Enrico Rava/Fred Hersch: The Song Is You (ECM 2746)

Enrico Rava
Fred Hersch
The Song Is You

Enrico Rava flugelhorn
Fred Hersch piano
Recorded November 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 9, 2022

Pianist Fred Hersch makes his ECM debut in intimately grand fashion with maestro Enrico Rava on flugelhorn. Their meeting at Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI yields some of the most effortless jazz you’ll likely hear this year. Hersch’s opening embrace eases us into Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Retrato em Branco e Preto” as if the set could open no other way, fanning expository poetry in place of lantern flame. An old-town quality prevails, navigating cobblestone streets on tiptoe yet never losing its footing.

Contrary to immediate expectation, this is followed by a free improvisation, which tempers the familiar with new shades of meaning. George Bassman’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” gets a delicate and rhythmically endearing treatment, while the title track by Jerome Kern is enigmatically transformed into a crystalline snowdrift of memory. Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” walks a fine line between dream and reality, giving way to artful abstractions that reveal two minds with lifetimes more to say, as do the originals that precede it. Whereas “Child’s Song” (Hersch) conveys innocence with a nostalgic, summery feel that harks to yesteryears, “The Trial” (Rava) renders an entanglement of spiral staircases and other modern architectural details. All of this leaves Hersch alone with “’Round Midnight,” floating into the promise of a new day, uncertain though it may be.

These musicians achieve the extraordinary by sounding like one unit without sacrificing their voices. They dance as few know how, unfolding a love letter one page at a time until only a wax seal seems appropriate to protect its contents from the sun’s bleaching touch.

Julia Hülsmann Quartet: The Next Door (ECM 2759)

Julia Hülsmann Quartet
The Next Door

Uli Kempendorff tenor saxophone
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2022
Studio La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Thomas Herr
Release date: August 26, 2022

Although Julia Hülsmann has crafted a hearty sequence of trio records for ECM, including 2017’s Sooner and Later, there has always been something even more intimate and honed about her quartet with tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff, bassist Marc Muellbauer, and drummer Heinrich Köbberling, as is refreshingly obvious throughout “Empty Hands,” in which Hülsmann throws notes like petals onto the waters of life to see where they might flow. As they did on this album’s predecessor, Not Far From Here, these effortlessly attuned musicians navigate her sound with familial affinity. After “Made Of Wood” deconstructs the introductory mood, a melodic breeze wafts over the keys, carrying over into “Jetzt Noch Nicht.” Taking two forms—initially as a duet with Kempendorff, later as a swinging outing for all four—it delicately offsets tracks like “Fluid,” an emblematic realization of their capabilities that rejoices in the ongoing moment.

Muellbauer contributes three originals with a more geometric approach to time and harmony. In his “Polychrome,” the piano is a wavering shadow, the saxophone a refraction of light stepping sideways past us, while in “Wasp At The Window,” a locomotive whimsy ensues. The landscape outside our window remains the same, but its description changes along the way. Hülsmann’s ability to carry so much cargo in so fine a mesh is marvelous. Kempendorff and Köbberling offer a tune apiece. The former’s “Open Up” balances emotiveness and restraint, and the latter’s “Post Post Post” is a standout for its liminal expressivity.

No Hülsmann set would be complete without an ode to the popular canon, and her reading of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April” is no exception. With charming comfort, it promises hope at the end of a long and harmful tunnel that none of us saw coming.

Interview with Phil Freeman

I recently conducted an interview with music critic and author Phil Freeman for All About Jazz. Freeman has some of the sharpest ears out there—and a way with words to hone them. Interested readers shouldn’t hesitate to pick up his latest book, Ugly Beauty, which hit shelves last year. Click on the cover below to read some of my thoughts on the book and our conversation about it.

