Jan Garbarek/The Hilliard Ensemble: Remember me, my dear (ECM New Series 2625)

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Jan Garbarek
The Hilliard Ensemble
Remember me, my dear

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James
countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Concert recording, October 2014
Chiesa della Collegiata dei SS. Pietro e Stefano,
Bellinzona (Switzerland)
In the series “Tra jazz e nuove musiche”
by Paolo Keller for RSI Rete Due
Tonmeister: Michael Rast
Engineer: Lara Persia
Mixed at Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
by Manfred Eicher and Michael Rast
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 18, 2019

When the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek first recorded for ECM in 1993, they opened as many—if not more—forces than they joined. It was a collaboration not only between each other, but also between them and engineer Peter Laenger, the Austrian monastery of St. Gerold, and producer Manfred Eicher, whose vision was so attuned to the possibility of it all that he would seem to have heard it in his head before those five breaths intertwined in reality. Twenty-five years after the release of their self-titled debut, the Officium project resurfaces with this document of their final performance in 2014.

The roots of this program’s oldest branches may be traced to the soil of past albums. In the opening “Ov zarmanali,” a hymn of Christ’s baptism by Komitas that was likewise our doorway into Officium Novum, Garbarek’s keening soprano is unmistakable in shape and color. In this setting he plays with the decay of notes, sharing more with sitar virtuosos than other reed players and taking into account every incidental effect as physical material for expression. It is the Hilliards, then, who enter into his delineation—not the other way around—and who plow a field just as ancient in preparation of a hybrid crop unlike any other. This progression is reversed in “Procurans odium,” one among a handful of anonymous medieval pieces that finds its seeds, split with time, restored in the nourishment of resuscitation. Garbarek’s role is nevertheless fully dimensional, drawing out from within rather than applying from without. Other unattributable turns, such as the wondrously ambient “Procedentum sponsum” and more lilting “Dostoino est,” speak to the power of memory. And in the “Sanctus,” not heard since their debut, we find a folding inward rather than expansion of concept.

Beyond the category of performer, Garbarek’s contributions fall under composer and arranger, finding solace all the same in this sanctuary. In the latter vein is “Allting finns,” wherein his exploratory nature is particularly evident, as one can feel Garbarek roaming the church in search of stone and warmth, while his setting of the Passamaquoddy poem “We are the stars” draws an unbreakable thread from one corner of the earth to another, likewise itinerant in spirit.

From the liturgical, as in the light-through-stained-glass effect of Nikolai N. Kedrov’s “Litany,” to the repentant shading of Guillaume le Rouge’s “Se je fayz deuil” (gazing back to Mnemosyne), the vocal nature of Garbarek’s saxophone and the reed-like qualities of the Hilliards have perhaps never been so dimensionally interchangeable. For even when the saxophone is absent, as in a most intimate rendition of Arvo Pärt’s “Most Holy Mother of God,” its soul lingers—a dream upon waking. The effect is such that, even when turning the brittle pages of more familiar material, like the “Alleluia nativitas” of Pérotin or the “O ignis spiritus” of Hildegard von Bingen, we are welcomed in the spirit of newness. And so, in the 16th-century Scottish folk song we find more than a title, but a poignant reminder that our minds are at once the tenderest and most robust vessels for honoring the past. For how can we not remember the impact this quintet has made on modern music, and the love with which listeners will continue to fill its crater for ages to come?

Avishai Cohen/Yonathan Avishai: Playing The Room (ECM 2641)

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Avishai Cohen
Yonathan Avishai
Playing The Room

Avishai Cohen trumpet
Yonathan Avishai piano
Recorded September 2018, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 6, 2019

Although trumpeter Avishai Cohen and pianist Yonathan Avishai have known each other and played together since they were teenagers in Tel Aviv, this is their first recording as a duo. The title refers to an offhand comment made by producer Manfred Eicher, who during the recording of Avishai’s Joys And Solitudes remarked, “Avishai [Cohen] should play this room.” The duo session documented here happened just a few days later, only now in the Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI at Lugano in place of Studios La Buissonne. And play the room they do. Not only in the sense of liberating a delightful mix of standards and original contributions to the modern songbook, but also because, like seasoned thespians, they inhabit their narrative roles with full physical commitment.

