Wolfert Brederode Trio: Black Ice (ECM 2476)

Black Ice

Wolfert Brederode Trio
Black Ice

Wolfert Brederode piano
Gulli Gudmundsson double bass
Jasper van Hulten drums
Recorded July 2015, Auditorio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 1, 2016

It wasn’t the notes, it was the silences between the notes. Some music is the very enemy of silence, keeping the sounds coming so that the listener has no time to reflect. But other music, the music she played for herself, was different…
–Simon Mawer, The Glass Room

Following his quartet outings, Currents and Post Scriptum, pianist Wolfert Brederode dips into the font of trioism, joining forces with bassist Gulli Gudmundsson and drummer Jasper van Hulten. It’s a setting in which Brederode feels very much at home, despite the varied ensembles of which he has been a part, both within and without the ECM stable.

Given the vast amounts of energy put out by those preceding albums, “Elegia” involves as a tender welcome. Brederode’s sound-world is no less clearly defined, but here maps its crisp shoreline by the waves rolling onto it. A strum along the piano strings lands us softly into the arid “Olive Tree,” for which the band sidesteps that slow-motion crash in favor of utter restraint. In that restraint, however, lurks the ever-present possibility of fractures, so that every groove courts rupture. That everything holds together is due to fierce communication between the musicians, best expressed in the evocative title track: a smooth, glassine surface across which melodies glide without fear of falling through.

WBT

The patient unfolding of “Cocoon” proves just how dedicated Brederode and his crew they are to keeping their vessel afloat. Solos are few and far between, as they should be, as no voice is intended to dominate. Gudmundsson’s shaded “Conclusion,” the only non-Brederode original of the set, foregrounds its composer in one of few exceptions. The bassist’s presence throughout “Curtains” and “Rewind,” both highlights, is also notable. Likewise van Hulten’s snare in “Fall,” another oceanic mooring.

As with anything Brederode touches, however, primary focus is on message over medium. Where “Bemani” is a tapered ligament connecting soil and sky, “Terminal” is an unsettling illustration of horizontal anxieties. Meant to evoke an airport after hours, its brevity is proportional to its experiential vividness. But nowhere does the candle of evocation burn so brightly as in “Glass Room,” which by its architectural sensitivity treats windows not as portals but as palimpsests of our deepest desires.

Another glorious example of why ECM is the world’s most significant trio archive.

Burkhard Reinartz: Eine Olive des Nichts (ECM New Series 2435)

Eine Olive des Nichts

Burkhard Reinartz
Eine Olive des Nichts

Burkhard Reinartz conception, reciter
Anja Lais reciter
Bruno Winzen reciter
Recorded August 2013, Rheinklang Tonstudio, Köln
Recording engineer/sound design: Alexander Hardt
Album produced by Burkhard Reinartz
Release date: September 19, 2015

For Eine Olive des Nichts (An Olive of Nothingness), Cologne-based radio director Burkhard Reinartz has curated a personal collage of poetry by Adam Zagajewski, Tomas Tranströmer, and Philippe Jaccottet, as read by Anja Lais, Bruno Winzen, and Reinartz himself. More than a spoken word project, however, it coheres by virtue of music drawn from ECM’s vast back catalog by Eivind Aarset, Susanne Abbuehl, Jon Balke, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, the Stefano Battaglia Trio, the Wolfert Brederode Quartet, Ketil Bjørnstad, David Darling, Andrey Dergatchev, Mathias Eick, Sidsel Endresen, Morton Feldman, Food, Michael Galasso, Paul Giger, Jon Hassell, Arve Henriksen, the Benedict Jahnel Trio, Meredith Monk, Arvo Pärt, Michele Rabbia, Trygve Seim, Steve Tibbetts, Tomasz Stanko, the Bobo Stenson Trio, the Tarkovsky Quartet, Steven Kovacs Tickmayer, and the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, amounting to a play without a stage, if not a film without images.

Unlike Re: ECM by Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer, in which ECM snippets were stretched into barely recognizable washes of ambience, or, at the other end of the spectrum, Christian Reiner’s bare readings of Friedrich Hölderlin on Turmgedichte, here a haunting medium between the two is struck. Interwoven with the poets’ reflections on their art and pockmarked with plenty of nostalgic moments for label listeners, this montage of creations and creators speaks with a timeless quality, as if one could enter and exit it at any moment and it would continue flowing, with or without us.

