Living as we now do in a world that feels orphaned from its ancestral histories, there’s no more appropriate space to cry out for resurrection than the womb-like expanse of traditional Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Saxophonist Archie Shepp turns this melody inside out as salvific blood drips along the keys of Jason Moran’s piano.
Thus, the duo establishes the rhythm of a hymn trapped somewhere between Earth’s crust and the magma churning beneath. If we don’t already feel the words coursing through our ears from the first note, we find them unraveled in Shepp’s own singing voice, of which hints of reed hang in the air like a signature fragrance, as also in Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and another traditional spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” In both Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” and Moran’s “He Cares,” the listener is greeted by truth while John Coltrane’s “Wise One” unfurls a territory limited only by our imagination to map it. Here, voices of the past hit the open air of the future, only to find they need oxygen masks just to inhale. Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” reminds us that only in the darkest hours can our thoughts churn in an ocean free of pollution—water for its own sake, primed for the vessels of our attempts to make sense of it all.
In light of all this preaching of ebony, ivory and everything in between, it would be unwise to think of the album as a catharsis, for a catharsis implies that we have transcended the bonds that necessitate thoughts of escape. No. We must gaze upon the fetters and chains until they burn after-images into our brains, so that we may never forget what the world would have us deny: many had to die for us to stand here, poised on the cusp of a tide that could just as easily turn in our favor as against it. Though still a long way from home, we strive to see that candlelight in the window telling us: Just one more leg of this journey and the doors of relief will spread their wings to receive you. At least here, we have a feather to hold to our hearts as we press on.
(This review originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
As COVID-19 continues to occupy the foreground of our collective mind, even as its primacy is under threat by the tumult of political schadenfreude, bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger give us just what we need in this curated selection from their weekly collaborations, live-streamed throughout the pandemic as sonic scripture in a time of foolish doctrines.
The duo dives into the swirling waters of Alice Coltrane’s “Gospel Trane,” throughout which schools of hopeful fish swim in synergy. This is the language of the here and now, wrung dry of all animosity and rehydrated with love, flipping the dynamic of social distancing to reveal a creative intimacy—fierce and inextinguishable—beneath it all.
Subsequent repertoire spans the gamut from Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and Pharoah Sanders to Kate Bush, Sting and The Carpenters. With so much to chew on, we are reminded of how much beauty we’ve lost access to over the past year, not only in terms of sound but also in terms of national sentiment, dialogue, and, above all, listening.
In tracks like John Coltrane’s “Equinox” there is an abiding sense of duality, slipping one hand out of our zeitgeist toward the past and another toward the future. Thus, each instrument brings its own histories to the table, hashing out the lingering oppressions of colonial and plantation mentalities until only indistinguishable molecules are left to dissipate in the air.
Sanders-Leon Thomas’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan” is the heart of this quest, which by the end has only heart left to give. That same blessed hope is outwardly expressed in Joe Raposo’s “Sing.” If God is in the details, then here we are served one heaping plateful after another of them. While like-minded joy overflows its cup in Clifton Davis’ “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Toilet Paper Romance” (an original with which they ended every show), it bends a knee in the shadow of inward turns like Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” by validating the safety of dreams.
It’s all there in the title, which in everyday usage means an irresistible compulsion yet which in legalese connotes unforeseeable circumstances preventing the fulfillment of a contract. If the latter doesn’t describe the moral loophole of 2020, what does?
(The article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
The career of musical polymath Ethan Iverson has taken the pianist—and his pen—around the world and then some, in both the geographic and creative senses. Since striking oil in collaboration with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King as The Bad Plus, Iverson has simultaneously broadened his palette and focused his sound throughout a range of far-thinking endeavors. Among those is his landmark Bud Powell in the 21st Century, a big band project recorded December 2018 at the Umbria Jazz Festival and released at the end of this month on Sunnyside Records. You can continue to track his various trajectories in his web archive, DO THE M@TH.
Tyran Grillo: Who is Ethan Iverson now that he wasn’t 15 years ago?
Ethan Iverson: I always had a plan to keep studying. When The Bad Plus had our surprise breakout success in 2003, I didn’t feel like it was automatically the endpoint. Playing with that band was incredible, but all along I was also thinking about other ways to make a contribution.
One of the reasons I started writing about the music was to let Bad Plus fans know about this great tradition. When you’re the new flavor, it can be seductive to feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but everybody stands on the shoulders of those who preceded them.
