Jorge Rossy: Puerta (ECM 2661)

Jorge Rossy

Jorge Rossy vibraphone, marimba
Robert Landfermann double bass
Jeff Ballard drums, percussion
Recorded September 2020, Jazz Campus Basel
Engineer: Daniel Dettwiler
Assistants: Daniel Somaroo, Eric Valle, and Alexander Beer
Cover photo: Max Franosch
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 5, 2021

After making his ECM debut on drums as part of Jakob Bro’s Uma Elmo trio with Arve Henriksen, Jorge Rossy returns as leader, this time swapping out drumsticks for mallets. Equipped with his trusted vibraphone and marimba, the Spanish multi-instrumentalist glides his way through a suite of originals.

“Post-Catholic Waltz” is quintessential Rossy in all respects. It opens with a smooth, understated introduction before allowing the vibraphone to make its presence known as if on the most unobtrusive red carpet imaginable. His bandmates, bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jeff Ballard, move in step into deeper forest, carrying a wealth of implications, only some of which will see the light of day. Rossy’s approach is always to the point. Were it rendered in speech, every word would count. This is especially true of “Taínos,” which breathes with a measured vocabulary against a nested rhythm section. That said, Rossy credits his sidemen for being soloists in equal measure rather than traditional supports. In this respect, “Adagio,” “Scilla e Cariddi,” and “S.T.” form braids of three distinct yet complementary colors. The title track, too, with its adventurous percussion and arco lines, paints with an enchantment that requires full commitment from all members.

Despite the generally preference for slides and jungle gyms on this proverbial playground, the trio makes sure to get in some good swinging on “Maybe Tuesday” (a nod to George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”) and “Ventana.” Their focus is on texture and tactility rather than blend, per se, although the trio coheres without stepping on each other’s toes. With just as much shimmer as shadow, these tunes breeze their way through the changes in organic shifts of light. Like the quiet tango of “Adiós” that closes out the set, it treats every gesture as a paragraph’s worth of ideas and leaves the listener to unravel the details.

The only outlier in this set, “Cargols,” comes by way of Chris Cheek, alongside whom Rossy played as part of Steve Swallow’s Into The Woodwork quintet. This slow-motion jaunt is the album’s fulcrum. As such, it carries much of the weight that follows in its yielding net. It is itself a portal into a world in which Rossy operates under the banner of rhythm, reminding us that here, too, his role is significantly bound to the pulse.

Being Present: An Interview with Wolfgang Muthspiel

Photo credit: Laura Pleifer

Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel is one of a handful of guitarists whose influence is as robust as his humility. Muthspiel began his musical training in classical violin, shifting to guitar in his teens. And yet, while he is now firmly entrenched in jazz-defined spaces, he has never let go of his love for chamber music and the intimate sensibilities required of one to self-express in that genre. Despite the temptation to draw lines of influence between his style and that of others—particularly Mick Goodrick, under whom he studied while at the New England Conservatory before moving on to Berklee—his profile is distinctly silhouetted. After spearheading Material Records in 2000, he began focusing on a series of small-group projects, including the MGT trio with fellow pickers Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan. MGT later recorded for ECM, starting an ongoing relationship with the German label for Muthspiel, which has since produced such masterstrokes as Driftwood, his trio album with Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade, and a handful of leader dates, including 2016’s Rising Grace. In the following interview, we dive a little deeper into Muthspiel’s background, interests and aspirations. 

Tyran Grillo: Everyone is a work in progress, of course, but if you were to characterize yourself as a musician and as a human being at this point in time, what would you say? 

Wolfgang Muthspiel: To define oneself is tricky, but I would say that I have two main playing fields in my life: the music and my small family. To strike the right balance seems to be the key and it is not always easy. But I am grateful to love what I am doing. 

TG: In terms of striking that balance between music and family, what have been some of the greatest lessons you have learned along the way? 

WM: I guess the lesson is: I want to be really present with music when that is going on and I want to be really present with family when that is going on. It is better to have longer stretches of each without trying to compensate all the time between the two. 

TG: You have performed and recorded with some amazing musicians throughout your career. Can you talk about the most gratifying of those experiences? 

