Barre Phillips: End To End (ECM 2575)

End To End

Barre Phillips
End To End

Barre Phillips double bass
Recorded March 2017, La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 7, 2018

When bassist Barre Phillips began his diaristic exploration of the double bass in 1968 with Journal Violone (the sequel to which found its way onto ECM in 1980), little did anyone know it would reach its destination half a decade later. This album’s title, End To End, thus signals the closing of a circle filled by one of the instrument’s most stalwart innovators. Divided into three retrospectively titled sections, the program is reflective of both his ability to say so much with so little and of producer Manfred Eicher’s to understand the grander narrative of which that little is a part.

Quest
From the first pizzicato strains, it’s clear that Phillips is one who thinks not only through the bass, but also from it. Every note belongs. When he applies bow to strings, there’s a confident vulnerability to its pulse. It moves like windblown leaves with just enough sunlight peering through to bring a childhood memory into focus. His breathing, when audible, imbues glissandi with sentience. When not audible, it curls up as if in hibernation for melodic spring. In that dream state, it embraces the possibilities of dissonance, harmonics, and other subtly applied contacts. Part 4, in which he taps out a Morse code of mortality, is especially moving for its urgency. So, too, is his own quest for unspooling page after brilliant page, each awaiting the caress of post-production ink.

Inner Door
Phillips takes out a metaphorical microscope and through it shows his art to be a parthenogenetic wonder. Double stops resound with all the power of a mantra, and by their appearance activate particles of moonlight. Here his bow is the wand of a master storyteller, one whose choice of words is as organic as the imagery they describe. The rhythms of an aging body, creaking joints and all, reveal a greater force at work.

Outer Window
From that introversion we get the sunbeams of this final section. Although similar in spirit to what preceded it, it takes the most intimate turns yet, and by those paths draws an equation of visceral extroversion. Now the microscope is swapped for a telescope. He peers through it, only to see a twin figure with the exact same setup looking back at him. In those last moments, flesh dies and stars are born, never to be captured again by glass and curious regard.

John Surman: Invisible Threads (ECM 2588)

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John Surman
Invisible Threads

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet
Nelson Ayres piano
Rob Waring vibraphone, marimba
Recorded July 2017 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Peer Espen Ursfjord and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 19, 2018

John Surman is one of those rare reed players whose tone is so recognizable that it contributes to an ever-expanding autobiography with every aural stroke. In this unusual new trio, he joins forces with pianist Nelson Ayres, who he met while recording in Brazil, and vibraphonist Rob Waring. The program consists largely of material written for this studio occasion, and by its dovetailed aesthetic renders one image after another of cinematic integrity. The most vivid tracks in this regard include “The Admiral” (a dream of maritime proportions), “Pitanga Pitomba” (the marimba of which reveals a Southeast Asian influence), and Ayres’s folky “Summer Song” (the only track on the ballot not written by Surman). The pianist adds even deeper grooves to “Autumn Nocturne,” a picturesque scene that glides easily into the soul. He dashes Latin flavor into the music’s broth, thereby encouraging a fragrant symbiosis of ingredients.

The interplay of the band is cosmic, as in the airy “Within The Clouds” and the more haunting “On Still Waters.” From the latter’s bowed vibraphone, Surman’s bass clarinet emerges as lava in search of a place to form an island, while the former spans the gamut from amphibian sermon to avian reverie and compresses the most beautiful parts of summer into five minutes of bliss. “At First Sight” is one among a handful of diurnal excursions in which Surman’s soprano cuts the air like a bird threading the needle of time. Both this and “Another Reflection” are built around the harmonies of “Byndweed,” an album highlight for the communion of Ayres and Waring, and Surman’s lilting poetry. His baritone (viz. “Concentric Circles”) flexes the broadest muscles of all and, not unlike “Stoke Damerel,” lushly reimagines memories of what came before.