TG: When you speak of tradition, do you see that as a monolithic term or is it always evolving?
EI: Someone once said that it’s important for an artist to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts in the mind at the same time. On the one hand, yes, tradition, but on the other hand you have to be in the moment; there’s always the present day, or even looking to build a better future. Both things are true. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to work to say, “I only deal with the tradition.” Neither does it work to say, “I am only new.” Nobody I admire says that only one of those viewpoints is correct.
TG: How does your thinking in that regard connect to Bud Powell?
EI: He’s someone that I keep on learning from. In fact, this project happened two years ago, but just this morning I was practicing and thinking about Bud Powell. He’s an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
There’s room to find inspiration from almost anything. One of my mentors is the choreographer Mark Morris. He goes out all the time to see varied shows. He is always listening to and talking about different forms of music. Despite being schooled in high, conceptual art, you might just as easily find him watching and enjoying the most banal TV show imaginable. He is inflamed by all of it creatively, from high to low. And that, I think, is a pretty good model.
TG: How did the Powell project come about?
EI: It was a commission by the Umbria Jazz Festival, marrying an American quintet with an Italian big band. I was delighted when Carlos Pagnotta and Enzo Capua at Umbria first approached me. Manuele Morbidini, who directed the big band, prepared the musicians so well before I got there that I actually cut a rehearsal. The band was ready. When it came time to look for a label, Sunnyside founder François Zalacain is a bit of an old-school bebopper and really liked the project.
TG: How does the sound you achieved at Umbria differ from what you’ve done before?
EI: Post-Bad Plus, I’ve been doing quite a bit of larger-canvas pieces. I wrote a piano concerto for the American Composers Orchestra. I curated a celebration of Thelonious Monk for his centennial at Duke University. For Mark Morris, I did Pepperland, an evening-length piece connected to The Beatles. There’s been quite a lot of formal composition in the last five years, but Bud Powell in the 21st Century is the first of these projects that’s coming out commercially for everyone to hear.
Speaking of tradition versus being in the present day, when I think of the tribute projects I admire, there’s quite a bit of original composition. Ornette Coleman, even when playing standards, always started with an original melody. So, there’s original composition in this project—the very first track is completely original—but there’s also Powell’s music, which in and of itself is very difficult.
TG: Can you unpack “difficult” for us a little?
EI: With Powell, it’s hard to get all the details exactly right, because they’re quite specific, fast and complicated. I swore to myself that we would get those details right—such that if Bud was there, even if he didn’t like the whole thing, at least he couldn’t look at me and say, “You didn’t even play my melodies right, man.”
TG: How would you describe your relationship to Powell’s music?
EI: I like knowing the text. When The Bad Plus played The Rite of Spring, I played it just like Stravinsky wrote it. If I play Tadd Dameron with [drummer Albert] “Tootie” Heath, I learn Dameron’s original voicings. At one point I transcribed Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for The Bad Plus. My brain gets really excited by the details. I like to sit there and ask myself what really happened here. I can dive in, think about those details, transcribe and appreciate the subtleties.
There’s also this other side of creativity. I’m confident everything I do has a personal sound, that it sounds like me and part of that sound is wild and woolly. The fantastical or surreal comes in pretty naturally with Bud. At the end of the day, Bud Powell was an avant garde musician. Had the project been dedicated to the music of Dizzy Gillespie or Benny Golson, it might have been harder to find a way in to do something personal. But there’s a surreal glint in Bud Powell’s eye, so that’s a fit for me as well.
TG: What sorts of extra-musical inspirational forces do you find creep into your music?
EI: When I interface with literature, movies, or television, it helps me see that parameters of genre are freeing, not constricting. I like genres. Some people don’t believe in them and want to live their life “genre-free.” I have little interest in that perspective. I’m more like, “What is the genre?” If we know what genre it is, then we can fill the container with the right kind of material. In this project, Bud Powell is within the genre of bebop. I take bebop very seriously as a genre. I do things to it that are not pure bebop, but at the same time, I’m aware of the difference.
Everything “new” is a combination of previous things. What matters is how well you know each element you’re combining. If you’re writing a supernatural detective story, you need to ask yourself how well you know the supernatural genre and how well you know the detective genre. People often know one side more than the other. That’s always been an issue in the arts, but here in the postmodern age of the 21st Century, everything’s a click away. It’s all one big mashup. The question is how well you can control all the aspects you’re dialing in to the final product.