WM: I learned so much with many great musicians who played with me over the years and lessons are everywhere all the time if one stays open. Musicians who have made a huge impact on me are Gary Burton, my first big sideman gig, and Paul Motian, who embodied so much of the essence and freedom of jazz. He was a modernist with a huge link to the tradition. As such, he offered me a priceless learning experience. But many contemporary jazz musicians that I play with have also been huge inspirations, like Ambrose Akinmusire, Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, Brian Blade and Scott Colley, to name a few.

TG: Was there a “eureka” moment at which you realized that music was going to be your life? 

WM: I grew up with classical music but my siblings and I always improvised with each other as kids, long before we knew anything about jazz. When we later found out that improvisation is at the heart of jazz, we were hooked. Coming from a classical tradition and coming to jazz relatively late at age 14 brought its own blessings and challenges. 

TG: Can you expand on some of those blessings and/or challenges? 

WM: One of the blessings was being able to learn so much about harmony, intonation, practicing, discipline, tone and technique as a young child. One of the challenges was having to do a lot of extra homework later on about time, tradition, jazz language and repertoire. 

TG: Who were some of your greatest teachers, musically or otherwise, and how does their dedication continue to inspire you? 

WM: My main guy was Mick Goodrick, who was direct, honest and encouraging. I spent two years with him as a student and then we played a lot of duo gigs. He was the perfect teacher for me, the one I was looking for. He is a scientist of the guitar and a philosopher about music. As a kid I had many great teachers, starting with my violin teacher at the age of six. I was very lucky in that regard. 

TG: Can you talk a little bit about your artistic directorships and residencies? 

WM: I am the Artistic Director of an immersion year at JazzCampus Basel in Switzerland called “Focusyear”. There we invite up to eight players from all over the world to come to Basel for a full year. They are coached regularly by some great artists who come for a week at a time. They record an album, play concerts and get a full scholarship. This year’s coaches are Jeff Ballard, Chris Cheek, Kris Davis, Sullivan Fortner, Larry Grenadier, Guillermo Klein, Ingrid Laubrock, Lionel Loueke, Linda May Han Oh, Aaron Parks, Elena Pinderhughes, Tineke Postma, Jorge Rossy, Becca Stevens, Cuong Vu, Miguel Zenón and myself. I am fortunate to get to invite all these interesting artists and witness the growth of the ensemble throughout the year. As each teacher brings his or her own universe, it is a truly inspiring job. 

TG: How would you characterize your composing? 

WM: I love composing. For me, it is an act of finding rather than constructing. I love to go on the hunt for a song. It is part of my daily music-making when I am at home. I usually work with concrete people in mind, who I write for. I imagine them in the room with me. 

TG: Have you composed for film? 

WM: I have scored for a 1931 silent film by F.W. Murnau called Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. The score is for cello, trumpet and guitars and we have performed it live in front of big screens in a few concert halls. There is also the music I made with my [trombonist] brother, Christian, for a film about our father, Kurt Muthspiel [1931-2001], which is called Super 8 Music. It is made from Super 8 home movies and provides a lasting statement about our family. 

TG: What is your role as teacher? 

WM: I try to encourage the music that is inside my students. I also ask them to get their shit together. I encourage them to go for what they burn for rather than learn everything a little bit. 

TG: Can you talk about what it is has been like to work with Manfred Eicher? 

WM: I got introduced through Ralph Towner, who brought our trio with Slava Grigoryan to ECM. We did the album Travel Guide together and I got to know Manfred. This is when our relationship started. It is a privilege to work with Manfred, who is completely dedicated to the art of recording. His ears and intuition for the flow of music have a big impact. 

TG: At this moment, who are some of your most inspiring musicians, artists, writers, etc.? 

WM: I owe so much to artists. Be they writers, visual artists, actors, directors or musicians, they make this world rich and deep. They transcend the pragmatic materialistic superficiality and remind us of our souls. It is almost impossible to make a list, but here is a small excerpt. Writers: Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Tobias Wolff, Thomas Mann and Toni Morrison. Painters: Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin and Henri Matisse. Musicians/composers: Witold Lutosławski, Olivier Messiaen, Django Bates and Duke Ellington, but also old masters, including Bach, Mozart and Schubert. Musicians/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Prince and The Beatles. Jazz musicians: Keith Jarrett and his bands, Miles Davis and his bands, Wayne Shorter and his bands, Billie Holiday, Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny. Also: Paco de Lucía, Glenn Gould…the list goes on. 