The set’s door is pushed open by said original contributions, starting with “The Opening” by Cohen, which seems to flower into audibility of its own volition to be heard. Piano and trumpet communicate so deeply, even when not playing at once, resulting in one of the more evocative beginnings to grace an ECM program quite some time. Avishai’s “Two Lines” is an equally introspective, if darker, companion, by whose gestures are activated shared memories. Cohen here is especially broad of emotional brush and paints with the abandon of a child.

John Coltrane’s “Crescent” kicks off the album’s airborne remainder, cycling through its own self-awareness and in that process attaching feather upon feather in anticipation of flight. Cohen rises and sets like the stars, while Avishai navigates by their movement. The effect is such that when Duke Ellington’s “Azalea” cracks open the scene like an egg of dawn, its classic sounds feel not so much reborn as reawakened. As in Ornette Coleman’s “Dee Dee” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” they approach the evergreen as an opportunity for pruning instead of replanting.

Whether in the comforting shades of “Ralph’s New Blues” (Milt Jackson) or the gorgeously rendering of “Kofifi Blue” (Abdullah Ibrahim), Cohen and Avishai stay true to form because they understand the form of truth. In their hands, and by the spatial allowances of Eicher and engineer Stefano Amerio, these tunes resonate with nothing more than what they were meant to be. All of which makes inclusion of “Shir Eres (Lullaby)” by Sasha Argov (1914-1995) poignant beyond measure. Not only because it’s an emotional touchstone in the hearts of the musicians, but also because it pulls the sky like a blanket over our ears, that we might better hear the sounds of our own heartbeats. Thus, Playing The Room is the sonic equivalent of the “moon illusion”—when our closest satellite appears bigger on the horizon than it does in the sky due to its visual proximity to earthbound objects. Once risen, however, it tells us just how far we’ve come, and how much infinitely farther we have to go.

Lusine Grigoryan: Komitas – Seven Songs (ECM New Series 2514)

Seven Songs

Lusine Grigoryan
Komitas: Piano Compositions

Lusine Grigoryan piano
Recorded February 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 22, 2017

Armenian pianist Lusine Grigoryan makes her ECM debut with a program of music by her homeland’s most respected composer: Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935). Seven Songs is a companion to the Gurdjieff Ensemble’s Komitas, led by her husband Levon Eskenian, and was recorded during the same 2015 sessions. Where that previously issued album expanded upon the sonorities of Komitas’s piano music, here we encounter said sonorities nakedly. In each are shades of traditional instruments and dances, motifs regarded beyond time yet grounded in the familiar by their immediacy of offering.

Komitas was intensely interested in Armenian folk music, which he collected, studied, and arranged throughout his life. If not for the efforts of Grigoryan and likeminded artists, his music might remain sequestered in Armenia without ever transcending its borders. As Paul Griffiths writes in his booklet essay, “His is a torn page waiting to be sewn back into music history.” The eponymous heptad of 1911 is a veritable notebook of ideas, each the memory of a fleeting moment, dutifully bound at Grigoryan’s fingertips. Like an ancient soul seeking solace in modern sprawl, where physical contact—once the glue of the human volume—has now dissolved in a landscape of storm-blown leaves. Komitas-via-Grigoryan’s interpretations of innocence and sin, perfection and corruption, death and life are all here for us to examine. Their happiest moments, such as the last (titled “The water comes from the mountaintop”), are also its briefest, and speak of the honesty with which Komitas viewed the world around him. The latter’s geological inevitability is, like the music itself, indicative of his earthly pilgrimage and points to a perennial theme of landscape echoed in the painterly Toghik from 1915 and even in the twelve Pieces for Children (1910-15). Nowhere so vividly, however, as in Msho Shoror. Inspired by the mountainous region of Sasun, its rocky qualities indeed require deft footwork—or, in this case, handwork—to navigate. The shoror, or “sway dance,” is a navigation unto itself, every step woven into what the composer called an “ancestral” experience. Whether vigorous or reflective, each of its seven variations is spiritual in nature, reflecting upon the relationship between flesh and fate, and the connective tissue of experience between them.

