Julia Hülsmann Trio: Sooner and Later (ECM 2547)

Sooner and Later

Julia Hülsmann Trio
Sooner and Later

Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded September 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 24, 2017

Julia Hülsmann returns to ECM bearing the flag of the phenomenal trio that marked her label debut as leader. Rejoined by bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling, she paints one fully fleshed image after another, leaving not a single brushstroke unnoticed. Such artistry abounds in the album’s opener, “From Afar.” One of four originals by Hülsmann, it signals a theme of itineracy, inspired in no small part by her travels with the band in North and South America, China, and Central Asia. The latter geography reveals deepest influence in “Biz Joluktuk,” a melody by a 12-year-old violinist from Kyrgyzstan named Rysbay Abdykadyrow. In addition to its melodic beauties, it’s also a quintessential example of how movement connects humanity in the spirit of allusion. Hülsmann’s “J. J.” and “Soon” are especially head-nodding tracks, sparkling like a disco balls in some cerebral night club. “Der Mond” ties a beautiful ribbon around it all for a final swing of the compass. “Thatpujai” is a standout track. This introverted homage to German jazz pianist Jutta Hipp (1925-2003), whose name was anagrammed into the present title, is built around transcriptions of Hipp’s solos and goes straight to the heart.

Köbberling and Muellbauer contribute two tunes apiece. Where the drummer’s “You & You” is a rhythmically savvy and sunlit tune brimming with welcome, “Later” is a groovier affair, replete with complex changes, superb bassing, and sumptuous piano voicings. The bassist walks an enchanting path in his “The Poet (for Ali),” as if turning the desert into a giant piece of sheet music in wait of each step to notate it. “Offen,” by contrast, flips the scales into a tropical climate and finds Hülsmann weaving her mantras one pregnant word at a time.

Rounding out the set is an arrangement of Radiohead’s “All I Need,” which by its gentle suggestions rewrites the parameters of the trio’s boundaries while also deepening them in their place.

Gary Peacock Trio: Tangents (ECM 2533)

Tangents

Gary Peacock Trio
Tangents

Marc Copland piano
Gary Peacock bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded May 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 25, 2017

Following the 2015 debut, Now This, Gary Peacock helms his trio with pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron once again into pristine waters. As if by force of metaphor, the trio indeed coheres like a finely made vessel in the set’s opener, “Contact.” The first of five Peacock originals, it opens with the bassist by his not-soon-to-be-lonesome, a voice with something to say. As Copland’s postmodern lyricism and Baron’s scintillating cymbals step into frame, we find ourselves moving from doorway to outside world. Throughout Peacock’s other compositions, whether in the evocative “December Greenwings” or the narrative title track, his bassing rises and falls as a city breeze while Copland fills in the footsteps of every pedestrian footprint below. And in the enthrallments of “Tempei Tempo” and “Rumblin’” he blossoms into jagged grooves that only reinforce their adhesive qualities with every rhythmic turn.

For this session, Baron pens the rightfully bubbling “Cauldron,” a sonic stew that goes down one hearty morsel at a time. His detail-rich drumming proves to be an intuitive foil for Copland’s chord voicings, as well as for Peacock’s ebullience. “In And Out” is another Baron creation that finds the drummer in lithe duet with Peacock. Copland contributes his own “Talkin’ Blues,” which by its sharp turns and fancy footwork glides over a uniquely joyous terrain.

The trio’s resplendent takes on nocturnal standards like Alex North’s “Spartacus” and Miles Davis’s “Blue In Green” show us only what masters can do with the masters when recorded by the masters, while between them breathes the freely improvised “Empty Forest.” This gentle yet no-less-formidable beast of a tune hangs its stars from every tree to replenish a foliage withered by time.

Remarkable about Tangentsis how equally each player contributes to the overall sound. One could write its roster on a wheel, spin it at any moment, and find enjoyment by focusing on whatever name it lands on. Everyone is as much a listener as a crafter of that which is heard, a chaser of the same muse whose love of communication is as indelible as the sentiments conveyed here.

Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet: December Avenue (ECM 2532)

December Avenue

Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet
December Avenue

Tomasz Stanko trumpet
David Virelles piano
Reuben Rogers double bass
Gerald Cleaver drums
Recorded June 2016, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 31, 2017

Now the windows, blinded by the glare of the empty square, had fallen asleep. The balconies declared their emptiness to heaven; the open doorways smelt of coolness and wine.
–Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

Tomasz Stanko’s twelfth album for ECM as leader, released just shy of sixteen months before his death in 2018, is both a lean into the future and a languid dip in the past. In the former regard, one can expect a darker side of jazz to reveal its face at many turns herein. From the opening “Cloud” to the closing “Young Girl in Flower,” the Polish trumpeter and his New York Quartet don’t so much render a single circle as an ever-growing coil of them, each transitioning through iridescent colors of retrospection. In pianist David Virelles, bassist, Reuben Rogers, and drummer Gerald Cleaver he finds climatic support that opens the firmament to let in vaporous songs of resuscitation. Each is strangely thrilling, despite Stanko’s overcast writing.

Virelles keeps the barometric pressure balanced, setting the tone of “Blue Cloud” and “Bright Moon” with patience before an overflow of emotion takes place. Rogers and Cleaver add masterful waves of recall beneath Stanko’s storytelling vibe, in which the bandleader uses gestures and feelings to convey his characters’ deepest moral decisions. Like “Ballad for Bruno Schulz” and its distant cousin, “The Street of Crocodiles,” each breathes us mid-sentence into a literary world. The latter tune’s cinematic cool, in combination with Rogers’s arco drunkenness and Stanko’s back-alley flutters, is a pinnacle.

Not all is doom and gloom, however, as we’re treated to some scattered uprisings of emotion. Although still drawn from the shadows, “Burning Hot” and “Yankiels Lid” excavate the night with tools of fire, while the groovier title track feels like a lost take from Stanko’s previous effort, Wisława.

Three free improvisations fill in the gaps, each with Rogers as its fulcrum in largely duo settings. Sharing the air with Stanko in “Conclusion” and with Virelles in “Sound Space,” the bassist understands that any dream can be turned real by the flick of destiny’s wrist. Thankfully, one of those flicks loosed this album through the ether and into our receiving ears.

Sungjae Son: Near East Quartet (ECM 2568)

2568 X

Sungjae Son
Near East Quartet

Sungjae Son tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Suwuk Chung guitar
Yulhee Kim vocal, percussion
Soojin Suh drums
Sori Choi traditional Korean percussion on “Baram”
Recorded December 2016, Stradeum Studio, Seoul
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mixed by Nicolas Baillard, Manfred Eicher, and Sun Chung at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: August 31, 2018

Saxophonist/composer/bandleader Sungjae Son and his Near East Quartet splash into ECM territory with this phenomenal debut. Joined by guitarist Suwuk Chung, singer-percussionist Yulhee Kim, and drummer Soojin Suh, he charts new paths along old maps, bringing traditional Korean music, or gugak, into the stratosphere of improvisation. It’s a unique concept not explored on the label since Then Comes the White Tiger, but with a freshness all its own. The concept is in the name, which came at the suggestion of Chung. In the guitarist’s words: “We’re all born and raised in an Eastern country, but our identity is very much Westernized. Not by choice of our own, but of the world that made us. So we can’t really say our music is from the ‘East.’ Rather, it feels like we’re standing somewhere near it.” This push and pull of identity politics is expressly felt in the set’s two Korean folk songs. Where “Mot” zooms in like a cinematic close-up on a young woman picking lotus seeds, the seafaring “Pa:do” evokes the undulation of waves, both literal and figurative. Son’s bass clarinet in the former moves full dark over desolate landscape while Suh’s drums in the latter illuminate details where few others would find purchase. The ability of both to embody what they articulate is marvellous.

In response to the question of combining traditional Korean music and jazz, Son tells me by email that for him jazz “is all about different cultures meeting together from the start. It’s only natural for me to bring something from my own cultural background into jazz that I love. East and West share the beauty of sound and the beauty of silence. As for what makes Korean traditional music distinct, I can only say that it embraces empty space instead of filling it in.” And embrace it they certainly do in “Ewha.” This opening track is a portal of welcome into a sound-world that’s equally physical and immaterial. Its mood is so initiatory that it’s all one can do to close one’s eyes against the glare of its forthrightness. It shares body heat as a way of shedding the skin of expectation for something uniquely honest.