TG: What is one of the most meaningful musical experiences you have had? 

WM: Once in a while, the music plays itself and when that happens, it is blissful and encouraging. It is a zone one wants to be in all the time. These moments become shining lights and reminders that this freedom exists. 

TG: And what is your most profound experience as a listener? 

WM: A reoccurring miracle is that we can enter the world of music as listeners so fully and truly live in it. This is a completely different world than our earthly world. I believe that many listeners have this experience. When the piece is over, we return to our physical existence. Where were we before? And every time I enter certain pieces, I have the same experience— in some cases, the same experience as 40 years ago. 

TG: Is there anything in particular you have yet to do musically that you hope to accomplish someday? 

WM: I would love to play at the Village Vanguard because it is soaked in vibrations of great music. 

TG: On a similar note, is there anyone you wish to work with that you haven’t already? 

WM: I am open for new adventures and don’t have a list of people I want to work with. But, in my fantasy, I would have loved to play with Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis. 

TG: Do you think being a musician today means anything different than a few centuries ago? 

WM: I feel that a few centuries ago, you had to be of a certain class, race and gender to even be considered. In that way, it is more open now. At the same time, we also live in a time of shorter attention spans and so much information that a good musician can be overlooked or undervalued easily. 

TG: What is the most meaningful comment someone has ever made about your music? 

WM: Whenever I realize that there are people out there who live with my music, I am incredibly motivated to give them the best I can give. To have listeners is so valuable. However, I believe that it is healthy not to listen too much to comments about your own music and just keep going with it. 

TG: If you could travel back in time and meet yourself when you were just starting out as a professional musician, what would you say to yourself? 

WM: I would say: “Go for it and have fun.”

Shai Maestro: Human (ECM 2688)

Shai Maestro

Shai Maestro piano
Jorge Roeder double bass
Ofri Nehemya drums
Philip Dizack trumpet
Recorded February 2020, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover: Mayo Bucher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 29, 2021

After making his ECM leader debut with The Dream Thief, pianist Shai Maestro returns with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya, adding to their mix trumpeter Philip Dizack (in his debut for the label) for a sound that feels as solitary as it does tapped from the veins of collective experience. If this album’s predecessor was a reflection of past harmonies, this follow-up holds a mirror to the future. Forward-looking tendencies are immediately apparent in “Time,” which after a clear opening thesis dissipates into the gentlest of body paragraphs, and (speaking of mirrors) “The Thief’s Dream,” wherein new secrets abound. In these blushes of information, window-framed views outline the possibilities of constant change. Similar atmospheres in the title track and the brief “GG” uphold chance encounters as examples of purposeful living.

If any glimpses of permanence are to be caught, one might find them in tracks like “Hank and Charlie” (an elegiac tribute to Hank Jones and Charlie Haden) and Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” (the only tune here not written by Maestro). By focusing on ephemeral subjects, they reinforce the solidity of what’s left behind in the process of memorializing them. The same holds for the album’s deepest moments, reserved for such master narratives as “Mystery and Illusions,” which further highlights the musicians’ strengths. From the gentle way Dizack lays down the theme like a parent transferring a napping baby from arms to crib to the graceful drumming and piano aside, and Roeder’s dancing synchronicity drawing a thread through it all, the band’s sense of touch makes a statement of its age, for the ages. Like “Compassion” (a solo offering from Maestro) or the concluding “Ima” (a wonder to behold), it is a new level of music making that must be heard to be believed.