The Seven Dances further nuance this sense of bodies in space and time. Komitas calls upon the performer to evoke timbral qualities of particular instruments, such as the daf and duduk. Grigoryan renders these with intimate attention to detail, deeply aware of the flow within them. The second of these dances, of Yerevan extraction, is a standout for its delicate pointillism. Likewise the fifth of Vagharshapat. Heard against the somber reflection of the final shoror, they remind us that vigor means nothing without the stillness awaiting its exhaustion.

Gianluigi Trovesi/Gianni Coscia: La misteriosa musica della Regina Loana (ECM 2652)

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Gianluigi Trovesi
Gianni Coscia
La misteriosa musical della Regina Loana

Gianluigi Trovesi piccolo and alto clarinets
Gianni Coscia accordion
Recorded January 2018, Night And Day Studio, Cascinagrossa
Engineer: Paolo Facco
Mixed and mastered by Guido Gorna and Stefano Amerio
An ECM Production
Release date: June 21, 2019

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) once said of Gianluigi Trovesi and Gianni Coscia, “On a street corner or in a concert hall, they would feel at home just the same.” For their fourth ECM installment, the clarinetist and accordionist prove that statement in a tribute to their departed friend, taking listeners on a sonic journey through Eco’s semi-autobiographical novel La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana). Along the way, they riffle through the archives of a bygone era and recreate it with loving attention to detail and personal association. Most of the songs are mentioned in the novel itself, the centerpiece being the five-part “EIAR.” Titled in homage to Italy’s first radio station, the suite drips with nostalgia of the 1930s and 40s.

Despite being of literary genesis, the album carries a tender cinematic charge, evident already in Coscia’s opening solo “Interludio.” More overt connections to the silver screen abound on “As Time Goes By,” from Casablanca, which spreads across the ears like butter over warm bread, and the mysterious yet emotionally transparent “Bel Ami,” from the 1939 German film of the same name. Other perennial favorites, such as “Basin Street Blues” and Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” evoke pure delight yet are infused with enough beauty to court the glint of a tear.

Three originals called “Nebjana” take their inspiration from Leoš Janáček’s In the Mists, while “Umberto” and “Eco” are improvised around Trovesi’s gematria of the honored name. Their masterstroke comes in the form of “Gragnola” (Hail of Bullets). Moving from tragedy to triumph, it’s a film in and of itself, casting in its leading role the unabashed love that defines a grander story.

(This article originally appeared, in truncated form, in the December 2019 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

Jazz at Lincoln Center: ECM Records at 50

ECM Records at 50

On November 1 & 2, 2019, Jazz at Lincoln Center will present two nights in celebration of ECM’s 50th anniversary. The lineup will be the same on both nights. I will be there to review the November 2 show for All About Jazz.

The roster is as follows:

Tenor Saxophone Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Mark Turner
Trumpet Ralph Alessi, Avishai Cohen, Enrico Rava, Wadada Leo Smith
Guitar Bill Frisell
Guitar and Piano Egberto Gismonti
Piano Fabian Almazan, Nik Bärtsch, Marilyn Crispell, Giovanni Guidi, Ethan Iverson, Vijay Iyer, Shai Maestro, Andy Milne, Craig Taborn
Piano and Voice Meredith Monk
Cello Anja Lechner
Bass Dezron Douglas, Matthew Garrison, Larry Grenadier, Drew Gress, Thomas Morgan, Barak Mori
Drums Carmen Castaldi, Andrew Cyrille, Jack DeJohnette, Mark Ferber, Ziv Ravitz, Nasheet Waits

Tickets are available here. Hope to see some of you there!

