My latest live review for All About Jazz documents an unforgettable showcase by the Temple University Jazz Band, under the direction of Terell Stafford. Featuring special guests such as Joe Lovano, Jimmy Heath, and René Marie, it was intergenerational cross section of talent. Click the photo below (taken at the concert by Lawrence Sumulong) to read on.
As some of my readers may be aware, I’ve been photographing semi-professionally for a few years. Only recently, however, have I begun to photograph musicians. Below is a slideshow of recent images. Hope you enjoy them.
Ben Monder electric guitar, electric baritone guitar, Fender Bass VI
Pete Rende synthesizer
Andrew Cyrille drums
Paul Motian drums
“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Triffids,” and “Dinosaur Skies” recorded October 2010 at Sear Sound
Engineer: James A. Farber
“Tendrils,” “Tumid Cenobite,” “Gamma Crucis,” “Zythum,” and “Hematophagy” recorded December 2013 at Brooklyn Recording
Engineer: Rick Kwan
Mixing Engineer: Rick Kwan
Produced by Sun Chung
U.S. release date: October 30, 2015
For his ECM leader debut, New York guitarist Ben Monder brings his improvisational destinations to fruition with respect for every musical step in reaching them. The album’s circle is opened and closed by two solo arcs: “Tendrils” and “Dinosaur Skies.” Where the former comes out of the woodwork as if after a long and melodic hibernation, the latter is a dragon’s breath turned into music.
Constellations fill the spectrum between as Monder sings through a variety of guitars and tunings. “Gamma Crucis” and “Zythum” triangulate with Pete Rende on synthesizer and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Both pieces are geological surveys of highest order. Monder and Rende release so much likeminded stardust, it’s all they can do to clarify that they’re two nebulae working independently of time. Cyrille’s tracery is the dark matter between them, a dimension in which concrete rhythms have no gravity.
Guitarist and drummer make art as duo on “Hematophagy” and “Tumid Cenobite.” In the absence of electronics, their language feels closer to home, each his own weather front blending into collaboration. Although the landscape below them is desolate, it wavers with memories of rivers and greenery. Monder’s stirrings are like those of a creature in the leaves of Cyrille’s reforesting. With each sunrise, they dissolve dust into breathable air.
Poignantly, late drummer Paul Motian joins Monder for two further duets. First is a starlit take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” It’s beautiful indeed to hear Motian’s brushes, pulled as if from beyond some mortal curtain, springing to vibrant life of their own impulse. There’s something fully alive about this music—not only because of the tune, but also because of the way it rolls off the musicians’ proverbial tongues like a psalm. Recognition is not a precondition for enjoyment, however, as Monder’s ambience forges new relationships using familiar actors. His searing explosions make steam of ocean water, leaving lost cities exposed to sunlight for the first time in eons. Then there is “Triffids,” a spontaneous blush of tenderness that eludes capture by microphone and digitization. It is, rather, a force that knows us before we may consciously seek it out in the listening. Motian’s feel for internal rhythm is profound.
Monder navigates the paths before him with confidence because he defines them as he goes along. Leaving behind uncertainty, he uses gentility as fuel for a strong spirit. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the track titles recall the histrionic wordplay of the Cocteau Twins, for with likeminded boldness he does away with consensus articulations in favor of the emotional resonances beneath.
Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet
Sokratis Sinopoulos lyra
Yann Keerim piano
Dimitris Tsekouras bass
Dimitris Emanouil drums
Recorded April 2014 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: January 15, 2016
Sokratis Sinopoulos is a master of the lyra, a bowed instrument whose lilt has polished a handful of ECM gems, including soundtracks of Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou (notably, The Weeping Meadow) and the Athens Concert of Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri. Despite its small size, the lyra is capable of painting holistic landscapes, and none so sweeping as those at Sinopoulos’s touch. After years of being a vital yet overshadowed sideman, Eight Winds finds the virtuoso making his debut as leader. Although the lyra comes preloaded with centuries of tradition, the music produced by the quartet assembled here— rounded out by pianist Yann Keerim, bassist Dimitris Tsekouras, and drummer Dimitris Emmanuel—is resolutely forward-looking. For this recording, as special in the listening as it was in the making, I sense a unity of purpose beating in the hearts of everyone involved. This is demonstrated by the album’s title alone, which charts not only the cardinal directions, but also the twin cross bisecting them. In each of the album’s 12 original tunes, the navigational freedom of those winds is palpable.
The title track opens with the bandleader’s distinctive sound. His lyra, as obvious to anyone tasked with analogizing it, has a distinctly vocal quality. Even before the jazz trio configuration in which Sinopoulos has situated himself becomes apparent, like a singer he has tasted the theme at hand and savored it to the brink of dissolution. All I can find myself thinking while absorbing the results of this collaboration in kind is that this is a first in jazz, an album that only Manfred Eicher and ECM could produce with such integrity of vision.