NEQ
(Photo credit: An Woong Chul)

Just as the modern elements emphasize their ancient counterparts, so do the ancient shed light on the modern. In that respect, however, Son has little to say with regard to the Korean jazz scene: “My quartet doesn’t sit squarely in the Korean jazz scene, which is small enough as it is and has no place for outsiders like us. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve made due by creating our own scene.” Listening to tracks like “Baram,” for which Sori Choi joins on traditional percussion, it’s impossible to disagree. The first in a handful drawn from the orally transmitted Pansori epics, it’s told from the viewpoint of a lover wishing for word from the one who has left her behind, yet whose dedication results in a fatal beating when she refuses a local magistrate. Her only hope is to reunite with her true love in another life. Kim sings with audacity and emotional integrity, embraced by a cosmic pond of guitar and lured by the percussion’s death knells. As also with the urgency of “Galggabuda” and patient intensity of “Jinyang,” each word feels like a sonorous wound. That said, Son attributes no special thematic significance to the chosen texts. “The language itself,” he says, “has its own color and rhythm that brings a different atmosphere to the music. There’s no point in understanding the meaning of the lyrics in my music.” To be sure, we can just as easily feel its pulse as if it were our own without translation.

This feeling of human connection is only enhanced by producer Sun Chung, whose gentle hand is felt by its very absence. “He never tried to guide us or anything,” recalls Son. “He just believed in our music. We recorded new songs that no one has heard before. Even we didn’t know what was going to happen. But during the recording, I felt like he already knew exactly what needed to happen. At one point I asked him, ‘Sun, why don’t you say something?’ To which he responded, ‘I’m not here to speak. I’m here to support whatever it is you want to do.” Although such freedom of expression is palpable throughout, it’s especially evident in “Garam” and “Ebyul.” Like currents flowing between islands, they make long distances seem surmountable by mere strum of guitar, brush of drum, or whisper of reed. Each is a dream turned inside out until we can step through it in reality, breathing in words as sacrifice and exhaling melody as reward.

When I ask Son what he hopes listeners will experience in this album, his answer is as straightforward as the music it describes: “Somethin’ else.”

John Abercrombie Quartet: Up and Coming (ECM 2528)

Up and Coming

John Abercrombie Quartet
Up and Coming

John Abercrombie guitar
Marc Copland piano
Drew Gress double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded April/May 2016 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistants: Thom Beemer and Nate Odden
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

The quartet of guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron, last featured on 2013’s 39 Steps, returns for the final ECM album to be released before the bandleader’s death. As if we ever needed a reminder of why his art was more than its own musical country but a continent unto itself, this gorgeous swan song fulfills that duty and then some.

Each facet of Up and Coming pays tribute to Abercrombie’s meteoric development as a musician, and by the brushwork of his bandmates renders a group portrait quite unlike any other in the business. On “Joy,” we’re introduced to their symbiosis in spades. As wind currents of guitar and piano flow over each another, they trace a cymbal-kissed shore and its trail of bass footprints. If joy abounds here in name, so does it also in spirit on “Flipside,” of which an understated brilliance showcases the quartet at its straightforward best.

If “Sunday School” is a lesson in grace and doctrinal congruity, wherein Abercrombie shines with a quiet light and sparks a particularly introspective solo from Gress, the title track is a more secular campaign led by the guitarist’s liquid-mercury call to arms. In likeminded spirit, Copland contributes two tunes written for this session. Where “Tears” rows a classically inflected river that finds Abercrombie and Gress wielding the most delicate of improvisational oars, “Silver Circle” elicits a funk-infused passion.

Channeling Bill Evans in their rendition of the Miles Davis standard “Nardis,” the band begins without rhythm, floating in reverie before landing into sunlit fields. And there we find Abercrombie cartwheeling away in “Jumbles.” Here, as until now, Baron’s splashing cymbals are the leitmotif of a palpable scene.

It goes without saying that this album’s title is most ironic, given that such playing can only be forged by those who’ve been around the block more than a few times. From beat one to none, Up and Coming is a fitting end to an unparalleled legacy—one, I sincerely hope, of more in the wings of ECM’s archives.