Larry Grenadier: The Gleaners (ECM 2560)

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Larry Grenadier
The Gleaners

Larry Grenadier double bass
Recorded December 2016, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Mixed February 2018 at Studios La Buissonne by Manfred Eicher, Larry Grenadier, and Gérard de Haro (engineer)
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 15, 2019

With The Gleaners, Larry Grenadier joins a line of double bass virtuosos—including Miroslav Vitous, Barre Phillips and Dave Holland—that have released a solitary program on ECM. What distinguishes his from those predecessors is as much a matter of musicality and energy as of tone and texture. For while the prospect of a solo bass recording may conjure images of hermetic ponderousness, Grenadier cuts against the grain of expectation with a vast cartography. In the three-dimensional plucking of “Pettiford,” as also in the arco beauties of “Oceanic” and “The Gleaner” that surround it, he walks the line between comping and melodizing with such ease that he seems to emerge with a new category in hand. In the evocative “Woebegone,” one of only two tracks to feature minimal overdubs, he combines those elements richly. Another highlight of his originals is “Vineland,” which tips its hat to Phillips.

Grenadier includes a smattering of lovingly chosen material by others. Chief among them is “Gone Like the Season Does.” Written by his wife, singer Rebecca Martin, it feels like watching a teardrop fall in slow motion. Also noteworthy are his fusion of John Coltrane’s “Compassion” with Paul Motian’s “The Owl of Cranston,” which is about as full a statement as one could imagine from the instrument, and a dramatic reimagining of George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” which begins with urgent bowing before settling into a lilt of robust, down-home pizzicato.

Rounding out this cabinet of curios are two bagatelles written for Grenadier by musical compatriot Wolfgang Muthspiel. The second of these is a thing of staggering beauty and points to The Gleaners as more than an album of bracing insight and invention, but one of the finest solo bass efforts ever produced.

(This review originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Louis Sclavis: Characters on a Wall (ECM 2645)

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Louis Sclavis
Characters on a Wall

Louis Sclavis clarinet, bass clarinet
Benjamin Moussay piano
Sarah Murcia double bass
Christophe Lavergne drums
Recorded October 2018, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 20, 2019

This 13th ECM leader date from Louis Sclavis takes its inspiration from pioneering urban artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, with whom the reed virtuoso and composer has been friends since the early 1980s. Although similar in theory to Napoli’s Walls, the album could hardly be more different in practice. And while Sclavis isn’t usually one to compose with images in mind, for this project he did just that, referencing paintings on walls from as close to home as Paris to as far away from it as Palestine.

For this, Sclavis trusted the talents of pianist Benjamin Moussay, bassist Sara Murcia, and drummer Christophe Lavergne. Despite having played with Moussay for a decade and with Lavergne some years back, he first convened this particular quartet in the context of another project called “Loin dans les Terres” (Far Inland) in 2017. The present effort strikes me, for lack of a better word, as one of Sclavis’s “jazziest” to date, although Moussay gives it his own classical touch. Much of it feels balladic, elegiac, and nocturnal. As Sclavis tells me by email, “When I compose I don’t think ‘jazz,’ but try to find the best way to express my inspiration, so sometimes the world of classical music feels appropriate.”

The tune “L’heure Pasolini” blends these signatures and more into a savory mélange. Like a wall crumbling from neglect, bass clarinet, piano, and bass suggest the remnants of a border. Moussay is downright gorgeous, while Murcia digs deep but also flies when thermals reveal themselves. Between this shadowy piece and the concluding brightness of “Darwich dans la ville,” the situation of every image is taken into account. The piano intro of “La dame de Martigues” stirs a kindred heart before bass clarinet moves like a figure in sheer clothing. Sclavis notes his affinity for this low reed, which sounds more soulful than ever: “I’ve been playing bass clarinet since 1972. It’s my go-to instrument. More and more, it has become my natural voice, to the point where I can now say exactly what I feel through it.” That said, the standard clarinet in “Extases” yields some of his most alluring textures on record, singing with fortitude and emotional release. Just as visceral is Murcia’s bassing in the groovier “Prison.”