Reinartz

Even without a shred of German recall, ECM completists and adventurous listeners alike will find purchase in this project’s deft blend of speech and sound. One can also appreciate the intimacy with which the poetry is read—so intimate, in fact, that one feels like they shouldn’t be there, as if the words were intensely private, fogging the mirrors between conscious and unconscious awareness.

The mixing of samples is seamless, passionate dip into the label’s oeuvre. Whether in the nocturnal tinges of Hassell’s “Blue Period” and Darling’s “Darkwood IV” or the sun-drenched excursions of Tibbetts’s 12-string, in the downward rhythmic spirals of “Modul 42” by Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin or the poignant elegy of Stanko’s “Dirge For Europe,” the inner lives of familiar tunes reveal fresh perspectives of association. Much like the poetry they surround, meanings in this music are suggested by their connection to lived experiences, and through those connections invite us to graft our own.

Golfam Khayam/Mona Matbou Riahi: Narrante (ECM 2475)

Narrante

Narrante

Golfam Khayam guitar
Mona Matbou Riahi clarinet
Recorded July 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Ramin Sadighi
Release date: May 20, 2016

With Narrante, Iranian musicians Golfam Khayam (guitar) and Mona Matbou Riahi (clarinet) make their ECM debut. The Naqsh Duo, as they’re also known, became known to producer Manfred Eicher through earlier tapes before he invited them to record at Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI with Stefano Amerio engineering. Thus welcomed into a pristine studio under the auspices of this hallowed label, the Naqsh Duo offer a program of nine originals.

Although a liner note describes the album as “a unified piece that traverses different stages and variations of a dialogue, each related to a formal structure with open sections for improvisation,” one may point to self-contained highlights therein. Of those, the concluding “Lamento-Furioso” shows the duo at its freest, raw and rich with ideas. As in “Battaglia” a handful of tracks before, Khayam and Riahi elicit an artfully controlled restlessness. Labored breathing in the latter lends relevance as commentary on today’s geopolitical malaise. “Lacrimae” is another standout, not only for its evocative trembling but also because beneath it is an acknowledgment of life, as if having the ability to grieve were confirmation of perseverance. In this sense, the music rightly claims that emotions are never uniformly made, but born of many disparate strands.

Narrante Duo
(Photo credit: Hessam Samavatian)

Such openness percolates through “Testamento,” in which Riahi purifies the space for Khayam’s guitar. Like a pair of hands opening a window outward onto a wave-caressed shore, it conveys a message of solitude—one that, despite emerging from the interactions of a duo, represents parts of the same psyche. That same two-in-one feeling is magnified in “Arioso,” throughout which trills in both instruments float and sink simultaneously, leaving a melodic body suspended between them. Other moods range from dreamlike (“Sospiro”) to reflective (“Silenzio”), but always with an ear attuned to the larger picture at hand.

The title track is the most intimate of all, making effective use of spaces between notes. This is, in fact, what the duo does best: mold resonance as substance into sculptures of resistance. Like the colors of “Parlando,” it shapes wind and time into a cherished memory, as this program is certain to become once it finds a home in your heart.

Meredith Monk: On Behalf Of Nature (ECM New Series 2473)

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Meredith Monk
On Behalf Of Nature

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble
Sidney Chen, Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Meredith Monk, Bruce Rameker, Allison Sniffin
voices
Bohdan Hilash 
woodwinds
John Hollenbeck percussion
Allison Sniffin piano, keyboard, violin, French horn
Laura Sherman harp
Recorded June 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 21, 2016

Since 1981’s Dolmen Music, Meredith Monk has contributed an integral DNA segment of ECM’s evolution as a label. But at no time in history has she felt as poignant as in On Behalf Of Nature. Tracing echoes of relevance to today’s social, spiritual, and terrestrial climate, the album is a mouthpiece for those who are voiceless, epitomized in the lone wooden flute that opens “Dark/Light 1.” As a call born of its own will to be heard, it flowers by nourishment of an egoless sun. Such can be also said of Meredith Monk and her vocal ensemble, whose own voices shape that same will selflessly, dutifully, necessarily—because opportunities to do so are dwindling more rapidly than can be articulated by breath and touch. By these signs is established a grammar that lives beyond codification, yet which is felt in the body even as it wanders into our dreams.

While the 19 offerings placed on this altar of creative sacrifice belong to the same ecosystem, Monk seems to link them to three distinct streams of consciousness. The most visceral of these is accessible in three pieces titled “Environs,” in which the fearful heart trembling at the core of a scarred earth sheds both light and darkness on injuries in which we would much rather never admit complicity. Deep yet delicate, these are about as honest as music gets.

