Anouar Brahem: Blue Maqams (ECM 2580)

2580 X

Anouar Brahem
Blue Maqams

Anouar Brahem oud
Dave Holland double bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Django Bates piano
Recorded May 2017 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Nate Odden
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: October 13, 2017

If you’ve ever awoken from a dream with enchanting music on the brain, only to have it fade as the day wears on, Anouar Brahem’s Blue Maqamsmay just recapture the feeling of preserving it. The album is at once a return to form and a new direction for the Tunisian oudist, reuniting him with bassist Dave Holland (cf. 1998’s Thimar) and recording for the first time with drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates.

The introductory oud of “Opening Day,” solo but never alone, is a voice of pale light out of darkness, a careful witness of things just visible enough to understand. Holland listens from the periphery before locking step. DeJohnette feathers the edges, while Bates offers his gentle inclusions with the felicity of a poet. Thus complete, the quartet’s sound embarks as one body, lucid and self-aware.

Patience is the blood of Blue Maqams, as proven in “La Nuit.” Arpeggios from the keyboard are the nerves to Brahem’s soft impulses as deep notes flow duskily beneath. Only after six and a half minutes do bass and drums make their anchorage known, a formula replicated in “The Recovered Road to Al-Sham.” Such meticulously rooted stems produce ample flowers, and none so supple as the title track. Here Brahem and DeJohnette engage dialectically before a snaking theme works its way into the ventricles. Brahem’s cadenza—a thread of mournfulness in an otherwise peaceful weave—is the album’s conscience.

Bates delights in the duet “La Passante,” a tender segue into “Bom Dia Rio.” The latter is, along with “Bahia,” the smoothest joint of the set. A seamless ride through ocean waves and playful nights, it builds passion out of thin air and contrasts with “Persepolis’s Mirage,” in which we encounter something convoluted, emotional, emigrational. “Unexpected Outcome” closes the door by opening another. A steady rhythm section gives Brahem and Bates plenty of room to glide as the bandleader’s voice carries winged messages. Everything funnels into a final shimmer, making for one of the most stunning assemblages to ever graze its hands across ECM waters.

Kristjan Randalu: Absence (ECM 2586)

2586 X

Kristjan Randalu
Absence

Kristjan Randlu piano
Ben Monder guitar
Markku Ounaskari drums
Recorded July 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 6, 2018

In the past decade, ECM Records has welcomed a range of new artists into its fold, but perhaps none so unassuming as Kristjan Randalu. Equally versed in classical and jazz performance, the Estonian pianist offers a debut that forgoes breaking ground in favor of the tectonic shifts beneath it. The title of Absence therefore accurately describes the music’s lack of allegiance to ear-catching grooves and sly hooks. Randalu and his bandmates—guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Markku Ounaskari—explore new territory without mapping it, per se, as the latter would imply a sense of colonial control in which they are clearly uninterested.

The album’s topography is nevertheless trail-marked by four of its briefer artistic statements. “Lumi I” and “Lumi II” are the most revealing in terms of process. Monder’s painterly sensibilities are free to roam here, as also in counterparts “Adaptation I” and “Adaptation II.” Together, these tracks illustrate the band’s core principles. Whether grounded in occasional arpeggios or expanding like lungs filling with air, they show a contemplative, physical awareness achieving greatest symmetry in “Partly Clouded.”

Although the album for the most part treads an even atmospheric keel, there are standouts. “Forecast,” for one, opens from Randalu’s crystalline intro into the album’s first and longest tune. But the brightest stars in the mix are “Sisu” and “Escapism,” both of which render some of the most achingly cinematic vistas to be developed out of the ECM camera in a long time. Working slowly and surely and with promises of nothing other than their own honest reflections, both are deeply moving works of art. The same holds true of the concluding title track, a lyrical vehicle for Monder’s balladry that ends with a tender kiss. An appropriate way to finish, to be sure: rewarding love with love, in the hopes of birthing more in kind.