JAQ
(Photo credit: Bart Babinski)

Tarkovsky Quartet: Nuit blanche (ECM 2524)

Nuit blanche

Tarkovsky Quartet
Nuit blanche

François Couturier piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
Jean-Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Recorded April 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 7, 2017

When opening our eyes, do our minds turn to thoughts of waking? Nuit blanche, the latest from pianist François Couturier’s ever-deepening Tarkovsky Quartet, answers this question with a possibility of dreams. It’s clear not only in the tracks variously titled “Rêve,” “Dream,” and “Traum,” but also in the blurring of corporeal borders such linguistic costume changes imply. In those pieces, each fitting into a larger improvisational puzzle, we get lost just to be found.

In so much of the connective tissue that holds together these vital organs, this quartet’s ethos blossoms vividly. A gentle urgency in the title track’s cello, singing at merest touch of Anja Lechner’s bow and tempered by the cross-hatching of Jean-Louis Matinier’s accordion, provides ample preparation for the soprano saxophone of Jean-Marc Larché to unfold its wings one feather at a time. As if to drain that metaphor of its itineracy, tracks like “Soleil sous la pluie” and “Fantasia” evoke a feeling of suspension. Taps of bow on strings and of knuckles on hollow body play out a dialogue of mechanical sins and immaterial salvations, each detail a poem without words. The latter piece’s transcendence recalls the levitation scene in The Sacrifice, and by that association adds a touch of spirit to vessels of the flesh, turning in on itself until the two are indistinguishable in glory.

Whether in more direct references such as “Dakus,” inspired by Tōru Takemitsu’s Nostalghia (itself written in memory of the director), or the distinct nostalgias of “Urga,” every ruined landscape we encounter here is, as in the wasted Zone of Stalker, a blanket of broken futures over a memory too joyous to contain. Couturier’s unaccompanied “Daydream” and “Nightdream” are likewise liminal, at once floating and sinking in a stream of imagined silence. Between them is “Cum dederit delectis suis somnum,” plucked from Antonio Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus and passed like a torch from bow to reed with all the sanctity it demands.

If, as Andrei Tarkovsky himself once said, “the sounds of this world are so beautiful in themselves that if only we could listen to them properly, cinema would have no need for music at all,” we might also say that the music of this quartet named for the Russian auteur, if watched properly, would have no need for imagery at all. Then again, one can’t help but treat it as a projection screen for internal scenes, each more personal than the last. And so, ending as we began, with the eyes as fulcrums between dreaming and waking, never knowing where to draw a line between the two yet confident that no level of imagination can do justice to what they see, we walk into sunset, knowing that all we need to make it a sunrise is stand on our heads.

Benedikt Jahnel Trio: The Invariant (ECM 2523)

The Invariant

Benedikt Jahnel Trio
The Invariant

Benedikt Jahnel piano
Antonio Miguel double bass
Owen Howard drums
Recorded March 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

Five years after their 2012 ECM debut, pianist Benedikt Jahnel, bassist Antonio Miguel, and drummer Owen Howard return to form while also expanding the parameters of what’s possible within it. A clue, perhaps, into this calling-card title—The Invariant—through which implications of constancy are playfully cross-hatched by their own unraveling. It’s all there in the pianism that opens “Further Consequences,” laying the stones for a spiraling staircase into the heart. Here, in this innermost sanctum, is where the torch of interpretation is passed from performers to listeners. The urgency of Miguel’s bassing is softened by the entrance of Howard’s brushes, which by their gentle persuasion soften the temperature into cooler streams of consciousness.

All of this lays a grand carpet for the introverted groove of “The Circuit,” in which the trio swings gently enough that one barely senses its passage through crowded city streets. It’s a transfiguration of time through space, and of space into time itself, a psychological wormhole between modes of creation. But regardless of whether the atmosphere at the other end is the funkier “Part Of The Game” or the fragmentary “Interpolation One,” the deeply arranged “Mirrors” or the balladic “En Passant,” Jahnel and company separate rope into filament at every turn. They also leave themselves open to suggestion, as in the case of “For The Encore.” Originally intended to close out the set, producer Manfred Eicher felt its steady triangulation of pulse, free-floating midsection, and bass soliloquy worthy of earlier placement.

The boldest circle here, however, is “Mono Lake,” of which an insistent beat and diecast melody hold the surrounding muscles together as a ligament. Like the album in the fullness of its being, it flirts with infinity in a collective song so resolutely out of body that words struggle to catch its shadow.