Dine Doneff: Lost Anthropology (neRED/3)

Dine Doneff
Lost Anthropology

Mathis Mayr cello
Antonis Anissegos piano, prepared piano
Stamatis Passopoulos bayan
Dine Doneff double bass, guitar, percussion
Recorded live July 2, 2015
Einstein Kultur Munich
Engineer: Hans R. Weiss
Remix: Pande Noushin
Mastering: Tome Rapovina
Cover artwork: Fotini Potamia

For the third full installment of his neRED label series, multi-instrumentalist Dine Doneff presents a live set of seven original pieces. Playing bass, guitar, and percussion, he leads a quartet completed by cellist Mathis Mayr, pianist Antonis Anissegos, and bayan player Stamatis Passopoulos. This combination yields a fascinating gallery of scenes painted in various mediums, often within the same track. The opening “Pripapindoll,” for example, introduces us to a faintly abstract sound, a pencil sketch for the paint yet to be applied. When the melody makes itself known, it leaves a trail of pigment in search of evergreen hills beyond. The range of sonorities these instruments achieve is as varied as the topography they describe, culminating in a folk-like flourish. “Endekapalmos” follows a parallel path of development from less ordered dreams to smooth awakening, opening its vista for the bayan’s welcome entrance, sunlit and free as the wind. Doneff’s bass is the anchor for “The Fallen,” in which a groovier aesthetic prevails, the cello adding a fluid overlay, riding a wave of emotional transference from one peak to another. Mayr and Doneff carry over their traction into “Meglen,” setting up an evocative vehicle for Passopoulos and Anissegos, who trade words and memories to climactic ends. After the bayan interlude of “Exile,” a cinematic nostalgia bleeds into “Rite of Passage,” the initial flow of which clots in the improvised plasma of a prepared piano. At last, we reach the turning point of “Prolet.” Building from guitar arpeggios, it shifts into higher gear through percussive color changes, driving toward the horizon without once looking back because the only thing that matters is catching the last glimpse of sun before it dies.

Peter Brötzmann: Nipples

Peter Brötzmann tenor saxophone
Evan Parker tenor saxophone
Derek Bailey guitar
Fred Van Hove piano
Buschi Niebergall bass
Han Bennink drums
Recorded April 18, 1969 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg (Track 1)and April 24, 1969 at Rhenus Studio, Godorf (Track 2)
Engineers: Kurt Rapp (Track 1) and Conny Plank (Track 2)
Cover design: Peter Brötzmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher + Jazz By Post

To my knowledge, Nipples is the only album produced by Manfred Eicher to not appear on the ECM label. This curious throwback was recorded in April of 1969, months before ECM’s first proper release would go down that same year in the famed Tonstudio Bauer, which yields the first track here. Of that track, which gives this album its name, we are given no warning, jumping instead into a blazing cacophony of sound. Even though it feels like waking up out of a coma in the middle of Shinjuku crossing, a bizarre sense of comfort begins to emerge the more one basks in its unrelenting glow. The one-two punch of Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker on tenor saxophones bleeds on the proverbial page across which guitarist Derek Bailey, pianist Fred Van Hove, bassist Buschi Niebergall, and drummer Han Bennink add all sorts of diacritics, punctuation, and editorial asides. The result is like the chaos of peer review controlled in a single moving portrait wherein the listener’s visage gets split like Michelle Yeoh’s in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Despite (if not because of) this whirlwind approach, moments for solos abound, such as Van Hove’s flight of fancy about six minutes in. Against aggressive bowing and frontline drum work, his pianism kicks us in the shins and leaves us crawling for more. To that fray, Brötzmann and Bailey add uncompromising grit, all the while building up the ensemble to an ascorbic cohesion. A fantastic arco spasm from Niebergall in the third act yields equally favorable outcomes in this chameleonic chain reaction. All of this ends in a congregation of tails, each wispier and more meteoric than the last.

For the B-side, “Tell A Green Man” sheds Parker and Bailey to no less engaging effect. While the preamble from the rhythm section provides anything but discernible rhythm, its foundational qualities provide plenty of clay for Brötzmann and Van Hove to mold to their whim. Indeed, whim is the name of the game as irreverence ensues, dividing its equation until it bursts with the desire for recalibration. Niebergall’s scraping rears its tactile head for the listener to run a comb through, while Brötzmann gives himself over to less subtle temptations of vivacity.