Sometimes, a college music student will say, “I don’t want to be labeled. Don’t even call it jazz; it’s all beyond category.” I get it, but at the same time, any single phrase you can play on an instrument has a heritage, so what lineage are you in? And if you know your lineage, you can accept it or work against it.
TG: Does this influence your selection of musicians as well?
EI: I chose the musicians for this project for specific reasons. There’s a core quintet of Americans, plus the Italian big band. The result is sort of a concerto grosso. My friend Ben Street plays bass. Ben really believes in jazz and plays with so much personality. There aren’t too many bass players you can hear on a record and immediately identify, but Ben is one of those.
Drummer Lewis Nash was suggested by Umbria. I’d heard and admired Lewis my whole life but hadn’t played with him before. For a big band you need a drummer who lays down the law. You can’t necessarily go in with a really idiosyncratic force like Paul Motian or Elvin Jones for a big band. Lewis is a consecrated bebop master who’s played with the Who’s Who, so he was a perfect choice.
I’d admired [trumpeter] Ingrid Jensen for years in the context of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, so she was always in the back of my mind as someone I’d choose if I ever did a big band project. She’s got connections musically to Kenny Wheeler, who wrote some of the more durable modern big band music. As for tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, I heard about him from Ben when in need of a sub for Mark Turner in the Billy Hart Quartet. Dayna is fast and very creative. Both Dayna and Ingrid get a few expansive solos in this project, but they also have solos in which they need to tell a story in just a chorus or two, like the original Powell session with Sonny Rollins, Fats Navarro, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes.
It was hard for all of us. We all left with a new appreciation for that genre of pure bebop, where everybody says their piece in three minutes. It was a joy to work within those confines.
TG: What surprised you the most when you first got together and played?
EI: I knew Lewis was great, but he struck me as very generous in his playing. He’s a natural accompanist. I’m not so used to that. I’m used to these people who push me around—and I want to be pushed around. But Lewis was like a beautiful jazz couch that you could just sit on and relax. As for Ingrid and Dayna, I knew they were virtuosos, but hearing them play these high-level, burning jazz solos confirmed that I’d gotten the right people. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but sometimes you put things together in your mind and it doesn’t always come out that way in reality. But they showed up, they kicked ass and it was great.
TG: What’s next for you?
EI: I expect to play quite a bit more solo piano eventually; that’s been coming along. A current commission is six formal sonatas for six virtuosos, which is going great. More formal composition is certainly in my future. The Billy Hart Quartet continues and we’re live-streaming at Dizzy’s Club to celebrate his 80th birthday. There’s also a wonderful singer named Marcy Harriell who I had a New Year’s Eve gig with last year doing music of Burt Bacharach and it was a huge success. Fortunately, there’s plenty to do. I’m blessed with a pretty sizable list of geniuses who are somehow willing to work with me.
TG: What would you most like to see happen in jazz that hasn’t happened already—or, for that matter, hasn’t happened for a long time and should be revived?
EI: Composition is important. Instrumental virtuosity is important. The blues is really important. Afro-Cuban rhythm is important. Romantic harmony is important. Telling a story is important. When we hear the great jazz records of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s all in a pretty perfect balance. After John Coltrane passed away, we’ve had 50 years of great music, but it’s seldom been the whole package. I believe in inclusivity. There are so many elements of music and if you can get a passing grade in many of them, you can keep moving it forward. When I talk about Burt Bacharach in the same breath as Bud Powell, I don’t see them that differently in the sense that both are the very highest level composers within their respective genres.
(This interview originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
This World brings together a new quartet of seasoned players. Recorded after a string of shows given in 2019 by Mike Nock (New Zealand, piano, who turns 80 this month), Hamish Stuart (Scotland, drums), Julien Wilson (Australia, tenor saxophone and effects) and Jonathan Zwartz (New Zealand, double bass)—all four of whom are based in Australia—the album glistens with music written especially for this studio session around a core of unmistakable experience. Said experience translates not into mountaintop pontificating for the fortunate few but rather into a grounded message that all can understand. The album’s title, like the Zwartz tune after which it is named, is therefore more than an anthem; it’s a mission statement from a group of musicians content in forgoing the flaunt in favor of the flavor.