As the album’s title implies, these threads may be invisible, but they’re nevertheless easy to detect in what amounts to one of Surman’s most vital sessions to date. Buy it now, and it will make up for whatever you spend on it a hundredfold in your first listen.

Keith Jarrett Trio: After The Fall (ECM 2590/91)

After The Fall

Keith Jarrett Trio
After The Fall

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock double bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Producer: Keith Jarrett
Recorded live in concert
November 14, 1998
at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC),
Newark, New Jersey
Engineer: Alain Leduc
Mastering: Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 2, 2018

After playing his last concerts in 1996, documented as A Multitude of Angels, Keith Jarrett was stricken with a bout of chronic fatigue syndrome that kept his hands away from the piano for two years. Only after that period of mystery and debilitation did he try to revive his trusted band with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. After a few rehearsals in the studio, he decided it was time to take a chance on the concert stage, doing so on November 14, 1998 for a performance at Newark, New Jersey’s new Performing Arts Center. If not for a touch of restraint, one might never know the difference, as Jarrett unpacks a formidable intro to their nearly 16-minute version of “The Masquerade Is Over” to kick off the evening’s revival. In addition to his obvious joy, one can bask in Peacock’s buoyancy and DeJohnette’s flowering metronome. Jarrett’s fingers are even more alive in the Charlie Parker standby “Scrapple From The Apple.” With the blessed assurance of this longstanding relationship, Jarrett gives us metaphysical nourishment of the highest archival order.

Jarrett Trio

“Old Folks” dips his hands into a font of balladic wonders. As well in “When I Fall In Love” and Noel Coward’s “I’ll See You Again,” he builds emotional castles brick by meticulous brick, giving his all to the integrity of the entire proverbial kingdom. A characteristically luxurious take on the live staple “Autumn Leaves” offers 13 minutes of polished bliss. No signs of fatigue, physical or otherwise, can be read into this ecstatic rendition, especially as Peacock and DeJohnette offer surprises of their own in a brilliant triangulation of spontaneous invention. The concert’s upbeat excursions, in fact, offer some of its most head-nodding rewards. These include Bud Powell’s “Bouncin’ With Bud,” which unfurls a robust scroll of creativity; an exuberant take on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” in which DeJohnette and Peacock blaze around every corner; and a muscular interpretation of John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice.” Neither does Jarrett concede anything close to fatigue in the denser geometry of Sony Rollins’s “Doxy” or Pete La Roca’s “One For Majid,” in which the trio flies high and swings low. And Jarrett’s sensitivity shines as brightly as ever in Paul Desmond’s “Late Lament,” for which he opens another eye for every one that he closes.

No one could have known what this concert would bring, that it would usher in a freer, more unrestricted era, or that it would unshackle Jarrett’s chains in favor of rebirth. But with this piece now restored for all to place into the puzzle of their appreciation, we find proof that old endings are only new beginnings in disguise.

Marcin Wasilewski Trio: Live (ECM 2592)

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Marcin Wasilewski Trio
Live

Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double bass
Michal Miskiewicz drums
Recorded live August 12, 2016
at Jazz Middelheim, Antwerp
by VRT-Vlaamse Radio en Televisie
Engineers: Walter De Niel and Johan Favoreel
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 14, 2018

When pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz stepped out onto Antwerp’s Jazz Middelheim stage on August 12, 2016, little did they know their performance was being recorded. Yet what a gift for those of us who couldn’t be there to experience the outgoing energy, ingoing consideration, and philosophical circuits thereof conducting electricity around this joyous music. Appropriate, then, that “Spark Of Life” should open the set with its expansive reasoning. The patience and willingness afforded by a live setting to let these tunes breathe (most exceed ten minutes) is unabashedly explored here, especially as the band phases into the inviting “Sudovian Dance.” In such a transition, one can hear exactly what makes this outfit click. In addition to the powerful arc of Wasilewski’s artistry, we find Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz attending to every architectural support with the attention of historical preservationists. As the first in a handful of Wasilewski originals, this dyad opens the door into a hallway of many mirrors, each of which offers a different shade of self-regard. We might therefore read “Three Reflections” as being as much about ourselves as about the thoughts of an unnamed other, whose distant experiences and desires detect us telepathically. In light of this four-dimensional turn, the linear journey of “Night Train To You” comes across with urgency. As one of the bandleader’s most masterful compositions, it’s primed to unfold grand wings in this freer setting. Wasilewski transforms the keyboard into an emotional express track, connecting heart to beating heart without looking back. And as the tender strains of “Austin” caress the ear, we know we’ve found a home away from home in the arms of someone whose only happiness is to ensure our own.