Nipples first appeared on the Calig Records (Munich) in 1969 and was remastered by John McCortney in February 2000 at AirWave Studios (Chicago) for Atavistic. Three years later, Atavistic released a follow-up with outtakes from the same studio sessions. The result, called—what else?—More Nipples, offers up three tracks of invigorating mayhem. The title track gives up its ghost from the first moment, tracing its ephemeral paths with more delicate abandon. Despite a few ebb tides here and there, it focuses more on the inner than the outer. “Fiddle Faddle” is a reedy wonder dragged kicking and screaming through the fires of Niebergall and Bennink and may be my favorite of the collection for its control of free spirit. Finally, we have “Fat Man Walks,” which concedes to a groovier blues aesthetic, gut-wrenching and sincere in its devolvement into atonalism.

A much-needed call to attention in these dark times.

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity: Elastic Wave (ECM 2724)

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity
Elastic Wave

André Roligheten tenor, soprano and bass saxophones, clarinet
Petter Eldh double bass
Gard Nilssen drums
Recorded June 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover: Fotini Potamia
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: July 15, 2022

André Roligheten is one of the most exciting young saxophonists in the Norwegian jazz scene. I had the pleasure of seeing him in various guises under the auspices of the 2018 Nutshell jazz festival (see my writeup and photos here), and I always hoped to see his name on an ECM roster one day. I am happy to say that day has come, and I can hardly imagine finer company than Swedish bassist Petter Eldh (who made his first label appearance as part of Django Bates’ Belovèd on The Study Of Touch) and Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen, whose highly sought-after name emblazons Elastic Wave as bandleader. Nilssen has played with almost anyone of note in the European circuit you can think of, from veterans like Audun Kleive (under whom he studied) and Arild Andersen to fresher talents like Maciej Obara (see Unloved and Three Crowns) and Roligheten himself. His paths have also intersected with major figures from across the pond, including Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny.

With such a title and album cover to go with it, we might expect a frenzy of activity. Instead, we are introduced to Acoustic Unity’s fluid identity via “Altaret,” one of two more relaxed tunes from Eldh’s pen. In silver-tinted monochrome, it lays an ante of trust on the proverbial card table. Later in the set, the bassist’s “Dreignau” allows the chips to fall where they may, tapping into an ethos that animates everything the band touches. “Influx Delight” breaks form with a tenor-led romp of post-bop energy that sparks the senses and, along with “Acoustic Dance Music” (both were co-written by Nilssen and Roligheten), puts its unique brand of introspective extroversion on full display. On the flip side, we find extroverted introspection in Roligheten’s “Cercle 85” and “Til Liv.” Whereas the first is a clarinet-led stroll through streets at night, the second is an ode to the composer’s daughter, the abstractions of which capture that delightful complexity daughters so uniquely hold. Nilssen’s “Spending Time With Ludvig” counters with a tribute to the drummer’s son, while “Boogie” flows with Eldh in intuitive confluence. Its free and easy style never forces its hand, puffing out old clouds into a new sky.

Nilssen cites many influences, from Jack DeJohnette to Jon Christensen (one of whose cymbals, in fact, takes pride of place in this session’s kit), among others. The tune “Lokket til Jon, og skjerfet til Paul,” notes this album’s press release, “also alludes to a scarf once left at the La Buissonne studio by Paul Motian, used here to take the edge off the bass drum’s ringing overtones.” Brushed drums and softly splashing cymbals show an artist at the kit, painting in everything from watercolor and acrylics to thickly applied oils. Roligheten’s sensitivities retake the helm, revealing the same depth of character I experienced in live settings. The saxophonist further contributes “The Other Village,” in which he plays tenor and soprano simultaneously, surprising us with bagpipe sonorities before riding Nilssen’s rolling thunder into oblivion. The latter’s “The Room Next To Her” closes the set with the guttural wonders of Roligheten on bass saxophone. Such feet-to-flame playing enacts a slow-motion punch to the gut that leaves us stronger for it. I can’t wait for Round 2.

Avishai Cohen: Naked Truth (ECM 2737)

Avishai Cohen
Naked Truth

Avishai Cohen trumpet
Yonathan Avishai piano
Barak Mori double bass
Ziv Ravitz drums
Recorded September 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Juan Hitters
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 25, 2022

The first eight notes of Naked Truth planted themselves in the soil of trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s mind at the beginning of the pandemic. Thus sprouted the present suite in as many parts. Every question it poses can only be answered by listening.