(This review originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Craig Taborn: Shadow Plays (ECM 2693)

Craig Taborn
Shadow Plays

Craig Taborn piano
Concert recording, March 2, 2020
Wiener Konzerthaus
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 8, 2021

Since releasing Avenging Angel, Craig Taborn’s first spontaneous recital for ECM, a decade ago, the pianist’s traversal on the label has brought him to collective enterprises with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell, Thomas Morgan, and Chris Potter. All the while, his language has been as much his own as it has been a force of adaptation to contexts big and small. If that earlier effort can be said to evoke disembodiment, then let Shadow Plays be its embodied other half. From the gestures that open “Bird Templars,” one gets the sense that each of Taborn’s hands is a traveler engaged in a slow-motion contest for a single path ahead. And yet, there is no feeling of animosity—instead, a sense of wonder, especially as the music quiets in the left, allowing the right to offer its soliloquy in the spirit of accompaniment. If it is possible to whisper through a piano, then Taborn has accomplished that here. “Discordia Concors” and “Concordia Discors” both offer frantic searches for meaning balanced by the jauntier rhythms of “Conspiracy Of Things” between them. These pieces find themselves pulled to the keys by a gravitational force they cannot quite escape.

The jazziest inflections await interpretation through “A Code With Spells” and the concluding “Now In Hope,” both of which convey honeyed textures with cinematic sensibilities, each coated by resistance against the storms that have barraged us over the past year and a half. The most epic stretches are reserved for “Shadow Play,” in which chords resuscitate the possibility of harmony. As one of the cleanest concert recordings I’ve heard, it felt like I was the only one in the room: an intimacy we need more of than ever.

(This review originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Eberhard Weber: Once Upon A Time (ECM 2699)

Eberhard Weber
Once Upon A Time (Live In Avignon)

Eberhard Weber bass
Concert recording, August 1994
Théâtre des Halles, Avignon
Recording producer and engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mixed May 2021 at Studios La Buissonne
Cover painting: Maja Weber
Cover background: Thomas Wunsch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 5, 2021

In 1994, during a solo European tour, bassist Eberhard Weber appeared at the Théâtre des Halles in Avignon under the auspices of the Festival International De Contrebasse, organized by Barre Philips. Much of the material presented in this recording came to the stage by way of Pendulum and Orchestra, echoes of which germinate seeds given more time to sprout. Recognizing familiar themes throughout this set of seven is as joyous as experiencing how much they change in a live context.

Setting the tone for this traversal is Weber’s “Pendulum,” a meditation that gives both rhythmic underpinnings and flights of fancy their space to sing. This is the signature of Weber’s overhanded style: he allows all gestures to make use of the air. His five-string custom instrument is an extension of his body, articulating the balance of playfulness and inner pulse as only he can.

“Trio For Bassoon And Bass” makes flowing use of overdubs for an intimate orchestra. In this composition, Weber allows the bass to interpret itself—a form of therapy that sends blood to the ears where it is needed. Without so much as a blink of interruption, he allows motifs to spread beneath the subcutaneous layers of our listening like tattoos in sound. This tune in particular allows him to flex his virtuosic muscles with unmatched stride and depth of character. Astounding here are less the denser rises and more the quieter passages in which he brings out his most artful details—each affording an unimpeded view into his heart as a musician.

The faster excursions are breathtaking in their ways. Take “Ready Out There,” for instance, which clarifies its purpose from the first step. Its otherworldly atmosphere is superseded only by its harmonic language, through which is expressed a novel’s worth of environments, actions, and enough moral glue to hold them all together.

“Silent For A While” leverages more understated overdubbing, Weber’s swelling loops drifting toward an island of promise. Thus, he turns colors into structural elements. “Delirium” likewise exhibits a melodic edge that only sharpens with speed. A faint drone gives him just enough backbone to turn an invertebrate impulse into a vertebrate melody that shines with conviction. 

“My Favorite Things” is yet another overdubbed gem. That the backdrop stays within the same lilting key makes the melody taut in its reflectiveness. It also gives Weber freer license to make of it what he will, turning the title into a mission statement rather than a pleasantry. “Air” ends things without self-accompaniment. A tender and breath-heavy farewell, it gives way to restfulness and active dreams—and that is where it remains.

There is an unshakable poignancy to this album, as underscored by its title, which implies the story of a bygone era. The age of this document makes its appearance 27 years later ghostlike in reminiscence of a genius whose future remains uncertain. Either way, we live with the knowledge that such glimpses of eternity are here to savor thanks to ECM’s dedication to contributions that will outlive us all.