Much of this album moves at a pace of lives no longer lived. One strain of “Yerma” or “Lyric” is enough to reveal the folk roots feeding each improvisational leaf. Whether interacting with Keerim’s piano or Tsekouras’s bass, Sinopoulos puts his trust at the center. The melodies are so developed that they sound like ancient motifs rescued from obscurity, conjuring up images of a past you never knew was in you. In this respect, “Aegean Sea” is the most inviting tune of the set, if also for depicting an important location for its composer. Emmanuel’s hand-drumming brings it to an even earthier level.
Because the lyra is associated with dancing, tunes like “Street Dance” and “In Circles” inspire and energize. These are balanced buy “21st March” and “Forever,” which take stock of brokenness and find harmonies beneath its dissonant rubble. In both, Sinopoulos shows us just how many feathers his instrument has, while touching on the Byzantine musical interests of his formative years.
His delicacy is artfully supported by his bandmates. At no point do they drown out his whispers (a feat for which both musicians and engineer are praiseworthy). As the title track variation that ends the album, everything that precedes it is a gradient of oneness: an asymptote conquered by faith.
David Virelles understands that to make music of the future, one must delve into the past. Somewhere in the middle we find Gnosis. On his third album as leader for ECM, Virelles polishes the mirror of his Cuban roots, also as a prism of the chamber music sensibilities that informed his training under such composition teachers as Henry Threadgill. One couldn’t dream of a better assembly of musicians than the brotherhood of rhythm makers and guiding voice of poet/percussionist Román Díaz to bring these wonders to fruition. Bassist Thomas Morgan, flutist Allison Loggins-Hull and a modest string section complete the puzzle.
Each of the album’s 18 originals could be the start of another album. In this context, they work as one body. Whether in Virelles’ six solo piano pieces—including lyrical “De Ida y Vuelta I” and delicate “Dos” (arranged by Threadgill)—or in ensemble forays such as “Del Tabaco y el Azúcar” and “Tierra,” Virelles renders every dissonance an initiation into life. His pianism, especially in “Fitití Ñongo,” is ecstatic yet ponderous and speaks of an artist who understands the preciousness of time.
Morgan and Loggins-Hull are key players, balancing the pull and push of anchor and sail. Like a ship, Gnosis indeed needs water to give it purpose, even as those same oceans pose the constant threat of drowning. Virelles’ awareness of this tension sets his music apart by way of an organic postcolonial philosophy. Through it all, Díaz is the voice of land when sky is all we’ve ever known. His call and response in the ambient “Erume Kondó” is one of the profoundest things to grace these ears in a long time and speaks to what Díaz himself calls the “reciprocal language” of secrecy. According to Virelles, the album’s title “in this context refers to an ancient collective reservoir of knowledge.” Here, then, is the light of a star that died long ago but whose patterns are still perceptible, rewoven under a new name as an offering to the unborn.
(This review originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
Mette Henriette saxophone
Johan Lindvall piano
Katrine Schiøtt violoncello
Henrik Nørstebø trombone
Eivind Lønning trumpet
Sara Övinge violin
Karin Hellqvist violin
Odd Hannisdal violin
Bendik Bjørnstad Foss viola
Ingvild Nesdal Sandnes violoncello
Andreas Rokseth bandoneón
Per Zanussi double bass
Per Oddvar Johansen drums, saw
Recorded 2013-2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed November 2014 in Oslo by Manfred Eicher, Mette Henriette and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 20, 2015
Norwegian saxophonist and composer Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg enters the ECM universe with a self-titled album of doublings. First, as a two-disc affair, it is among the most formidable debuts for the label in recent years. Second, it is a union of contrasts, balancing composition and improvisation, declaration and whisper, with a straightforwardness that is Mette’s métier. Moreover, the album is a chain of coupled voices, as instruments converge and diverge in an alternating chain of what she calls “elongations” and “miniaturizations.”
Although the trumpet was Mette’s first instrument, in an interview for this album’s press release, she waxes fatefully about her switch to saxophone: “I knew that this was what I’m meant to do. […] I have to tell my stories, and early on I had a feeling of how I was going to do that. […] Soon I would also enjoy disappearing into the theoretical aspects of music but at the beginning it was something more primitive, a response to an inner urge.” For demonstration of this autobiographical concept, we need listen no further than the first disc, simply titled o. Featuring a trio comprised of Mette on saxophone, Johan Lindvall on piano (and who also contributes original compositions), and Katrine Schiøtt on cello, it is a veritable chess board of thematic impulses.