Along the way, Sting’s “Message In A Bottle” gets an uplifting treatment. The rocking bass line in Wasilewski’s left hand is satisfying to the nth degree, acting as a springboard for far-reaching improvisational gestures. Kurkiewicz basses like a storyteller who just can’t wait to share the ending with an eager audience, while Miskiewicz ensures that every punctuation mark holds integrity as a monument to inflection. And what an eager audience he must have, as the applause and cheers ride a wave of wonder superseded perhaps only by the musicians’ own.

Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” finishes with a tactile ride through rain-slicked streets and melodic due process. Every move feels as calculated as it does free: an enchanting dichotomy that lures us into every twist and turn until, like any great mystery, it falls into place in retrospect and gives us the pleasure of tracing our memories back to the start, where we can listen with fresh ears even before that final chord is struck with astonishing certainty.

Florian Weber: Lucent Waters (ECM 2593)

Lucent Waters

Florian Weber
Lucent Waters

Ralph Alessi trumpet
Florian Weber piano
Linda May Han Oh double bass
Nasheet Waits drums
Recorded September 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 2, 2018

German pianist Florian Weber follows 2016’s Alba in the company of a fresh quartet. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi, with whom Weber has the longest association of those gathered, is a free and democratic spirit. Bassist Linda May Han Oh, here making her ECM debut, is a deeply grounded soul. And drummer Nasheet Waits, whom Weber had already admired and was suggested by producer Manfred Eicher, is a detailer of the highest order. Says Weber of the group: “It’s the first time I’ve had a band where what particularly interests me is the difference between the players and their approaches to improvising.” But while they do indeed have distinct voices, the music they play and its sequencing embody a masterstroke of interlocking associations.

Where most bands might wish to start off with a steel-toed shoe, “Brilliant Waters” finds the group improvising their way barefoot into frame, with only the tune’s title as suggestion. Weber’s pianism is a symphony of tactile blending, its flowering of purpose driven by volition. “Melody Of A Waterfall” opens an equally vulnerable door. Inspired by traditional Japanese drumming, it’s a gorgeous vehicle not only for Waits but also for Oh, who reveals a muscular lyricism, all while Weber cascades into the deeper waters of “From Cousteau’s Point Of View.” Inspired by the perspectives afforded him through oceanic diving, it at last introduces Alessi to the mix. Its rhythmic overlay is gorgeous and satisfying, the trumpeter’s tonal control gravity-defying, and the piano’s melodic currents enchanting.

“Honestlee” is a tribute to Lee Konitz, in whose venerable presence Weber has worked alongside Oh, and whose inspirations are felt as much in the spirit as in the song. Song being the operative word, as Weber hums his way through nearly every turn of this interpretive maze. His interactions with the bassist are symbiotic, resulting in an experience of crystalline proportions. Oh makes an even bigger emotional withdrawal from the creative bank of “Butterfly Effect,” across which Alessi marks his trail with fluid brushwork. Waits exposes a dramatic undercurrent before Weber and Oh weave the spotlight into their own blanket of revelation. To that tune’s spatial reality “Time Horizon” adds temporal fantasy in a trio highlight that gives the rhythm section all the fuel it needs to make its engine purr. In light of its unfolding, “Fragile Cocoon” speaks with the urgency of infancy yet in a language of near-stillness before the first wing, then the second, emerges into a dancing universe and leaves the delicate “Schimmelreiter” to mark our exit with breadcrumbs and flower petals—not so that we might find our way back but so that we might never forget where we’re going. Thus the album redraws its own circle, inviting us to link our own in a hieroglyphics of gratitude.