In consideration of its strong conceptual foundation, I wondered how the music changed on its way to the studio. “In concert,” Sclavis responds, “we played more compositions. The record, however, is a strong collaboration between us and [ECM producer] Manfred [Eicher]. He knows what we want and how to achieve it, and by his suggestion we kept only my original music of our repertoire.” The sole exception to that model is Moussay’s own “Shadows and Lines,” in which bass clarinet returns like a specter in stone-laden scenes. The band ramps up its energy, just as quickly devolving into a pianistic unraveling that leaves Sclavis to roam unbound by idiom. His improvisations showcase a master at work. Then again, technical flourish takes a back seat to emotional acuity, especially in two group improvisations that came out of Eicher’s suggestion. As Sclavis tells it, “I decided to call these ‘Esquisse’ [French for “sketch”], in the manner of Ernest preparing for a painting.” All of which leave the walls of our minds as listeners bare and primed to receive images of vivid imagination and political relevance.

Heinz Holliger/György Kurtág Zwiegespräche (ECM New Series 2665)

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Heinz Holliger
György Kurtág
Zwiegespräche

Heinz Holliger oboe, English horn, piano
Marie-Lise Schüpbach English horn, oboe
Sarah Wegener soprano
Enresto Molinari bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Philippe Jaccottet recitation
Recorded June 2018, Radiostudio DRS Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Philippe Jaccottet was recorded August 2017
in Grignan by Nicolas Baillard, Studios La Buissonne
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.
–Philippe Jaccottet

If it comes as no surprise that Heinz Holliger and György Kurtág, perennial names in the ECM New Series roster, studied composition under Sándor Veress (cf. ECM 1555), then neither should the inevitability of blending their artistry in one of the most seamless programs to grace the imprint in recent years. Holliger, for his part, found a kindred spirit in Kurtág from day one: “Every note he writes is essential; there is never an idea of small talk…of wanting to please somebody or an audience.” The overarching title Zwiegespräche (“dialogues”) accurately describes the music. For indeed, when their works are placed side by side, a distinctly conversational rapport grows. These dialogues, however, extend beyond the composers themselves and into realms of texts, other musicians, and spaces of interpretation, so that in the listener’s walk from one end to the other, it becomes difficult to tell where Holliger’s terrains end and Kurtág’s begin.

If both are melodic composers, a memorial heart distinguishes a significant portion of Kurtág’s output. Most poignant in that regard is his …Ein Brief aus der Ferne an Ursula (2014) for oboe solo. Written just days before the death of Holliger’s wife Ursula (see, e.g., Lieder ohne Worte), it’s a loving tribute that wants to dance but instead curls into itself. The follow-up …für Heinz… (2014) is scored for piano, left hand, thus symbolizing Ursula’s absence. Its dissonances rest in brief catharsis.

A brighter pairing finds itself represented in both composers’ settings of the same text by 17th-century mystic and poet Angelus Silesius. Dating from 2010, they feature soprano in the leading role. Where Holliger adds oboe, English horn, and bass clarinet, Kurtág pairs the voice with English horn only. Holliger’s version was written while in hospital, where he challenged himself to write a madrigal each day during his recovery. Kurtág’s likewise pulls on inner filaments of mortality.