A second stream is heard flowing through the album’s largest forests, which acclimate themselves in the prepared piano of “Ritual Zone,” the prophetic violin of “Memory Zone,” and the joyful cries of “Harvest.” Further gifts emerge in “Duet with Shifting Ground,” “Evolution,” and “Water/Sky Rant.” The latter’s harp-infused anthem of abuse, recovery, and hope is perhaps the most powerful statement Monk has ever committed to record. Each of these is a chamber of truths that have existed since the dawn of humanity, reminding us that harmony must be chosen, not expected. As by the ligaments of “Spider Web Anthem,” cohesion requires patient work and purpose by which to cultivate it.

Such connective tissue is the mantra enlivening interlinear pieces throughout. Through them flow the base elements of all life, whether natural (“Eon”) or human-made (“Pavement Steps”). Therein beats the heart of a question that cannot be spoken yet whose answer is so clear as to be anxiety-inducing. It is not the planet itself but those on it without the means to communicate their traumas across electronic signals or paper who sing. On Behalf Of Nature, then, is their stage: an album so relevant as to be worthy of beaming into outer space in the hopes of clearing a path to salvific inner spaces.

Ferenc Snétberger: Titok (ECM 2468)

Titok

Ferenc Snétberger
Titok

Ferenc Snétberger guitar
Anders Jormin double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded May 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 21, 2017

Hungarian guitarist Ferenc Snétberger returns to ECM after an enchanting solo concert debut, now exploring 13 originals with an expansive trio. In that sense, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Joey Baron are more than mere allies called upon to flesh out skeletal tunes, but musicians whom Snétberger has clearly admired from afar and who now mesh seamlessly with his acoustic nexus. The centering of a nylon-string classical guitar where normally an electric might be creates conversational sonorities with Jormin, while Baron acts as interpreter for their linguistically variant modes of expression.

The album opens and closes with a total of five spontaneous tracks, each exploring a unique plane of the trio’s many-sided synergy. The last of these ends with the bandleader by his lonesome, slinking off into the night with great expectations in tow. Between those exes on the map, the listener is treated to a dotted line winding along superbly thought-out terrain. Both “Kék Kerék” and “Rambling” reveal an artist who lives by that frequent traveler’s credo: anything goes. That said, their paths are anchored by wholesome melodies that feel predictive of their course.

From here, the set develops in stages, moving from the intimacy of “Orange Tango” (noteworthy for Jormin’s song-like bassing) and “Fairytale,” through the sun-kissed foliage of “Álom” and the lullaby of “Leolo” (dedicated to Snétberger’s grandson), and on to the jauntier “Ease,” in which the trio moves so effortlessly as to seem blood-related. All of these gestures come together in the dance that is “Renaissance,” wherein ancient and future impulses find common ground.

Titok is yet another of those albums that would never have existed without the faith of producer Manfred Eicher, whose choice of musicians, sequencing of tunes, and encouragement of freedom are felt from start to finish, making it one of the most indispensable releases of 2017.

Iro Haarla: Ante Lucem (ECM 2457)

Ante Lucem.jpg

Iro Haarla
Ante Lucem

Iro Haarla piano, harp
Hayden Powell trumpet
Trygve Seim soprano and tenor saxophones
Ulf Krokfors double bass
Mika Kallio drums, percussion
NorrlandsOperans Symfoniorkester
Karin Eriksson
concertmaster
Jukka Iisakkila conductor
Recorded October 2012 at the Concert Hall of NorrlandsOperan, Umeå, Sweden
Tonmeister: Lars-Göran Ulander
Engineer: Torbjörn Samuelsson
Mixed in Stockholm by Torbjörn Samuelsson, Manfred Eicher, and Iro Haarla
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 26, 2016

Finnish pianist, harpist, and composer Iro Haarla is the only artist to have made that triangle of talents an equilateral one. Five years separate this and her last ECM project, Vespers, carrying over from it a certain allegiance to cold landscapes while erasing a break into the clouds above it to let through spiritual sunrays. Described by Haarla as “the struggle between darkness and light,” Ante Lucem is a house unto itself, inhabited by figures frozen in time yet harboring thoughts of fire. Its doorway is “Songbird Chapel.” Although scored for symphony orchestra and jazz quintet—the latter including trumpeter Hayden Powell, saxophonist Trygve Seim, bassist Ulf Krokfors, drummer/percussionist Mika Kallio, and Haarla herself—this inaugural section treats the orchestra not as a backdrop for improvised cartographies but rather as a body wholly comprised of individual voices. The effect is such that even the distinct soloing of Seim’s tenor feels connected by ligaments to its surroundings.

