holds true of “La chanson d’Hélène.” This classic song by French film composer Philippe Sarde is transformed. Such is the power of letting things grow until they are mature enough to shine on their own. Even in the duo’s colorful improvisations, of which the retrospective “Miroirs” is a highlight, they recognize the simple yet profound fact that neither an origin nor a destination mean anything without drawing a line of travel between them.

Jon Balke: Discourses (ECM 2648)

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Jon Balke
Discourses

Jon Balke piano, sound processing
Recorded December 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo, RSI Lugano
Engineers: Stefano Amerio and Laura Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 15, 2020

Not so much following in the footprints of 2007’s Book of Velocities and 2016’s Warp as pouring plaster into them, grinding the hardened results into dust, and throwing them into the winds of change, pianist Jon Balke refashions his solo space with frequencies more attuned than ever to the pulse of our zeitgeist. First inspired by the 24-hour news cycle and its emotional rollercoaster (and by the rhetorical lines used to draw boundaries between stories, who tells them, and the events they describe), the pieces of which this latest album is comprised took an even starker turn as the politics of 2019 unleashed their bipolar mind games for all to scrutinize. If nothing else, this backstory helps us understand the subjective interplay of electronics, field recordings, and instrumental treatments woven throughout. Said treatments—what Balke calls “reflections from the room”—have a self-generating quality, arising only as necessary, and even then as an echo of something implied.

The track titles, as evocative as the music, are but stepping stones to answers that supersede their questions: we can read conflict into the gnarled contours of “the first argument” and “the second argument” just as we can open ourselves to possibility in “the why” and “the how.” But for me the greatest value of these markers is an attendant opportunity to forget them. For while there’s a suitably fragmentary quality to “the self and the opposition,” all of that goes away once the sustain pedal goes down, and the fluidity between those identities warms us with promises of another entirely. But this dream is short-lived, because reality has too much to say to a world in lockdown. And in any case, “the certainties” is the least certain of them all. As its pianism moves from one cerebral island to another, a leviathan breathes just below the surface, following in wait to strike.

It’s difficult to extract and uphold certain moments over others, but I would direct the listener’s attention to “the facilitator” as an especially haunting instance of Balke’s aesthetic concerns. The piano may be foregrounded, but its ghosts are drawn from drone (most likely a manipulated cello but sounding for all like bowed piano strings). Another worthwhile focal point is “the container,” wherein electronica lie in wait—only not to pounce, but creep into awareness like a rising sun pulls itself up by curling its fingers over a mountain ridge.

The album ends with three “afterthoughts,” ranging from watery percussion and internal string plucking to hints of technology without imposition. The last is an alarm for birds to fly away and for trees to uproot themselves in search of a new planet where their symbiosis may thrive. This leaves only broken human beings—their hearts unfurled like children’s play mats and beset with toy cars, weathered streets, and enmeshed topographies—to wander their halls of mirrors, wondering when they took the first wrong turn.

Benjamin Moussay: Promontoire (ECM 2659)

Promontoire

Benjamin Moussay
Promontoire

Benjamin Moussay piano
Recorded January/August 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 29, 2020

After multiple appearances as sideman for Louis Sclavis, the timely Characters on a Wall most recent among them, pianist Benjamin Moussay for quietly dominates the marquee of an ECM album cover. In this program of original solo material, he shows himself to be a genuinely focused player who values not only melodies but also the spaces in which they breathe. What began as more fully fledged compositions have grown more open-ended over time, whittled away to whispering motifs and suggestive chords.

Our introduction to Moussay’s sound percolates through the boulders of “127.” Inspired by 127 Hours, the 2010 biopic about Aron Ralston’s harrowing escape from Bluejohn Canyon, it comes to us fully formed. It so happens the theme of rock climbing is a personal one, as Moussay is himself an avid outdoorsman. His cyclical notecraft evokes not the danger of the backstory but rather the hallucinatory state in which Ralston found hope to persevere. Thankfully, neither certain death nor a severed arm are necessary to enter that mental state through the vision presented here: a glimpse of hope at a point in history when our own survival feels more precarious than ever. Related topographies dot the album, from the all-too-real anxiety of “Don’t Look Down” to the cold stillness of “Monte Perdido.” The latter is entirely improvised, as is “Théa,” a spirited ode to his daughter.

The indeterminate weaves of “L’Oiseau d’Or” (which works a hymnal recipe from nostalgic ingredients) and “Chasseur de Plumes” (written for a cat fond of chasing birds) sit comfortably between the picturesque beauties of “Villefranque” (transcribed from his improvisation at a friend’s house in the eponymous commune) and “Sotto Voce” (my favorite for its expressive directness). If any of this feels cinematic in the listening, it’s not by accident, at least in the case of three tracks written as accompaniment for Jean Renoir’s 1926 Nana. Within this generally darker spectrum, the band of “Horses” stands out for its progression from the familiar to the unknown. The title track, too, belongs on a screen as much as on a record. Like the land formation after which it is named, we know it to be ancient and part of a story beyond measure. Thus, it gives us a bigger view of what lies beyond the horizon, and how the songs of a brighter future might sound when we catch up to them at last, ragged and thirsting for their nourishment.

Another milestone

As of today, I have reviewed every compilation album put out by ECM, including the “Works” and :rarum series. You can check them all out here. Thank you all for reading, as always. Stay tuned for a few more special reviews and other ECM-related surprises.