Immediately noticeable is the crackle of Mette’s saliva across the reed, which gives the saxophone textural authenticity as an apparatus of musical translations. In that technique is proven not only Mette’s patience in letting notes awaken, but also the personal associations imbuing those notes with meaning. The nocturnal calls of “.oOo.,” for instance, are meant to evoke the call of an owl (one of the first sounds she remembers hearing), while the breathiness of “3 – 4 – 5” conveys a menagerie of emotions so tender they cannot be broken. By the time we encounter the first full-throated notes of “all ears,” the listener has been primed with a fullness of register and physicality comparable to Mette’s own.
The logic of her sound is that such shorter pieces feel the most expansive while the longer ones feel compressed and circular. In either case, one feels this music growing in real time, as if every cell of its body were genetically acquired.
Despite knee-jerk comparisons to other free jazz greats such as Evan Parker, Mette had no such musicians in mind when developing her musical language. Her primary inspirations are more nature than nurture, as made clear in the second disc, given the enigmatic title Ø. Here we have a “sinfonietta” for which the trio is absorbed into a 13-piece band that includes drummer Per Oddvar Johansen (of the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble) and the Cikada String Quartet. Individual track titles are even more suggestive of their composer’s inner life, a storybook dusted off from attic storage and rebound through interpretation.
The addition of musicians enhances intimacy tenfold. The wind-through-leaves snare of “passé” makes for a fitting introduction, and bassist Per Zanussi adds a deeper element to this chemical mixture as strings produce a crispier layer of shine. All of this elicits a grittier side in Mette’s playing. The Cikadas lend a cinematic touch to occasional interludes, as painterly as their titles (“veils ever after” being a quintessential example). The build of “wildheart” from whisper to shout is a highlight of this disc, as are the relatively aggressive turns of “late à la carte.” As with the first, however, some of the most compelling tracks are the shortest, like the one-minute blush of piano and strings that is “this will pass too.” And if “off the beat” is the most urban tune, then “wind on rocks” is an atmospheric free dive into the wilderness.
Mette Henriette is a story written in lowercase, whose genesis is one for the pages of ECM lore: “One Saturday night in Oslo I saw a poster for Dino Saluzzi at the Cosmopolite. I thought: I should hear this, especially because I’m also writing for bandoneon in my ensemble. When is the gig? Oh, it’s today. When does it start? In twenty minutes! OK! So it was a very quick walk to Cosmopolite. It was packed, but I found a place on the stairs, and by chance I was next to where Manfred Eicher was sitting. We spoke in the interval and I told him about my project. He had been recording at Rainbow, and listened to some of my music.”
And now, we too can join hands with fate in listening to this constellation appear from first star to last.
Ziljabu Nights is an emotional black box recovered from the wreckage of a bygone era and brought intact into ours. Recorded live in June of 2016 at Germany’s Theater Gütersloh, it features saxophonists Gary Campbell and Robert Bonisolo, keyboardist Aydin Esen and drummer Roberto Gatto. Leading them all in a program of mostly original compositions is legendary bassist Miroslav Vitous, whose experiential integrities shine among those of like-minded maestros.
The performance documented here is at once nostalgic and spontaneous. Vitous, who turns 70 this month, and his musicians inhabit their respective continents, yet on stage forge a veritable Pangea of sound. “Ziljabu” eases us into the album’s tender awakenings with a mélange of keyboards and flanged bassing. Its fusion-leaning tendencies recall certain landmark ECM albums from the 1980s, not least of all the bassist’s own for the label. A one-letter difference in the title of “Ziljabe” yields an equally subtle shift in tone. A subtle maturity percolates throughout the 17-minute “Morning Lake.” It unfolds with patient respect, under cover of which Bonisolo’s sopranism provides the aerial view to Campbell’s terrestrial excavations, while in “Miro Bop” the reeds play out a dancing exchange of tenors, both feet on the ground.
Vitous pays homage to late fellow bassist Scott LaFaro in an unaccompanied rendition of “Gloria’s Step Variations.” What seems relatively straightforward on the surface, however, reveals a depth-charge of interpretation, with equal parts muscularity and flexibility woven into its fuse. The same holds true of “Stella By Starlight Variations,” wherein the band sends love to the periphery as Esen takes solo flight at the center of it all.
The album finishes off with an interview, in which Vitous speaks a little to his history as an artist, his growth out of the initial iteration of fusion giants Weather Report and the blessedness of his musical life. “It’s not so much searching,” he says of his rapport with this band. “Basically, we hear it.” And it’s all we can do in return to appreciate that which has been heard.
(This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)