(This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Maciej Obara Quartet: Unloved (ECM 2573)

Unloved

Maciej Obara Quartet
Unloved

Maciej Obara alto saxophone
Dominik Wania piano
Ole Morten Vågan double bass
Gard Nilssen drums
Recorded January 2017 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 10, 2017

In keeping with its commitment to fresh artistry, ECM presents the studio debut of Polish alto saxophonist Maciej Obara and his young quartet. As an improviser, Obara understands the fleeting nature of spontaneous creation, accordingly emoting with the soul of a poet—which is to say, wasting neither sentiments nor space to contain them. Case in point is the album’s opener, “Ula.” It introduces a tangible sound ideally suited to ECM’s visually-minded ethos. Remarkable about Obara is the gesso-like way in which he listens before applying his own strokes to any given canvas. Like any skilled oil painter, he knows that certain layers must dry before others can be added with clarity. In that vein, pianist Dominik Wania provides the broadest textural palette, giving just the right amount of uplift for the bandleader’s reed. Wania’s intros are especially well blended and draw from a variety of reference points. He brings shades of John Cage’s In a landscape to the album’s title track by Krzysztof Komeda (the only one here not penned by Obara) and in his extended setup of “Echoes” polishes a mirror without an inkling of vanity to show for it.

Bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Gard Nilssen are purveyors of a mature subtlety by which give and take are rendered synonymous. In “One For,” they understand the lyrical potential of negative space. Interlocking in the freely-flowing “Joli Bord” and the concluding “Storyteller,” they sharpen serious arrows in preparation for whimsical targets. In terms of airtime, the piano trio is this record’s core, but Obara, in being so often backgrounded, unfolds his solos with an intensity made even more remarkable for selectiveness. His sound is unpretentious yet stands tall, fulfilling melodic promises with feeling rather than technique. It’s a surreal yet somehow organic form of communication that sticks as many feathers to each thematic bone until flight becomes achievable. The result is humility made musically incarnate and ready to fly.

(This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Django Bates’ Belovèd: The Study Of Touch (ECM 2534)

The Study of Touch

Django Bates’ Belovèd
The Study Of Touch

Django Bates piano
Petter Eldh double bass
Peter Bruun drums
Recorded June 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 3, 2017

British pianist Django Bates makes his ECM leader debut with The Study Of Touch, and by its release gives hope to fatalists who see the piano trio as a dying genre. Bates himself was only convinced of throwing his own hat into that congested ring upon hearing his future bandmates—bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun—in the halls of Copenhagen’s Rhythmic Music Conservatory, where he’d just begun teaching in 2005. First conceived as an improvisation outfit, his Belovèd trio grew to encompass the formative influence of Charlie Parker as a springboard for Bates’ own writing. Parker’s spirited “Passport” is, in fact, one of only two non-originals on the program. The other, “This World” by Iain Ballamy, harks to the saxophonist’s All Men Amen (B&W, 1995), on which Bates appeared. Significantly enough, on Ballamy’s album this tune’s title was followed by four ellipses, whereas here those ellipses are gone, implying expressive surety. This symbolic change speaks to something vital about Bates’ artistry, by which each gesture feels as inevitable as the mind-melded contributions of his rhythm section. It’s there in the topsy-turvy feel of “We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way” and underlying blues of “Senza Bitterness.” Such balance of slip and grip can only come from many hours of playing together without a roadmap.

Despite the many personal associations on which the tunes are founded, if not also because of them, listeners can’t help but merge at any given moment onto the band’s ever-changing fast lane of thought. Between the reflective “Little Petherick” and meatier “Slippage Street,” tessellated “Giorgiantics” and lushly colored “Peonies As Promised,” one encounters the clarity of anatomical drawing. The title track, along with the opener and closer, underscore this impression, sowing a sound defined by that which it refuses to define. Hence the prescience of touch as a theme for music rendered in that most asymptotic of contact zones between time and space, leaving us with one of the finest trio records of this millennium so far.