Masson/Vallon/Moret/Friedli: Travelers (ECM 2578)

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Travelers

Nicolas Masson tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet
Colin Vallon piano
Patrice Moret double bass
Lionel Friedli drums
Recorded April 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 16, 2018

If the blood ties between jazz and beauty were ever in doubt, one would need only spin Travelers to restore faith in that very principle. Swiss reed player Nicolas Masson’s quartet is more than a plush setting for nine original compositions; it’s a veritable life in miniature with its own triumphs and stumbles. One could hardly imagine a more stunning outfit to don while walking down these hallowed halls. Along with pianist Colin Vallon, a formidable bandleader in his own right, Masson joins bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Lionel Friedli for a journey that is equal parts introversion and extroversion. This isn’t some ad hoc studio creation, however. It’s a band 12 years strong. I asked Masson via email what it meant for him to submit such a mature quartet to the engineering scalpel:

“We had already released an album named Thirty Six Ghosts in 2009 on Clean Feed Records but our music had changed quite a lot since and it felt like the right time to document the band at this moment of its evolution. The fact that we have such a long history together helped us get straight to the point in the studio.”

And how, I wondered, did the band come together?

“I was working at the time with my first band, featuring Russ Johnson on trumpet, Eivind Opsvik on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. I wanted to have a band in Switzerland as well (I had just moved back from New York) and was also exploring different styles of music which required a different sound. So I started the band with Patrice Moret, Lionel Friedli, and a guitar player that was soon to be replaced by Colin Vallon on Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. To me they were the best musicians available in the country for the music I had in mind, and they still are! But more than that—and most important in the end—is our connection on a human level. I feel like we grew up as a band at the same time as we grew up as human beings, and we became that unit. It’s as if the musical concept was replaced over time by the band itself.”

This band-as-bond aesthetic is easily perceptible in the set’s opener, “Gagarine.” In its constantly shifting air currents, the saxophone feels like an extension of itself, sustained by song. This feeling is magnified in “Fuchsia,” wherein synesthetic pleasures unfold with a welcoming combination of precision and freedom. Vallon is a wonder here, his every note the reflection of Masson’s shimmering moonlight.

If descriptions of this music lend themselves so effortlessly to visual analogues, that is perhaps because Masson is also an accomplished photographer. One of his images, in fact, adorns the cover of this album, in addition to a handful of other ECM sleeves.

“Photography always occupied a very important place in my life, a passion surpassed only by music. At one point, I never went to a concert without my camera. It helped me understand music on a different level, through a different prism. At first I wasn’t really familiar with the musicians I was photographing: Randy Weston, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Archie Shepp, Dewey Redman, The World Saxophone Quartet, John Zorn, Tim Berne, Miles Davis (yes!)…and it helped me get intimate with the making of the music. I was observing each of their movements, each eye contact, each interaction happening through my lens, while I was intensely listening. Then I felt I needed to make a choice between music and photography, so at 19 years old I boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway in Moscow and spent almost six months in Asia, taking as many images as possible. These long months away from music were fantastic, but I missed my saxophone too much, so I took a flight from Singapore to Geneva, grabbed my horn, and left for New York City! Over time music and photography became inseparable from each other. I need photography to feed my musical imagination and my musical experiences to guide my eye when I’m away from my instrument. Sometimes I like to think that I hear images and see sounds. Now regarding ECM, it also makes total sense to me since so much care is given to the visual side of any of their productions. It has to be a complete experience.”