Ayumi Tanaka Trio: Subaqueous Silence (ECM 2675)

Ayumi Tanaka Trio
Subaqueous Silence

Ayumi Tanaka piano
Christian Meaas Svendsen double bass
Per Oddvar Johansen drums
Recorded June 2019, Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, Oslo
Engineers: Daniel Wold, Ingar Hunskaar (mix)
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Mastering: Stefano Amerio
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 29, 2021

Following her introduction to the ECM constellation via Thomas Strønen’s Time Is A Blind Guide, and more recently in her appearance alongside the drummer and clarinetist Marthe Lea in Bayou, pianist Ayumi Tanaka shines her starlight as leader across a spectrum of humbling atmospheres. In the hands of her bandmates, bassist Christian Meaas Svendsen and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, Tanaka’s music for trio introverts the form in a way that makes us feel subcutaneously placed as listeners. Thus, we can immediately detect her appreciation for molecularity. Any ECM admirer will understand that this concept is suited to the label, where suspending articulation in favor of physics is an almost sacred leitmotif. I asked Tanaka in an email interview whether her approach to space is a conscious decision:

“In the process of making this album, I always aimed to answer my fundamental question: ‘What would I like to hear?’ As a result, the music has space to invite silence, allowing us to hear sound surrounding and within us, and take note of musical sound more deeply, when it arrives.”

That image of arrival is a profound one to consider in the album’s opener, “Ruins.” For while it does take precedence by virtue of being our doorway into Tanaka’s sound-world, it has been singing long before we encountered it, as it will continue to when we leave it. For now, we have its attention, sharing a room as lines with neither beginnings nor endings invite us to float somewhere between inhalation and exhalation. Brushed drums and understated bass evoke creaking trees and winter-kissed leaves while the piano speaks in the language of silhouettes before shaking the boughs of their snowy dusting and moving into the future with echoes of the past in its arms. Holding these images in mind, I ask about Tanaka’s connection with the natural world:

“Since I was a child, I always enjoyed being in nature and listening to its sounds. When I am in the forest, listening to the birds, water dripping, the trees shaking in the breeze, I feel that it is more perfect than music—everything is harmonized. I am trying to learn from the sound of nature. I would like to create music that would resonate with nature.”

We hear this as much in “Ruins II” as in “Zephyr.” Both speak of landscapes vaster than can be expressed under a single title. The depth soundings of the latter improvisation for piano and malleted drums evoke the debris of human action, swirling like so much dust in the winds of collective memory. Hence “Black Rain,” a picture of time’s ablution against the wrongs of our political missteps. While the title, for me, evokes the postwar novel by Ibuse Masuji, Tanaka sees it as about more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

“There are things we need to learn from the past and need to carry with us to end and avoid more wars and conflicts.”

This message of hope wavers in every shadow of Subaqueous Silence. Its purpose is indeed broader than specific tragedies would have us believe; it is a formulation of the human condition written in the ink of experiential harmonies. These are the underlying tensions of “Ichi.” Here is the singularity of existence unrolled like a scroll on which a single human life has been recorded with varying levels of realism. Where one moment might find a flash of childhood rendered in vivid clarity, the next only hints at an experience too painful to bear with whispering brushwork. In that sense, I find myself wondering how (and whether) aesthetic considerations are central to the flow at hand. Given that Tanaka was born and raised in Japan and has lived and worked in Oslo for the past decade, it would be easy to draw bicultural conclusions along those lines. This characterization, however, may be far too concrete to inject into the processes documented here:

“I am not sure if I want to have an aesthetic of my music at this point in my life because I want to discover something in each moment. Being in the moment and dedicated to the music is something I am always trying to do. ‘Find your own voice’ is something that Misha Alperin, an amazing pianist and my mentor, was always saying to me. It stays in my mind and I am always seeking that. All my experiences in Norway definitely had a big influence on my musical expression. On the other hand, since I moved to Norway, the more I have sought my own approach and the more I have started to realize my deep Japanese roots and to appreciate the beauty of Japanese culture, especially in art and music. Delving into two such different cultural environments is a gift that has shaped my musical expression.”