Cellular metamorphoses abound in “Persevering with Winter,” wherein Krokfors draws an arco thread through icicle-rich forest (an effect recreated by Kallio’s synesthetic percussion) and Powell swells in and out of focus as if caught between perceptions of reality. The third section—“…and the Darkness has not overcome it…”—opens with Seim’s duduk-like tone flexing its bones in the stillness of a setting sun. Here the quintet takes center stage, fleshing out internal conflicts with the fortitude of a theological assembly. Thus we come to “Ante Lucem – Before Dawn…” For this, the orchestra and quintet occupy different bands of the audible spectrum, in what amounts to a musical representation of the Passion, beginning in the garden of Gethsemane and ending with the glory of resurrection.

Throughout, whether on harp or piano, Haarla brings a cinematically binding force to every shift of terrain. Her sense of drama is realistic, of timing precise, and of divinity barely veiled. All of which makes Ante Lucem a resonant statement of faith in a time of faithlessness.

Trygve Seim: Rumi Songs (ECM 2449)

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Trygve Seim
Rumi Songs

Tora Augestad vocal
Frode Haltli accordion
Svante Henryson violoncello
Trygve Seim soprano and tenor saxophones
Recorded February 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 26, 2016

A natural intersection of musicians, bound by the mysticism of Rumi, Rumi Songs is saxophonist and composer Trygve Seim’s love letter to a poet whose influences broke the world wide open when rendered into English by Coleman Barks, whose translations are used almost exclusively throughout. For this project Seim welcomes accordionist Frode Haltli and cellist Svante Henryson, both members of his larger ensemble, alongside vocalist Tora Augestad.

The introductory “In Your Beauty” sounds like breathing itself. It also establishes the melding of accordion and cello, the purity of Augestad’s singing, and the aching lyricism of Seim’s reed. From this bud emerges the petals of “Seeing Double,” which checks off love, borders of the flesh, and self-questioning: all constant themes in Rumi’s poetry. Although the instrumentation stays the same in number, it widens in scope, as Seim allows his freedom to shine forth without hesitation.

Rumi Portrait
(Photo credit: Knut Bry)

Where “Across The Doorsill” is more playful, detailed, and surreal in that way children might usually be, “The Guest House” has a mature and mournful tinge, as underscored by Henryson’s bow. Linguistically, it speaks in right angles and architectural forms, much like its titular structure, at the same time rounding its back with the skill of an experienced yoga practitioner into one methodical pose after another.

While there are jewels of optimism to be unearthed here, such the droning lullaby of “Like Every Other Day” and the latticed groove of the tango-esque examination of desire that is “When I See Your Face,” the general mood floats somewhere between dreaming and brooding. “Leaving My Self” is the most haunting song of the collection in this respect. A curious rendering of parental sacrifice and interstitial love, its accordion acts as drone for the cello’s snaking lines. Seim is noticeably absent this time, taking in the wind. Even “Whirling Rhythms,” an instrumental inspired by Seim’s pilgrimage to Konya to see Rumi’s tomb for himself, has about it an air of darker contemplation.

In the closing “There Is Some Kiss We Want,” Seim switches to soprano. An enchanting creation, it yields a stanza that best expresses the relationship at hand of sound and text:

At night, I open the window
and ask the moon to come
and press its face against mine
“Breathe into me”

Ketil Bjørnstad: A Suite Of Poems (ECM 2440)

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Ketil Bjørnstad
A Suite Of Poems

Anneli Drecker voice
Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Recorded June 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Ketil Bjørnstad
Release date: May 18, 2018

Following his song cycles Vinding’s Music and Sunrise, pianist and composer Ketil Bjørnstad expands his ECM presence once again with new settings, this time of words by Norwegian-Danish author Lars Saabye Christensen. Christensen’s verses, written in different hotel rooms and sent to Bjørnstad from around the world, seem destined to take form as the humbly titled A Suite Of Poems presented here.