Said completeness is made possible by Masson’s attentive bandmates, each of whom brings polishes his own facet of a holistic jewel, and for whom he has written compositions with particular souls in mind. There’s the painterly journey of “The Deep,” which dedicatee Friedli renders a beautiful struggle against the passage of time, and “Wood,” for Moret. The latter’s abstract yet rooted turns are indicative of the bassist’s oceanic sensibilities. Vallon, for his part, is a color mixer and blender whose palette exceeds the bounds of its own habitation, especially in the title track, a masterful duet with its composer. Each of these trusted friends nurtures Masson’s themes as seeds of unexpected growth. The saxophonist himself digs into deepest emotional reserves on “Philae,” a touchstone for its superbly articulated tenor, piecing together a landscape of monochromatic integrity.

To my ears, this music is deeply connected to memory. Masson agrees:

“I do rely on memories to find inspiration: visual, aural, olfactive, light, shapes, past experiences, sensations of places I’ve been to, people I’ve known, and so forth. I’m not exactly sure why, but it’s true that when I write music, most of the time a reminiscence is at the root. Maybe that’s common with people who have lived through indelible experiences early on in their lives.”

In these respects, both “Almost Forty” and “Blurred” seem to play with the idea of recollection and its way of filling in the gaps when reality cannot quite fully be captured. The first of these is a tender ballad that pushes the blood flow of Friedli’s cymbals through Moret’s thick arteries as the life force behind Vallon’s transformation of the keyboard into canvas, while the second finds the clarinet paving the way for a softer landing.

Such clarity of storytelling makes ECM an ideal home for this band, as in the nocturnal shading of “Jura.” It’s a solemn yet trustworthy way to end the day, kissing the present moment goodbye to welcome slumber. Says Masson of working with producer Manfred Eicher in this context:

“It’s such a privilege to let someone so uniquely gifted and experienced tell us if we’re going in the right direction or if we should try to expose things differently. It feels like working with one of the greatest filmmakers. You bring the story, the dialogues, and the actors, and he takes you on location, brings the cameramen, the lights, the right lenses and cameras, and offers his vision to help you realize your project. He keeps you on the right track and isn’t afraid to tell you when you’ve overplayed something. I feel very fortunate to have had the privilege to work with him, I am certainly looking forward to next occasion.”

And so are we, on the other side of the screen.

Louis Sclavis: Asian Fields Variations (ECM 2504)

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Louis Sclavis
Asian Fields Variations

Louis Sclavis clarinets
Dominique Pifarély violin
Vincent Courtois violoncello
Recorded September 2016, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 17, 2017

Although clarinetist Louis Sclavis has longstanding partnerships with violinist Dominique Pifarély and cellist Vincent Courtois in respective contexts, here they record for the first time as a trio. Each musician contributes to the overall compositional palette, and with each other’s greatest strengths firmly in mind. Sounding at times like chamber music, and at others like lullabies for an exhausted jazz fanatic, Asian Fields Variations is a robust thesis, fully proven.

Sclavis’s writing oozes atmosphere. Amid the arid currents of “Mont Myon,” throughout which drones metamorphose into melodies and vice versa, a melodic firmament switches places with an improvised fundament, and by that exchange speaks to the grander order of things in which this music unfolds. The bass clarinet monologue of “Pensée Furtive” likewise listens within to describe that which occurs without. But then “Asian Fields” opens a new window. There’s an open secrecy to its aesthetic, as if rendering a scene in charcoal normally done in ink. Courtois unpacks some particularly deep implications in his pizzicato solo, leaving Pifarély to bounce joyfully within each new geometric standard applied to the frame. And where “Cèdre” is a virtuosic showcase for all three, there’s nothing extraneous to hide its intentions. Here, as also in the closing “La Carrière,” a flexibility of emotion prevails, allowing every motif room to inhale, exhale, and inhale again.

The sound-world of Courtois is a graver mixture of dissonance and consonance. His balancing of the two in the unaccompanied “Done And Done” is absorption incarnate. “Fifteen Weeks” and “Les Nuits,” both for the trio, are mosaics of near-overlapping memories, each instrument an actor in idiosyncratic dramas. Pifarély’s “Figure Absente” is a violin solo of quasi-Baroque fascinations and Romantic exegeses. It is text and footnote in one. His “Sous Le Masque,” by contrast, is a play of hidden shadows and implications. Thus is left only the group improvisation “Digression.” Located at the album’s exact center, it speaks with the assurance of friends debating over issues that, while never resolved, make them closer for it all.