By way of example, “Towards the Sea” teaches us that a journey is nothing but a chain of small ones linked to form a retrospective trajectory. Every gesture tells a story within a story until only single words are left to stand in for memories. This implies, too, that music is a universal language and an appropriate medium through which to explore these modalities. Tanaka agrees:

“Since I was 15 years old, I have seen music as a ‘universal’ language. When I was invited to perform my compositions in Germany, I was very moved by this experience because I felt that universal language at work. Music is a gift. It consoles us, questions us, gives recognition of something within us. I am hoping that people experience my music in their own way. I hope I will be able to give something to someone through music because music has helped me in life.”

The title track is the culmination of all of this and more: gestures born in climates, geographies, and eras that are as much drawn together as pushed away by the distances that separate them. With a heavying presence and biological self-awareness, it works its percussive prayers in the sunlight of a future age when dreams are the only things that will be real. This is the music of aftermath and new beginnings wrought in earth, stone, and wood. It searches, unafraid to share its discoveries so that we might know the honesty in which they were embraced, then freed. Instrumental highlights abound, but their cohesiveness goes against the spotlighting of “solos” or moments of interest. Surely, this connectivity cannot exist without the trust of her bandmates and producer?

“I am very lucky to have the trio members who have built trust and respect over the years. I think Christian and Per Oddvar are really good listeners, not only musically but also in general. They are open-minded and flexible in their capacity of accepting things in each moment. Christian and I were studying at the Norwegian Academy of Music at the same time, and Per Oddvar is the musician who we had been listening to. Given our common education in improvised music in Norway, I think we naturally evolved a mutual understanding. In addition to that, we happen to have common interests in ancient Japanese music, arts, and culture. It reflects on the way we play the music together. Also, the music Manfred has produced is one of the strongest reasons I am here now. I deeply appreciate his trust and confidence in my music. That personal recognition is something I carry with me.”

Said extends to the listener who, while not present during the recording, is retroactively invited to absorb every reaction as it emerges. Such intimacy is rarely given and primes our ears as pages for inscription. And so, in the wake of these expressions, I find myself returning to the question of finding one’s voice:

“Facing myself is often hard, especially when I am working alone, but it is rewarding. The joyful element is when I find my voice through collaboration with others. I think it’s natural that our voices change because we are changing all the time through all the experiences we have. I am working on finding my own voice with the hope that my musical expression becomes deeper and deeper every day.”

Let this be the first step of that staircase.

Keith Jarrett: Budapest Concert (ECM 2700)

Keith Jarrett
Budapest Concert

Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded live July 3, 2016
at Béla Bartók Concert Hall, Budapest
Producer: Keith Jarrett
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Cover photo: Martin Hangen
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 30, 2020

From the 2016 European tour that gifted us with Munich 2016 comes this improvised solo concert from Keith Jarrett recorded at Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest. The pianist’s Hungarian heritage and love of the venue’s namesake gave the experience a homecoming feel that fed into every note he rendered, whether spontaneous or previously held in mind. Jarrett has since held the result in high regard as epitomizing what he is capable of at the keyboard—and rightly so, because what we have here is crafted in a spirit of such welcome that one might easily forget the album was released during a time of social distancing and quarantines.

In twelve parts spanning two CDs, Jarrett digs deep within to give much without. I offer this image as something more than a metaphor; he is physically mining his cells in search of the ore that we on the outside might call splendor. That said, there’s nothing lofty about the music that results from this process of elimination. If anything, it builds ever downward to build a private kingdom. Remarkable, then, that we might share in its retrospective pleasures.

From the moment Jarrett lays hands to instrument, he touches fertile soil from which to yield the striking contrast of his shadowy left and playful right. A dance-like quality struggles to be heard but instead feels the temptation of convention slip off like clothing that is far too big for its body. This music is also very fibrous, as if Jarrett were tying a knot, fraying the leftover end, then tying a smaller one, and so on until even his nimble fingers can no longer separate the strands. Part II works its way into the silhouette dreamed of on a traveler’s pillow. It turns this way and that but only changes its outline, neither approaching nor receding. After Part III pulls out the weeds, Part IV offers a dark, jazzy affair with smoky trails and squinting brilliance. Though restrained, it feels unbound in its emotional impulses, as ancient as an image on a cave wall drawn in the dying light of day. So begins an epic harvest of which the ripest fruits are picked in rhythms woven from strands of convolution, development, and dissolution. The sweetest among them is Part VII, which elicits some of the most astonishing textures Jarrett has ever liberated. It moves with a depth of feeling that can only have been arrived at when one has less of life ahead of them than behind. Near contenders include Part V, a lyrical aside that curls like a diagram of relativity into the innermost thoughts of childhood, and Part VIII, the near-constant fluttering of which evokes the wings of an angel just out of reach.