Bjørnstad’s characteristic feel for texture, mood, and atmosphere is in peak form. In contrast to, say, his duo albums with cellist David Darling, which despite their sparse instrumentation speak of vast landscapes, now the spaces offered to us are astonishingly intimate. Quintessentially so is program opener “Mayflower, New York,” which paints a city recently kissed by rain and the lone tourist moving his pen in its sprawl. Like “Kempinski, Berlin,” it’s filled with small moments, each more personal than the last, as our proverbial traveler balances depth and weightlessness through the music itself. A perennial theme of travel is, of course, explored throughout the album, but so is its inextricable relationship to temporality. In “Duxton, Melbourne,” a tender musing on life’s unstoppable progression, vocalist Anneli Drecker winds her voice around hesitations, missed opportunities, and empty calendars to insightful effect.

A Suite Photo
(From left to right: Lars Saabye Christensen, Ketil Bjørnstad, Anneli Drecker; photo credit: Maria Gossé)

The fatigue of travel is also likened to time passages, and nowhere so poignantly as in “Palazzo Londra, Venice.” Here the narrator looks at his own unrecognizable face in the mirror, unable to connect with the self as he used to. Similar anxieties, as fed through fantastical imagery, haunt “Vier Jahreszeiten, Hamburg.” Ultimately, however, the focus is on details: the lost umbrella of “Mayday Inn, Hong Kong,” the forgotten ashtrays of “Lutetia, Paris,” and the handkerchiefs of “Savoy, Lisbon.”

On the somber end of the spectrum are “L’Hotel, Paris” and “Palace, Copenhagen.” The latter tells of Christensen’s (?) first time stepping into a hotel—on June 23, 1963, to be precise—and finds the boy scared and uncertain of the future. The piano writing is especially passionate, drifting from minor to major as Drecker sings of “the Danish sun behind us whipping up the rain from the cobblestones.” This contrastive dynamic is repeated in “The Grand, Krakow,” the suite’s most hopeful yet shaded turn. Other selections reveal a playful side to Christensen’s wordcraft, and Bjørnstad’s evocation of it. “Astor Crowne, New Orleans” is one whimsical example, in which Drecker navigates a bluesy drinking song.

The suite ends with “Schloss Elmau,” a piano solo that acts as both vessel of remembrance and farewell, a bidirectional portal that inhales the past and exhales the future, all the while praying for respite beyond the reach of any clock.

Erkki-Sven Tüür/Brett Dean: Gesualdo (ECM New Series 2452)

Gesualdo

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Brett Dean
Gesualdo

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded February 2014 at The Tallinn Methodist Church
Engineer: Maido Maadik
Edited and mixed December 2014 by Maido Maadik, Manfred Eicher, Erkki-Sven Tüür, and Tõnu Kaljuste
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 18, 2015

I die, alas, in my suffering,
And she who could give me life,
Alas, kills me and will not help me…

These words, originally sung as Moro lassofrom the Sixth Book of Madrigalsby Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566-1613), recede to let their notes carry on alone in a transcription for string orchestra by conductor Tõnu Kaljuste. This inward look, by proxy, of a composer whose trespasses have been relegated to an afterthought by his oeuvre newly emphasizes repentance trickling through the historical cracks. Echoes of that repentence, in both melody and metaphor, ripple across Carlo (1997). Written by Australian composer Brett Dean, here making his ECM debut, it marshals the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra via compressions of space and time. As displacements of the original seed multiply, we hear fear and trembling emerging from within, gradually pared down to morbid whispers and cries of pain, as if to recreate the crime scene that would define Gesualdo’s life, so that when his polyphony returns, it feels like self-deprecation.

Tüür

Given that Carlo is somewhat reminiscent of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Requiem (1994), no other composer would feel so well included to round out the program. Tüür’s own arrangement of the motet O crux benedicta spotlights a younger Gesualdo, allowing a slightly more optimistic glow to escape. This is followed by L’ombra della croce (2014), a piece for strings that exists somewhere between Illusion and Passion (both from 1993), and Psalmody (1993/2011). This last piece draws a line back to In Spe, a prog-rock band Tüür led between 1979 and 1982. As a dialogue between electric piano, orchestra, and choir, it speaks more to the flesh than to the spirit, at the same time fashioning youth into a crucible of nostalgias. Throughout its 22 minutes, one encounters a chronology of Tüür’s compositional development, from architectonic tinkerer to mosaic master. There’s even a touch of American minimalism to keep the experience centered, well aware as Tüür is that music bleeds.

Dean

Because he is one of the ECM New Series’ integral figures, any new Tüür material on disc is cause for celebration. Yet this pairing with Dean exceeds expectation and heralds a true return to form, such that by its end the album reveals itself to be at once a homecoming from, and departure for, a long journey.

O sorrowful fate,
She who could give me life,
Alas, gives me death.