Julia Hülsmann Trio: Sooner and Later (ECM 2547)

Sooner and Later

Julia Hülsmann Trio
Sooner and Later

Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded September 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 24, 2017

Julia Hülsmann returns to ECM bearing the flag of the phenomenal trio that marked her label debut as leader. Rejoined by bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling, she paints one fully fleshed image after another, leaving not a single brushstroke unnoticed. Such artistry abounds in the album’s opener, “From Afar.” One of four originals by Hülsmann, it signals a theme of itineracy, inspired in no small part by her travels with the band in North and South America, China, and Central Asia. The latter geography reveals deepest influence in “Biz Joluktuk,” a melody by a 12-year-old violinist from Kyrgyzstan named Rysbay Abdykadyrow. In addition to its melodic beauties, it’s also a quintessential example of how movement connects humanity in the spirit of allusion. Hülsmann’s “J. J.” and “Soon” are especially head-nodding tracks, sparkling like a disco balls in some cerebral night club. “Der Mond” ties a beautiful ribbon around it all for a final swing of the compass. “Thatpujai” is a standout track. This introverted homage to German jazz pianist Jutta Hipp (1925-2003), whose name was anagrammed into the present title, is built around transcriptions of Hipp’s solos and goes straight to the heart.

Köbberling and Muellbauer contribute two tunes apiece. Where the drummer’s “You & You” is a rhythmically savvy and sunlit tune brimming with welcome, “Later” is a groovier affair, replete with complex changes, superb bassing, and sumptuous piano voicings. The bassist walks an enchanting path in his “The Poet (for Ali),” as if turning the desert into a giant piece of sheet music in wait of each step to notate it. “Offen,” by contrast, flips the scales into a tropical climate and finds Hülsmann weaving her mantras one pregnant word at a time.

Rounding out the set is an arrangement of Radiohead’s “All I Need,” which by its gentle suggestions rewrites the parameters of the trio’s boundaries while also deepening them in their place.

Julia Hülsmann Quartet: In Full View (ECM 2306)

In Full View

Julia Hülsmann Quartet
In Full View

Julia Hülsmann piano
Tom Arthurs trumpet, flugelhorn
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded June 2012 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The harbor becomes the sea
And lighting the house keeps its collision free
Understand the lay of the land
And don’t let it hurt you or it will be the first to
–Feist

After the successes of The End Of A Summer and Imprint, pianist Julia Hülsmann joins bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling for another round, only now with new collaborator Tom Arthurs on trumpet. Arthurs is a musician whose Kenny Wheeler-like feel for color and collaborations with other ECM artists makes him an inevitable fit for the label. Thus reborn, the Julia Hülsmann Quartet leaps into action with swing and vigor.

Hülsmann 2

Much of said vigor comes by way of Muellbauer, whose pen begets the album’s hippest and most atmospheric numbers in kind. In the former vein we have “Quicksilver” and “Dedication,” in which Hülsmann takes the listener on journeys of discovery. In the latter vein, “Gleim” is a noteworthy gem. Between the composer’s soothing intro and Hülsmann’s floating clusters stretches an avenue of muted trumpet, along which Arthurs walks as if humming to himself. Köbberling’s sole offering is “Forever Old,” in which the drummer skims the surface of many oceans while Muellbauer surveys the coast in Arthurs’s footsteps toward a tessellated lighthouse. “Richtung Osten,” by Köbberling’s wife Fumi Udo, throws a narrower spotlight on Muellbauer, who traces peaks and valleys over the band’s rubato mappings.

Hülsmann 1

Hülsmann contributes four tunes, including the bop-leaning title track and the syllogistic highlight, “Spiel.” In each one can hear her fanning approach to improvisation, as also in the photorealistic “Snow, melting.” For more than effect, she throws in two surprises. First is “The Water,” by Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, arranged here for the trio and crafted with subtle assurance. Second is the muted “Nana,” a lullaby from Manuel de Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Españolas” cycle.

From beginning to end, In Full View holds true to its vision without error. Fans of the trio are sure to feel right at home among the new company, for Arthurs provides many pleasures along the way, and even an intimate tune of his own: “Forgotten Poetry.” Which is precisely what this album is not. You will want to remember every word.

(To hear samples of In Full View, watch the video above or click here.)

Julia Hülsmann Trio: The End of a Summer (ECM 2079)

The End of a Summer

Julia Hülsmann Trio
The End of a Summer

Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double-bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2008 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The more I get of you
The stranger it feels
And now that your rose is in bloom
A light hits the gloom on the gray
–Seal

From a long shoreline gentrified by Scandinavian jazz outfits, Julia Hülsmann’s all-German piano trio indeed hits the gloom on the gray with this sharp, lyrical ECM debut. The pianist tracks a robust set of ten tunes, most from her pen. Along for the journey are bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling, both of whom contribute equally to the trio’s refreshing democracy. To that democracy the opening title track pays express deference, coming into being like Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto before settling into a balanced conversation between inner and outer voices.