A standout of the album is Holliger’s Berceuse pour M. (2015), performed on English horn by his pupil Marie-Lise Schüpbach. Like her teacher, Schüpbach displays immaculate breath control and a balance of light and shadow. Holliger’s interpretations of seven poems by Philippe Jaccottet are equally moving. Each is read by the poet himself, and the words, written beneath corresponding notes in the score, are matched by oboe and English horn in extractions of hidden messages. The piercing altissimo of “Dans l’étendue…” and vocal inflections of “Je marche…” are especially visceral. Even the programmatic touches of “Oiseaux” feel more than reactive: they are cocreators in an extra-linguistic process.

Back in Kurtág’s world, a sequence of dedicatory aphorisms unfurls. Of these, the most naked are those written for contrabass clarinet solo. Schatten makes delicate use of key clicks and barest breath, and Kroó György in memoriam, written for radio editor and music critic György Kroó, rarely transcends a whisper. At more than six minutes, the latter feels like a novel compared to the short stories that surround it. The Hommage à Elliott Carter (for English horn and contrabass clarinet) and In Nomine – all-ongherese (Damjanich emlékkö) for English horn solo are vibrantly noteworthy as well.

Holliger finishes with his solo oboe Sonate. Composed in 1956/57 and revised in 1999, it is recorded for the first time here, after 63 years of sitting on paper since he penned it for Veress’s composition class. In it we can hear Veress’s influence on the younger composer, if not also Holliger’s on the older. From the leaping Präludium to the virtuosic Finale, ponderance of nature outweighs the nature of ponderance, leaving us with nothing short of a masterpiece.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

Enrico Rava/Joe Lovano: Roma (ECM 2654)

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Enrico Rava
Joe Lovano
Roma

Enrico Rava flugelhorn
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone, tarogato
Giovanni Guidi piano
Dezron Douglas double bass
Gerald Cleaver drums
Concert recording, November 10, 2018
Sala Sinopoli, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome
Engineer: Giampiero Armino
Editing: Manfred Eicher and Stefano Amerio (engineer)
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 6, 2019

Recorded at Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica during a pop-up tour in November 2018, this album preserves a formidable group led by Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava (heard on flugelhorn throughout) and American saxophonist Joe Lovano. Alongside pianist Gianni Guidi, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, they take us through a set of originals, classics, and original classics in the making.

Rava opens the set with two tunes of his own. The delicate swing of “Interiors” unfurls a scenic backdrop as the frontmen stretch firmament over fundament. It’s incredible to hear just how organically Rava and Lovano—each a master in his own right—avoid stepping on each other’s toes. The moment they occupy the same space, theirs feels like an inevitable collaboration. Like two shooting stars crossing in the night, they seem to be a once-in-a-generation coincidence, yet in the process yield an even brighter star that careens beyond the asteroid belt of expectation. Neither is foreign to the healing power of poetry. “Secrets” elicits a more itinerant sound with Rava as primary storyteller. Despite their titles, this and the opener are reveal their love of creation like a morning glory drenched in the rising sun. Cleaver reaps a gorgeous harvest of cymbals, adding splashes of color amid the monochrome, and through those actions works up a lather of protection against the march of time. Lovano, for his part, shows his ability to immerse himself in the ever-evolving soul of things.

“Fort Worth” initiates a Lovano-penned sequence with upbeat inflections, by which memories of the past and predictions of the future are adhered. Lovano is the winding spirit of the rhythm section’s uncanny swing. When he gives the floor to Rava, the warmth of the venue feels more palpable than ever. Guidi’s solo is particularly superb, unpacking two gifts for each one wrapped, and holds light in its hands. “Divine Timing” is a more free-wheeling vehicle for Cleaver, who primes the canvas for some unbridled color schemes. Douglas, meanwhile, understands the need to give as much space as he occupies.

The quintet ends with a powerful triptych, kicking off with Lovano’s “Drum Song,” which takes an anciently leaning bass solo as its seed and finds the composer on tarogato before morphing into John Coltrane’s “Spiritual,” of which Rava is the shining galaxy. All of this funnels into the dream of Guidi alone playing “Over The Rainbow” a nod to the cosmos to which we must all one day return.