(This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Uusitalo/Sloniker/Louhivuori: Northbound (feat. Seamus Blake)

Northbound-cover

Despite what its title would have you believe, Northbound hits every cardinal direction. At its core are Tuomo Uusitalo (piano), Myles Sloniker (bass) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums), who together form an indivisible unit of expression. Unlike some other simpatico ensembles, their rapport isn’t so much one of interlocking as hybridization, as evidenced by the free improvisations peppering the set. In these, the voice of each musician breathes through the same body. From the microscopic cartography of “Focus” to groove-seeking insights of “Awakening,” the music gels organically and with clarity of purpose.

Similar intuitions fortify the meat surrounding these bones, into which guest Seamus Blake blends the protein of his tenor saxophone throughout six originals. Each lends insight into its originator’s talents. Sloniker’s “Counterparts” and “Gomez Palacio,” like the bassist’s playing, balance arcs and angles, unraveling two knots for every one tied. Louhivuori offers a diptych of his own with “Forgotten” and “Song For Mr. Moorhead,” building in each a patient reach for consummation. The drummer bridges these with the free solo “Rumble,” evoking a distant storm, before Uusitalo rounds everything out with the album’s strongest compositions. “Pablo’s Insomnia” is a highlight for its composer’s right-handed solo and command of space while “The Aisle” builds to anthemic parting.

Regardless of the complexities of the mazes put before him, Blake navigates with his eyes closed and heart on autopilot. He emotes with boldness yet manages to be sensitive to his environment. Neither overpowering nor overpowered, he knows exactly when to unhinge himself with a screech of color and when to sing in monotone, thus embodying the rarest aspect of Northbound: namely, its gracious handling of every melody. There’s something sacred to be found here and respecting it demands full attention.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available to download here.)

ECM by the Decades: The 2010s

On May 21, 2018, WKCR DJ Andrew Castillo and I presented the last in our five-part series, “ECM by the Decades,” focusing this time on the 2010s. The episode is now available to listen by clicking the PLAY button below. You may also download the full episode by clicking here. Scroll down for a full playlist, including links to my reviews (where available) of each album:


LEAD-IN
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Awase (ECM 2603)
“Modul 36”

[INTRO @ 00:13:32]

00:17:20
Eivind Aarset
Dream Logic (ECM 2301)
“Homage To Greene”

00:22:47
Dominic Miller
Silent Light (ECM 2518)
“Water”

00:28:09
Björn Meyer
Provenance (ECM 2566)
“Provenance”

[BREAK @ 00:34:13]

00:36:47
Stefano Battaglia Trio
Songways (ECM 2286)
“Songways”

00:45:22
Colin Vallon Trio
Danse (ECM 2517)
“Kid”

00:51:28
Django Bates’ Belovèd
The Study Of Touch (ECM 2534)
“Little Petherick”

[BREAK @ 00:57:48]

01:01:03
Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet
Eight Winds (ECM 2407)
“In Circles”
(April 2014)

01:06:18
Michel Benita Ethics
River Silver (ECM 2483)
“Back From The Moon”

01:12:01
Anouar Brahem
Blue Maqams (ECM 2580)
“Bahia”

[BREAK @ 01:20:42]

01:22:46
Jacob Young
Forever Young (ECM 2366)
“Bounce”

01:30:29
Ferenc Snétberger
Titok (ECM 2468)
“Rambling”

01:37:50
Jakob Bro
Streams (ECM 2499)
“Heroines”

[BREAK @ 01:43:21]

01:45:53
Andrew Cyrille Quartet
The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM 2430)
“Say”

01:50:48
Thomas Strønen
Time Is A Blind Guide (ECM 2467)
“The Stone Carriers”

01:57:27
Mathias Eick
Ravensburg (ECM 2584)
“Children”