The focus of Hülsmann’s writing is matched only by her playing. Whether navigating the upbeat geometries of “Quint” (in which the unity achieved with her rhythm section is a wonder to behold) or floating on the breeze of the Jobim-inspired “Sepia,” she attends to every motivic bend in the road without need of compass. She is just as comfortable turning out stunning fractals of improvisation as she is flitting like a butterfly through nonetheless dense crosswinds (to wit: “Senza” and “Gelb,” respectively). Yet despite her independent spirit, she is most at ease forging on-the-spot connections with her bandmates. Exemplary in this regard is “Not The End Of The World,” which pulses behind a scrim of shadow and draws unity between Muellbauer and Hülsmann’s left hand (foiling the soft-focus sparkle of her right) while Köbberling works gorgeous curlicues at the snare’s rim.

Bassist and drummer also contribute material. Muellbauer’s relatively brief yet smooth nocturnal lines make “Last One Out” a memorable aside. Köbberling’s two offerings, “Konbanwa” and “Where In The World,” both speak in softer poetries, yet with majesty of emotion.

The latter track ends the album with a song for those who cannot sing, a love letter for those who cannot love. Its flow pulls at the heartstrings with a Midas touch, a kiss of the hand that follows wherever you may travel. Speaking of such, one can hardly ignore the trio’s evocative take on Seal’s iconic “Kiss From A Rose,” given new life for all its bareness. Likewise stripped is the engineering, which by the grace of the great Jan Erik Kongshaug mikes the musicians nakedly while also bringing out their inner ability to read the wind.

A must.


A live performance of “Kiss From A Rose” from 2009

Julia Hülsmann Trio: Imprint (ECM 2177)

Imprint

Julia Hülsmann Trio
Imprint

Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double-bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2010 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Peer Espen Ursfjord
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For its sophomore ECM outing, the Julia Hülsmann Trio looks deeper into the mirror. The eponymous pianist dovetails with bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling for a set of 12 introspective, but never indifferent, tunes. Hülsmann’s past experience with vocalists shows in her composing, as well as in the restraint (engendered by producer Manfred Eicher’s presence) to let lines sing in the absence of extraneous color. Her “Rond point” introduces the lush sound-world before us with a pianism that is gently insistent and provides a soothing sky for some early bass flights. The forested tenderness thereof primes us for the powerful considerations of “Grand Canyon,” which features some of Köbberling’s finest drumming early on in the set. Yet just when we think we’ve found our hook, the attractive spin between Hülsmann and Muellbauer hooks us back. Hülsmann’s stony chords etch a river’s path through eons of thematic searching, settling on an almost prayerful style. Such gives-and-takes characterize a session brimming with sense and unanimity (though nowhere more so than in “Juni”). Even the playful dissonances of “A Light Left On,” coming together and apart like shadows in drawn window shades, feel plush with logic in the wake of their unexpected ending. And while Hülsmann’s blossoms of creativity are bright in “Lulu’s Paradise,” a veritable children’s illustration come to life, it is her Thelonious Monk tribute, “Who’s Next,” that expresses her intuition for thematic mazes to the utmost: the start is also the finish. Another highlight from her pen is “(Go And Open) The Door.” Glowing like embers in a fireplace whose name is youth, it whispers hints of “Frère Jacques” over the music’s surface. With an undeniably oceanic energy, it crashes over shoreline rocks, leaving Muellbauer’s loveliest solo of the set in full lighthouse view before transitioning seamlessly into another from Hülsmann, who stokes the band’s locomotive furnace to heightened momentum. Even at such relative peaks of focus, the trio maintains such depth of control that the full landscape never once fades from view.

JHT
(Photo by Volker Beushausen)

Whether or not because of his history with the instrument, Eicher has culled an especially skillful roster of bassists over the years, to which we can emphatically add Muellbauer. While I hesitate to pick a star out of such a democratically arranged date, it is he who shines with the most varicolored light. Aside from the fluid soloing referenced above, he contributes two originals, of which “Ritual” is the album’s smoothest. It is a masterful track on all counts, and one that would fit hand-to-glove into any Bobo Stenson Trio record. Hülsmann’s gorgeous grounding and engagingly jagged paths make this the standout of the album. Köbberling also offers two of his own, contrasting the heartfelt “Storm In A Teacup” with the porous renderings of “Zahlen bitte,” filled gap for gap by Hülsmann’s unerring ear.

The set is rounded out by an Austrian-German show tune entitled “Kauf dir einen bunten Luftballon.” This 1940s ditty piles on the nostalgia tenfold, wafting through the years like mist after rain. Its abbreviated denouement speaks to the ephemeral nature of life—a subtle and perhaps intended theme, as the song was a favorite of Hülsmann’s late mother. The crystalline recording, courtesy of engineer Peer Espen Ursfjord (whose attention to detail also gives Purcor is breathy edge), allows everything from the brush of dampers on strings to the shifting of the very air to resonate with purpose.

One can interpret the title of Imprint in a variety of ways, but I choose to see it in the psychological sense, whereby living organisms are shaped and influenced by their environment and interactions with others: a fitting analogy for the fulfillment of the piano trio as an emblematic combination of the genre, and for the label that has boiled it down to a science.

(To hear samples of Imprint, click here.)