Other examples of the bassist’s writing are “And in the Night Comes Rain” and “Home.” Where the latter comes across as being less about being home than about returning to it after a long time away, the former is a highlight of the set for its collective pause in anticipation of a storm. Instead of thunder, we get the gentle kiss of autumn as prelude to a soulful dance that goes from solid to liquid and back again.
These scenes highlight the evocative abilities of Wilson, who adds two parts blues (“Riverside”) and one part groove (“We Shall Rise Again”) to the compositional brew. As performer, the saxophonist renders a painterly wisdom that is fully integrated into its surroundings and is enhanced ever so subtly by an application of electronic effects. Whether lending sparkle and shine to “Any Heart” (a cinematic montage by Stuart in which the drummer’s vacillation between skating and dancing is equally wonderful to behold) or tempering the edges of Nock’s swinging “Old’s Cool,” he excels at unpacking vivid dreams beneath the surface of things.
The pianist, for his part, wields the most multicolored pen of them all, delivering the persistence of “The Dirge” with just as much conviction as he does the blush of “Aftermath” with gentle persuasion. Regardless of mode, he and his cohorts prove that at a time in history when division is the order of the day, four souls crafting melody together can abide by a deeper principle of love and listening.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
The eighth album by Gato Libre, since 2015 a trio consisting of trumpeter Natsuki Tamura (who turns 69 this month), Yasuko Kaneko on trombone and Satoko Fujii on accordion, is a minimal and delightful context for the patient charm of Tamura’s compositions. By turns mysterious and whimsical, improvisational elements bring out the rapport of the trio, one built on deep listening, while prewritten material exploits their ability to hone in on what is most essential.
In that respect, the album’s title (Japanese for “kitten”) gives some insight into the blend of mystique and playfulness one experiences in these eight feline-themed scenes. Each track, in fact, is named for a different kind of cat. On the one hand, we encounter programmatic gems like “Ieneko” (domesticated cat) and “Bakaneko” (silly cat), both of which sport a range of textures and emotions while exhibiting Tamura’s painterly brilliance, as well as the avant-gardism of his formative years. On the other hand, we join the “Noraneko” (stray cat) and the “Yamaneko” (wild cat) on their nocturnal adventures, rendered in exquisite detail by Fujii’s starlight, Kaneko’s slinking motions and Tamura’s restless energy. Together, they wander through favorite haunts in search of sustenance in the spirit of survival. The latter tune feels like a folk song developing in slow motion and finds Kaneko in a particularly soulful mode.
Each musician, but especially Tamura, is content coloring both inside and outside the lines, allowing quiet atmospheres to unravel as they will until the closing “Kanbanneko.” The term refers to a cat that hangs out in a store (often seen sleeping in the window) and is well known by regular customers. Like its namesake, the music seems to insist on being left alone in a corner as the hustle and bustle of commerce hums in the background. And because the recording is only subtly processed, allowing for instruments’ natural reverberations to shine through, we can be sure that every meow is heard.
(This review originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone Marcin Wasilewski piano Slawomir Kurkiewicz double bass Michal Miskiewicz drums
Recorded August 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 26, 2020
Too much time, it seems, has passed since pianist Marcin Wasilewski and his trio with bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz graced the studio for our privileged scrutiny, and as soon as “Glimmer Of Hope” tickles the ear drum, we are reuniting with old friends. A glimmer is exactly what we encounter in Wasilewski’s pianism, which opens this tender vision with a play of light and shadow such as only he can render. In turning these movements into song, he opens a new portal through which to step on our way toward musical discovery. But then a new companion in Joe Lovano joins the shoulder-link of arms to block any who would even dream of passing across the double line of expectation. And so we trail behind, absorbing the language of their traversal. Three more selections by the bandleader, including the flowy sojourning of “Fading Sorrow” (a yielding stage for Kurkiewicz’s soloing) and the sparkler-to-fireworks groove of “L’Amour Fou,” along with Lovano’s “On The Other Side,” complete the in-group compositional picture. The latter tune unfurls a veritable tapestry from the tenorist’s bell and pictures the synergy of ears and fingers required to pull off this collaboration. Carla Bley’s “Vashkar” gets two treatments thereby. In keeping with its ever-deepening roots, and nourished by five decades of interpretation, the quartet taps into its historical embeddedness.