After the bluesy Part XII, Jarrett takes an evolutionary leap from fundament to firmament in two encores: a sweeping take on “It’s A Lonesome Old Town” and the achingly comforting “Answer Me, My Love.” Thus, we are left with a lifetime’s worth of listening in the dimensions of a delineated object. And even as the atmospheric shifts of the heart turn their eyes toward a brighter tomorrow, they never seem to forget the lightless void from which they emerged into being.

Jakob Bro: Uma Elmo (ECM 2702)

Jakob Bro
Uma Elmo

Jakob Bro guitar
Arve Henriksen trumpet, piccolo trumpet
Jorge Rossy drums
Recorded September/October 2020, Auditorio Stelio Molo, RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Jean-Marc Dellac
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 12, 2021

When Jakob Bro lays his hands on an electric guitar, the guitar lays its hands on us. This chain reaction of touch was already apparent when the Dane painted the shadows of early appearances on Paul Motian’s Garden of Eden and Tomasz Stanko’s Dark Eyes. Since then, after a flight of leader dates on Loveland and a welcome home away from home on ECM since 2015’s Gefion, Bro has varnished a personal altar, placing upon it a family of melodic proportions. Indeed, the title of the present disc is derived from his children’s middle names, each a cypher of lives yet to be lived yet already full beyond delineation. Having written much of this material while his second, still a newborn at the time, was napping, Bro offers eight tunes that flow like scenes of video. Not knowing its biological origins, however, Uma Elmo evokes for me an uninhabited island that flourishes in sound, each tree the bearer of fruit that can only be discovered through listening.

The trio convened here is so new that it had never played as such before entering the studio for this session. Nonetheless, trumpeter Arve Henriksen and drummer Jorge Rossy, each of whom has charted separate paths through the label, are natural companions. Through names and motifs alike, Bro reaches out to other allies, whether living or non. Inspired by his collaborative transversal with Motian, “Reconstructing A Dream” funnels the drummer’s pliant architectural sensibility with reverence. Henriksen’s fluted playing widens the landscape with its breath and Rossy’s brushing opens its heart as Bro’s enhancements glisten in downward prayer.

“To Stanko” is a poignant reminder of how intersections can yield paths in their own right. Its mournful qualities shapeshift beyond the confines of a mere dedication, wandering through the Great In-Between as might a song in search of lyrics. “Beautiful Day,” like the album as a whole, is patient in its exposition. Bro is just as content providing liquid texture (as also in the later “Housework”) as he is providing a solid backbone. And though Henriksen grazes the clouds without releasing a single drop of rain, climatic changes abound in tracks like “Music For Black Pigeons” (in memory of Lee Konitz, who gave the piece its title) and “Slaraffenland,” ebbing and flowing to diurnal rhythms. 

High points of the set are to be found in “Morning Song” and “Sound Flower.” In the latter especially, Bro’s manipulations glow against the backdrop Rossy’s poetry and Henriksen’s siren song. Bro takes the hand offered by the dawn, shakes it in welcome, and pulls its possibilities into frame. The effect is so restrained that whenever the guitar voices itself more overtly, it feels like a momentary embrace before release. Despite often moving at a crawl’s space, this music is quick to locate its spiritual heart. Like the last star of night hanging on to its light in the face of the rising sun, it continues to shine even when it fades from view.

Michel Benita: Looking At Sounds (ECM 2663)

Michel Benita
Looking At Sounds

Michel Benita double bass, laptop
Matthieu Michel flugelhorn
Jozef Dumoulin Fender Rhodes, electronics
Philippe Garcia drums, electronics
Recorded March 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Jan Kricke
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: September 18, 2020

Bassist Michel Benita carries over flugelhornist Matthieu Michel and drummer Philippe Garcia from his Ethics group, which made such a profound mission statement with 2016’s River Silver, and welcomes to that nexus keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin in a new quartet from which the present album derives its title: Looking At Sounds. The name, Benita tells me in an email interview, is an homage to Jon Hassell: “He made an album called Listening to Pictures that I like a lot. I thought, well, you could reverse that sentence and that would give something like what we have here.” It’s an especially appropriate moniker given that ECM’s ethos has long been guided by Gertrude Stein’s playful dictum, “Think of your ears as eyes.” Indeed, there is plenty of imagery to interpret in these tunes.