Quercus: Nightfall (ECM 2522)

Nightfall

Quercus
Nightfall

June Tabor voice
Iain Ballamy tenor and soprano saxophones
Huw Warren piano
Recorded December 2015 at Cooper Hall, Frome
Engineer: Mike Mower
Mixed at The Soundhouse Studios, London
Engineer: Gerry O’Riordan
Produced by Iain Ballamy and Huw Warren
Release date: April 28, 2017

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
–Edward Thomas

Four years after a 2013 debut on ECM, the trio known as Quercus deepen their mission in this follow-up gospel. Unlike singers whose tone may be described as silken, sultry, or smoky, June Tabor treats her voice as would a metallurgist an alloy. Together with saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren, she yields new admixtures at every turn, each more elemental than the last.

High crests among the program’s traditional selections include two songs collected by Somerset folklorist Ruth L. Tongue (1898-1981). “On Berrow Sands” and “The Shepherd And His Dog” showcase Warren’s exquisite pianism, the former with such oceanic clarity that one can almost smell the ghosts of dead sailors taking flight among the seagulls as Tabor recreates their sacrifices. In “Once I Loved You Dear (The Irish Girl),” she mines the ore of words, handing it to us without polishing away the dirt of its forgotten slumber. As stolen love takes flight into darker realities, Tabor gouges out superficial wounds and fills them with the bronze of self-reflection.

All of these are branches to the roots of “Auld Lang Syne,” which opens the album in a cradling of words. Tabor steps out of time, pulling aside the curtain of night just a sliver to let the past bleed through. Ballamy illustrates that transition beautifully, adding deeper evocations of trauma through his tenor in “The Manchester Angel” and maternal love in “The Cuckoo.” He also contributes his own composition, “Emmeline,” in a circling duet with Warren, echoing the form taken in Warren’s own “Christchurch.” Both fit naturally into their surroundings, as does the jazz standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” an evergreen dipped in silver. And whether turning West Side Story’s anthemic “Somewhere” into something mysterious or making Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” uniquely her own, Tabor communicates so vividly as to render every stalk of wheat, every stone and animal bone in the fields beyond. Such music, then, is never about inclusion but extension of a tradition whose torch glows only in the human heart. An intimate and special experience that could have been created by no other.

Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet: Metamodal (ECM 2631)

2631 X

Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet
Metamodal

Sokratis Sinopoulos lyra
Yann Keerim piano
Dimitris Tsekouras double bass
Dimitris Emmanouil drums
Recorded July 2018 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 15, 2019

Athens-based lyra virtuoso Sokratis Sinopoulos returns to the quartet that earned him deserved acclaim on 2015’s Eight Winds. With pianist Yann Keerim, bassist Dimitris Tsekouras, and drummer Dimitris Emmanouil, he once again brings the ancient and the unexpected into harmony. At the heart of Metamodal is its eponymous suite, divided into three parts: “Liquid,” “Illusions,” and “Dimensions.” From its quiet hole emerges a snake of melodic origin whose tongue flickers always in search of the next note. Behind the insistence of Sinopoulos’s playing, clay drums and bass erode a stony topography. As background and foreground intermingle, dances speak not of a celebratory present but of an unrecoverable past.

Before any of this takes shape, “Lament” opens the album proper with an arco bass drone, over which the lyra weeps, while a wave of piano caresses a distant shore, at once mournful of the footprints it destroys and hopeful of clearing the slate for new ones. Thus, Keerim lifts memories of those who once walked along those sands, their souls drifting to a land where the bodies they once inhabited were forbidden entry. Such transcendence is echoed in “Red Thread,” wherein the band paints a restrained yet dynamic canvas on which once-divisive politics now blend until their edges disappear.

If hope is to be found, it’s in “Walking” and “Dawn.” But the hope is fantasy. Still, the musicians hold fast to it like refugees their cultural identities, knowing as they do that illusions of safety are as real as one makes them out to be. And so, “Transition” is an appropriate title not only for the tune it names, but also for the aesthetic of Sinopoulos and his fellow travelers, who as a unit look two steps ahead with each remembered. As in the freely improvised “Mnemosyne,” they carry uncertainty like a treasure as they walk into the future, leaving footprints in the sand as an ephemeral record of their traversal.

(This review was first published in RootsWorld online magazine. The original link is here.)