If these are the album’s bricks, then its mortar is mixed in freely improvised material. The nine-minute “Cadenza” is the most cohesive of the bunch, metaphysically speaking. Its balance of gentility and strength is downright beautiful, as is the linear unfolding of “Arco.” Where one moment might breed shimmering near-stillness and the next a fibrillation of darkness, neither mood dominates. Instead, the musicians follow where they are led without struggle. One hears it just as vividly in the nocturnal slink of “Stray Cat Walk” as in the restless leg syndrome of “A Glimpse.”
What really distinguishes this record, however, is the apparent gap between the trio’s interlocking poetry and Lovano’s hard-won prose. What at first may seem to be a disjunction actually opens up a space that can only be filled by the listener. By inserting ourselves into the equation, the proof becomes clear: our presence has been desired from inception to execution, our variable the final piece. And with that completion, we emerge on the other side of the equals side having carried the one of experience.
John Scofield guitar Steve Swallow bass Bill Stewart drums Recorded March 2019, The James L. Dolan Recording Studio at NYU Steinhardt, NY Engineer: Tyler McDiarmid Cover photo: Max Franosch Executive producer: Manfred Eicher Release date: June 12, 2020
Over 40 years of friendship and collaboration exist between guitarist John Scofield and his mentor, bassist Steve Swallow. But everything that happens here is in and of the moment. Playing the room with drummer Bill Stewart, they slowly unwrap one candy after another in the form of Swallow’s own timeless compositions. About them, Scofield says in this album’s press release: “They’re grounded in reality with cadences that make sense. They’re never just intellectual exercises, and they’re so melodic. They’re all songs, rather than ‘pieces.’ They could all be sung.” And sing the trio does in its own wordless way, drawing out less obvious nuances from familiar melodies and vice versa.
Between the laid-back groove of “She Was Young” and the slicker lockstep of “Radio,” an understated allure wiggles its way into the heart and nods to every beat. Along the way, each musician lays out a personal reflection of his métier. Scofield abounds in contrasts, bringing a hardened edge to the shadows of a ballad like “Away” just as comfortably as he dances light-footedly across the terrains of “Falling.” The latter is also a showcase for Swallow’s unerring sense of purpose and Baroque approach to syncopation, as is “Hullo Bolinas,” in which his soloing embraces retrospective charm.
But while the guitarist and bassist are true masters of their craft, it’s Stewart who holds my attention most throughout this swiftly realized session (the result of only four hours in the recording studio). The drummer’s glittering cymbals and rustic snare strike just the right balance, catching every detail of “Portsmouth Figurations” and extending its effect before it fades, luxuriating in a decaf version of “Awful Coffee” (a normally peppier tune), and bringing freshness to “Eiderdown” (the first tune Swallow ever wrote). But his grandest slam is in the opening breaks and leaping denouement of “In F”—a performance only decades of experience could yield.
And while each track comes preloaded with its own history (“She Was Young” being originally sung by Sheila Jordan on 1980’s Home and “Portsmouth Figurations” dating back to 1967’s Duster by Gary Burton), they make new history here in the present arrangement. And here we are, sitting on what feels like the wrong side of the fence, trying to make things right by holding on to that which shines a light on the inside. Thankfully, music like this hands us a match, already lit and waiting for our attention to lend it a fuse.
Oded Tzur tenor saxophone Nitai Hershkovits piano Petros Klampanis double bass Johnathan Blake drums
Recorded June 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Jean-Guy Lathuilière
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 14, 2020
Born in Tel Aviv and based in New York, tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur could not have found a more suitable home than ECM for his gentle brand of jazz. His uniquely tonal approach to the instrument, channeled through a rare melodic purity, make for a powerful combination. Heavily schooled in Indian classical music, he treats each tune as a raga in and of itself, and uses likeminded structures in distinctly jazz-oriented parallels to unleash the inner life of every motif. Ensuring that nothing goes to waste are his trusted crew of pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Johnathan Blake.
After a tender yet angular introduction, “To Hold Your Hand” ushers in a dimly lit performance that relies more on the contour of sound than on the sound of contour. Tzur lends an ear to both internal and external travels, and gives the listener over to possibilities of metaphysical experience. His saxophone, despite being rooted in the body, seems without one, taking on instead the skin of a cosmic animal stealth-walking through constellations—bending but never breaking the shapes we’ve come to interpret.