[BREAK @ 02:03:10]

02:07:30
Aaron Parks
Find The Way (ECM 2489)
“Adrift”

02:13:07
Bobo Stenson Trio
Contra la indecision (ECM 2582)
“Élégie”

02:19:14
Shinya Fukumori Trio
For 2 Akis (ECM 2574)
“Mangetsu no Yube”

[BREAK @ 02:22:37]

02:26:56
Kristjan Randalu
Absence (ECM 2586)
“Sisu”

02:31:39
Maciej Obara Quartet
Unloved (ECM 2573)
“Unloved”

02:38:49
Ralph Towner / Wolfgang Muthspiel / Slava Grigoryan
Travel Guide (ECM 2310)
“Duende”

[CONCLUDING REMARKS @ 02:43:18]

LEAD-OUT
Elina Duni
Partir (ECM 2587)
“Amara Terra Mia”

ECM by the Decades: Final Installment Tonight

Join me and host Andrew Castillo tonight (May 21) on WKCR’s Jazz Alternatives program, from 6-9pm EST. We’re continuing where we left off, closing out our series with a selection of personal ECM catalog favorites from 2010 to the present. Click the logo below to be directed to the WKCR website, where you may stream us live by clicking the “LISTEN” icon on the top-right corner of the screen. As always, if you’re unable to tune in, we’ll be archiving the program here for future streaming and downloads.

WKCR

ECM by the Decades: Fourth Installment Tonight

Join me and host Andrew Castillo yet again tonight (May 7) on WKCR’s Jazz Alternatives program, from 6-9pm EST. We’re continuing where we left off, moving on to a selection of personal ECM catalog favorites from the 2000s. Click the logo below to be directed to the WKCR website, where you may stream us live by clicking the “LISTEN” icon on the top-right corner of the screen. As always, if you’re unable to tune in, we’ll be archiving the program here for future streaming and downloads.

WKCR

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Awase (ECM 2603)

Awase

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Awase

Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha bass clarinet, alto saxophone
Thomy Jordi bass
Kaspar Rast drums
Recorded October 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: May 4, 2018

The booklet for Awase, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch’s latest release with his band of Ronin, quotes French theorist Roland Barthes: “The sign is a fracture which only ever opens onto the face of another sign.” Perhaps no other statement better expresses the fractal nature of this music, for the more one zooms in on its precisions, the more one senses its freedoms expand. Joined by Sha (bass clarinet and alto saxophone), Kaspar Rast (drums) and newest recruit Thomy Jordi (bass), Bärtsch finds himself rooted in a familiar ethos while sprouting new verdure.

The album continues his “modular” approach, by which larger bodies coalesce from elemental forces. The newest of these, “Modul 60” and “Modul 59,” open and close the album with hints of a concentrated future. Where the latter emotes in liminal territory, the former is a direct link to Continuum, Bärtsch’s previous record for ECM with his Mobile project. Any nods to the past, however, are refracted through a brighter coming of age: a sound that once ran now leaps. The ritual groove of “Modul 58,” for instance, is at once what we might expect and a fresher take on group integration, a taste of perpetual motion shown in the band’s willingness to let details express themselves to the level of ecstasy. “Modul 36” reveals the deepest change; known to any longtime listener of Bärtsch, here it takes on the uniformly colored properties that would seem to extend the band’s evolutionary path. It’s a classic yet forward-thinking groove, one that feels like a childhood home renovated from the inside out. “Modul 34” is another early tune, only now making its studio debut. There’s an almost digital quality to it, nuanced by human touch.

Awase is also a departure for including a non-Bärtsch original by Sha: the enigmatically titled “A.” Gradually building an ocean out of a water droplet, its waves flow to the magnetic suggestions of an itinerant philosophical compass. Like the album as a whole, it toes the line between light and shadow with every intention of shedding its ego to both along (and by) the way.

(This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)