Keith Jarrett: A Multitude of Angels (ECM 2500-03)

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Keith Jarrett
A Multitude of Angels

Keith Jarrett piano
Concert recordings October 1996
Modena, Teatro Comunale / Ferrara, Teatro Comunale
Torino, Teatro Regio / Genova, Teatro Carlo Felice
Played, produced and engineered by Keith Jarrett
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Manfred Eicher at MSM Studio, München
An ECM Production
Release date: November 4, 2016

Fate is retrospective. It lies hidden for any number of years—in this case twenty—before cracking a smile just broad enough to enter our field of vision. Whether courted by demons or offered by angels, events have a way of feeling inevitable when serving as targets of remembrance. In these solo concerts, recorded October 1996 in four Italian cities, Keith Jarrett reminds us that fate can be as beautiful as it can be terrifying. In the album’s liner note, the pianist calls this a pinnacle of his career as a solo improviser. But the keyword there is the indefinite article, for it must be one pinnacle of many in a horizon filled with them. These being the last solo concerts he would give before a then-undefined disease locked his body into temporary submission, they also unlocked a self-awareness that even Jarrett would need time to discover.

Part I of his performance at Modena is so comforting that listeners cannot help but become more deeply aware of their own selves. Like an old friend with whom you pick up right where you left off, it feels immediate and true. Jarrett embraces us with gentle assurance, asking nothing more from us than the same in return. As he transitions into a groovier romp midway through, punctuating the ether with all the experiential knowledge he has in grasp, he whispers of a reverie yet to come. As always, his is the voice of an artist marveling at his own transmission. Part II, as often happens in a Jarrett solo sequences, contrasts flowing lyricism with abstract denouement—no less welcoming than the more hummable forays. His probing nature creates an atmosphere of exploration, of a willingness to scour every last inch of soil in search of archaeological clues to the nature of these sounds. It only feels spontaneous because for being unearthed after so much hibernation.

Part I of Ferrara is one of the most visceral journeys Jarrett has ever recorded. Throughout its 44-minute traversal, we encounter an entire biography, spun and re-spun until shames are filled with virtues. This anthem of the soul paints a twilit dream of such thin altitude that it can only break itself toward fulfilment of knowledge. This is a crowning achievement of alchemy, by which the piano’s tempered steel medium metamorphoses into a golden message of liberation. This is followed by an upbeat Part II, for which Jarrett digs so deep that it’s all we can do to shine a light into the proverbial tunnel to catch a glimpse of his feet as he slips from view.

Torino’s brooding opening reveals a geometric puzzle that can only be solved by mixing it. Through its process of productive error, Jarrett becomes more complete, walking as much as dancing through stages of learning. Part II likewise obliterates introverted theories with extroverted practice, turning complex shapes into universally translatable phrases, hammered into place by stomping feet.

Genova’s first part, freest of them all, is a kaleidoscope turning in the hands of a future self. As Jarrett cascades down the waterfall of his own acceptance of whatever notes may come, he follows rather than leads the way into a river of diaristic currents before Part II travels upstream to the source. An anthem for all time, devoid of time.

This four-disc set might be worthy of the adjective “monumental” if only it wasn’t so intimate. If anything, it’s humility incarnate. This is clearest when Jarrett’s encores take form as tried-and-true melodies. Whether in his loving rendition of “Danny Boy” in Modena or aching “Over the Rainbow” in Genova, he plays to show us who we are at any given moment. Even in the unnamed encores we find something human to hold on to, alive with outstretched hands. Such is this music’s ability to grow as we grow, so that the most timeworn phrase becomes new when we add more pages to the books of our lives.