Cohen and his faithful bandmates—pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Barak Mori, and drummer Ziv Ravitz—craft a story that has been told before, but rarely with such transparency. Part I opens with a duet between Cohen and Mori that looks through holes in the fence of life to glimpse what hopes might exist beyond. Part II introduces the sparks of Avishai at the keys, floating from the small fires of Ravitz at the kit. Cohen and Mori close with a prayer as much for the journey ahead as for the rubble left behind.

The pianism of Part III reaches vastly, setting up a bass-doubled motif that circles in search of song. From these threads, Cohen spins a fibrous sound, muted yet strong enough to suspend the very earth before revealing a heart of light. Past the softer carpet of Part IV, Parts V and VI offer respective interludes for piano and drums, before the introspective Part VII rises in intimate grandeur. Part VIII adopts a backward glance, grooving subtly into the receding horizon.

The set closes with Cohen’s reading of “Departure” (written in full below), a poem by Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (1914-1984), in a translation from the Hebrew by Sharon Mohar and Cohen himself. Cohen recited this poem during his ECM 50th anniversary appearance at Lincoln Center. Its opening lines, which make up this review’s epigraph, have lived with me ever since. Mishkovsky reminds us that even when our elders hand us the truths of their experience, we tend to ignore them until we know them firsthand. We must live separated yet ever in the world, holding certainty like the candle it is, knowing its flame will one day sputter out. The music beneath the verses frames Cohen as a traveler whose journey has graciously intersected with ours for the exact duration of this album. I thank him for the honor of sharing the road with us.

… . …

Departure
Zelda Schneurson MishkovskyTranslated from Hebrew by Sharon Mohar and Avishai Cohen

It is necessary to begin the
departure from the splendour
of the skies and the colours
of earth, to stand alone and
face the silence of death, to
part from curiosity, part from
words, all the words that I’ve
read and heard.

And from water, that I’ve
seen and haven’t seen. To die
without seeing the ocean.

Part from the air of the night
and part from the air of the
morning.

Part from weeds, part from a
fruit tree and from a barren
tree, from the lesser light and
from the stars.

Abandon the sight of a flying
bird, part from the sight of
a beast or an insect, part from
my friends and comrades, part
from the dampest of excitement
and from fear of the obscure
madness.

Part from the Shabbat, from the
sweetness of the seventh day.

Part from all work and art, from
rituals, from rain and from all
that is pleasing to the eye.

It is necessary to part from
Knowing-Good-And-Evil of
this world since other terms
of good and evil are there.

Part from what happened, from
the deep sleep and from the
dream.

Part from shame, from the fear
of death, from guilt, from curse,
from exhaustion.

Part from reflections about life,
from reflections about human
nature, from reflections about
the nature of the universe.

Part from reflections about
the difference between myself
and the other, from reflections
about identity, from reflections
about my inner nature, from
reflections about how little
I know about myself and about
all that is around me, part from
the sensation of the soul facing
the high mountains, part from
the need of food, from anxiety,
from the ridicule.

Part from the clouds, from
all that is changing, from the
undefined, from fire, from
stones and from wisdom.

From the physical movement
and from the inner movement.
From love and from hate.
From music. And before the
end, to live with the fear of
their death, and the certainty
of my own.

Kit Downes: Vermillion (ECM 2721)

Kit Downes
Vermillion

Kit Downes piano
Petter Eldh double bass
James Maddren drums
Recorded May/June 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Fotini Potamia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 11, 2021

On Vermillion, pianist Kit Downes continues guiding his chisel along ECM’s burnished surface. With bassist Petter Eldh and drummer James Maddren, he presents a mixture of ripe and freshly planted tunes, giving himself over to unforeseen impulses.

Downes and Eldh contribute five tunes apiece. The bandleader tries on outfits of various abstractions, finding each to be sleek and unrestrictive. The sound forged on “Minus Monks,” the album’s opener, is arboreal in its shade-providing abilities. Movements between colors, times, and places feel effortless beneath Downes’s fingertips. Paying homage to pianist John Taylor, he continues down that path of reverence with a sound that pushes as much as pulls. “Sister, Sister” takes an opposite approach, opening with exact measurements before tessellating into off-kilter rhythms, wherein his expressive body can flex without tripping over itself. It takes up no more space than it needs to, whispering its mantras of care only to those who ask to hear them. Such empathy can be hard to come by in a pandemic-scarred world, and it is a welcome gift. Further grace abounds in “Seceda” and “Bobbl’s Song.” In these, the trio shifts from wide-angle shots to close-ups, rendering the ears projection screens for the lives of others. Its breezy sentience finds solace in “Rolling Thunder” (Downes), wispy as clouds stretched translucent by the wind.