Compared to its predecessor, this album feels more metaphysical, if only because its use of effect takes precedence over cause. A case in point is “Dervish Diva.” Cowritten by Benita and Michel, its bass harmonics delineate a dark pool in which Fender Rhodes and flugelhorn drop their stones of light. Cymbals trace the ripples while hand-played drums transition into brushes for a touch of the secular upon the sacred. Two tracks later, the album’s title tune unfolds in like manner, treating the bass as a skeleton and the other instruments as its flesh and blood. One can hear so much of Kenny Wheeler in this tune, especially in the aerial qualities of the playing, that it almost brings a tear to one’s eye. The same holds for “Barroco,” which is the most overt spotlight for Michel, whose flugelhorn is a joy. And yet, while each musician has a distinct voice, unity and continuity are at constant play. Consequently, the spotlight is more diffuse than traditionally shined, an unraveling of the melodic core at hand. Benita agrees:

“These guys have exactly the same idea of what playing together means. And Matthieu’s lines, beneath the fact he’s the most identified ‘soloist,’ are very much floating in space and absolutely cliché-free. Long ago, I got tired of the strictly jazz scenario of theme, solos (too many), theme, etc. I always liked bands that had a conception of playing as a whole unit. It was already clear inRiver Silver and before that with Andy Sheppard in Trio Libero. I love being part of that global sound and interplay, where no role is really defined. It also gives me a lot of freedom for my bass playing. Any one of us can decide to change directions, and the band will follow. And yes, you need a melodic core, as you call it, to make that concept readable for the listener.”

Despite the expansive implications of such an approach, the results are more intimate than they are distant. This is especially true in the diptych of “Berceuse” (Kristen Noguès) / “Gwell Talenn” (Benita), which blurs the lines of division until such lines cease to matter. Likewise, in “Elisian” (Benita) / “Inutil Paisagem” (Antônio Carlos Jobim), the fresh blends into the faded, each feeding on qualities of the other.

Three of the four musicians make use of electronics, which in tracks like “Slick Team” add droning texture and context without ever dominating the scene. These are no mere ornaments but congregations of shared values. Whether emanating from live sampling or chameleonically changing the keyboard’s tonal qualities, they give movement to stillness. Digital fingerprints can also be dusted in “Cloud To Cloud,” a studio improvisation that came about at the suggestion of Steve Lake, subbing in place of Manfred Eicher (who was sick at the time). Yet another atmospheric wonder is “Body Language,” a cinematic masterpiece that affords only glimpses of its reflection.

To my ears, there are few layovers on this journey more comforting than “Islander,” a flowing and laid-back experience that is nostalgia incarnate. As its composer notes of the tune:

“It came from an acoustic guitar motif that I had recorded on my iPhone some years ago. When starting to write new music, I went through all those tiny bits of melodic lines I had compiled and that one caught my ear. The rest of the tune developed very fast and almost by itself. I’m always trying to add a bit of rhythmic complexity or unexpected note placement to those seemingly simple melodic lines. As for ‘comforting,’ well, maybe that minor/major ostinato? I love when it modulates, in that 16-bar bridge, before going back to the main theme. I wrote that at the last moment, as I felt we needed to open the tune at one point. The title refers to my situation over the last three years as a resident of L’Île d’Yeu. I’m an authentic islander now.”

Fender Rhodes and drums form a large portion of this one before bass and flugelhorn take the image from monochrome to high-definition color. “Low Tide” explores similar themes, dipping into the waters of the past to make the present fuller in self-realization. Brushes on drums evoke the caressing of the shore by the waves and the patterns left in their recession. All roads lead to “Never Never Land” (Jule Styne), which feels naked after all that production.

This has all the makings of a classic ECM session.