The emotional beauty of Tzur’s playing reaches its zenith in “20 Years,” which marks the period of time since his father’s death. As Tzur notes in the CD booklet, “I could feel that my father was somehow present in the room, and it was as if I was having a conversation with him.” In this respect, he converses not only with the dead but also with the living. Blake’s brushwork is exquisite in the trio section. Klampanis and Hershkovits intertwine as equal partners while Tzur drops into Child’s Pose for a spell. By the time he resurfaces, his solo is so attuned that every inhalation and exhalation is matched to the contractions and expansions of its surroundings.
The band shifts with barely a forethought between three solo “Miniatures.” The first, played by Hershkovits, is a balance of sparkle and shadow. The second, by Klampanis, is contemplative and touched by grace. The third, from the bandleader, sings like a flute carved from an ancient tree. This leads us to the masterstroke of “The Dream.” Despite being upbeat, a certain embrace of shadow prevents it from being a dance. Hershkovits is particularly ebullient and gives voice to love, while Blake adds a traction so tactile it makes one want to hold on to it. Just as the preceding tunes give robustness to gentility, so does this one give airiness to strength, as embodied in the continuous energy linking every note from Tzur’s lips. At last, we touch down in a surprising landing strip called “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Made famous by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, it brims with nostalgia. Though undoubtedly familiar, it takes on a life of its own, divorced from popular association and remarried to the listener in real-time ceremony.
It is worth noting that the album’s title refers to HIC SVNT DRACONES, a Latin phrase that once marked uncharted territory on medieval maps. Tzur has indeed set out on a voyage into dangerous waters, understanding the risks of never seeing that which is confirmed only in myth. Such spirit is evoked with gentility in the eponymous track that opens the set, working its way into the center of our humbled attention. Even when the waves pick up, bringing with them hints of the unknown, Tzur relies on his bandmates to keep the sails hoisted and the deck free of debris, so that only they and their integrity may set foot upon shifting sands at landfall.
Jon Balke piano, sound processing
Recorded December 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo, RSI Lugano
Engineers: Stefano Amerio and Laura Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 15, 2020
Not so much following in the footprints of 2007’s Book of Velocities and 2016’s Warp as pouring plaster into them, grinding the hardened results into dust, and throwing them into the winds of change, pianist Jon Balke refashions his solo space with frequencies more attuned than ever to the pulse of our zeitgeist. First inspired by the 24-hour news cycle and its emotional rollercoaster (and by the rhetorical lines used to draw boundaries between stories, who tells them, and the events they describe), the pieces of which this latest album is comprised took an even starker turn as the politics of 2019 unleashed their bipolar mind games for all to scrutinize. If nothing else, this backstory helps us understand the subjective interplay of electronics, field recordings, and instrumental treatments woven throughout. Said treatments—what Balke calls “reflections from the room”—have a self-generating quality, arising only as necessary, and even then as an echo of something implied.
The track titles, as evocative as the music, are but stepping stones to answers that supersede their questions: we can read conflict into the gnarled contours of “the first argument” and “the second argument” just as we can open ourselves to possibility in “the why” and “the how.” But for me the greatest value of these markers is an attendant opportunity to forget them. For while there’s a suitably fragmentary quality to “the self and the opposition,” all of that goes away once the sustain pedal goes down, and the fluidity between those identities warms us with promises of another entirely. But this dream is short-lived, because reality has too much to say to a world in lockdown. And in any case, “the certainties” is the least certain of them all. As its pianism moves from one cerebral island to another, a leviathan breathes just below the surface, following in wait to strike.
It’s difficult to extract and uphold certain moments over others, but I would direct the listener’s attention to “the facilitator” as an especially haunting instance of Balke’s aesthetic concerns. The piano may be foregrounded, but its ghosts are drawn from drone (most likely a manipulated cello but sounding for all like bowed piano strings). Another worthwhile focal point is “the container,” wherein electronica lie in wait—only not to pounce, but creep into awareness like a rising sun pulls itself up by curling its fingers over a mountain ridge.
The album ends with three “afterthoughts,” ranging from watery percussion and internal string plucking to hints of technology without imposition. The last is an alarm for birds to fly away and for trees to uproot themselves in search of a new planet where their symbiosis may thrive. This leaves only broken human beings—their hearts unfurled like children’s play mats and beset with toy cars, weathered streets, and enmeshed topographies—to wander their halls of mirrors, wondering when they took the first wrong turn.