Alongside these graded plateaus, Eldh juxtaposes geometric rock formations. “Plus Puls” embraces quietly propulsive pianism while the rhythm section experiments with phonemes like a child rolling possibilities of meaning around in the brain. The upbeat fibrillations of “Sandilands” carry over that verve as its composer runs through a field of leaves without stepping on a single one of them. “Waders” is a high point for the trio’s organic changes, which do nothing to betray the difficulty of this music, rendered smooth as glass. What begins as an almost hesitant blues in “Class Fails” turns into a forthright exclamation of learning the hard way, leaving “Math Amager” to solve the Rubik’s cube of its self-regard.

In listening to Vermillion for the first time, I am moved by how these musicians treat light. Bright as our nearest star is, they manage to put a stained-glass window between it and us. This is most evident in their concluding rendition of Jim Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand,” an ode to the crumbling idols we call politics. If these reflections seem somber, it is only because those who’ve seen enough of life never stop drawing lines of awareness to the sun behind the clouds. There is always more to hope for.

Michael Mantler: Coda (ECM 2697)

Michael Mantler
Coda

Recorded September 2019
at Porgy & Bess Studio, Vienna, Austria
Engineers: Martin Vetters and Juan José Carpio del Rio
Additional recording, mixing, and mastering
November 2019 and June 2020
at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Design: Sascha Kleis
Produced by Michael Mantler
An ECM Production
in collaboration with Porgy & Bess
Release date: July 16, 2021

Coda: a concluding statement, based on elaborations of thematic material from selected past works. So does the booklet for this album of Austrian trumpeter and composer Michael Mantler’s Orchestral Suites define its collective title. In that sense, we might point to its reworking of material from his substantial corpus, including elements of 13 3/4AlienFolly Seeing All ThisCerco Un Paese InnocenteHide and Seek, and For Two. Beyond that, it is an inclusive force that attaches its tendrils to outside influences, carved as much on the surface of the present as of the past. Using his favorite ensemble format of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba, guitar, piano, marimba/vibraphone, and a string section (here under the direction of Christoph Cech), he walks self-referencing as a path to evolution.

While Mantler’s music has deeply cinematic skin (going back at least to 1978’s Movies), there’s no denying a dramaturgical heartbeat within. This isn’t just recycling; it’s a psychological reforming of the self. A frenetic yet never overbearing energy pulls a punch in the TwoThirteen Suite. The electric guitar of Bjarne Roupé rises from the strings as a phoenix, while pianist David Helbock stirs the ashes left behind. In the wake of this tempered triumph, the Folly Suite interrupts in mid-sentence, opening into a quieter realm where the trumpet emotes from the ledge of a skyscraper, tracking as many bodies as it can on the streets below until it loses count. Effortlessly gliding from one part of the city to another until only memories of gridlines are left, Mantler is the itinerant planner whose leaves his messages like tickets on the windows of every illegally parked car as a reminder of acoustic order in a digital world. The Alien Suite leaves such quotidian concerns far behind as Roupé and Mantler go extraterrestrial. The flute of Leo Eibensteiner adds a touch of unexamined landscapes over tense strings. The overarching sense is that of an oncoming storm that never arrives.

If the piano in the Cerco Suite is a pile of bones, then the orchestra is the archaeological team putting it back together. The excitement of this discovery veers into a cavern where the oboe of Peter Tavernaro speaks of civilizations drawn into ruin. Whatever voices we might have recovered there are subsumed into the HideSeek Suite. What were once lyrics now become impulses—the physical sensations of the breaths that produced them. As winds and piano hover beneath the heat of the electric guitar, a mature control of tension and release treats the explosive reveals of life as a matter of course.

Mantler has always had a gift for turning melodies into full bodies. More than signatures or calling cards, they hold themselves together in spite of staggered surroundings. Such is the theme of these compressed realities, each a doorway leading to another.