Although Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81) is best remembered for Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition, the latter has had the more interesting afterlife, inspiring arrangements from such wide-ranging artists as prog-rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer, German metal band Mekong Delta and Japanese electronic pioneer Tomita. Yet this duo of soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Kristjan Randalu presents more than a recasting of the Mussorgsky mold, instead a fresh landscape irrigated by channeling water from the source material. Case in point is the jaunting “Promenade,” which opens in straightforward territory but which in subsequent iterations (five in all) draws out hidden messages.
Liebman understands how to turn even the most familiar melodies inside out without losing their skin in the process. His tone is as flexible and colorful as ever, navigating every twist of “Les Tuileries” and “The Market” with characteristic attention to detail. The physicality of his artistry is most obvious in “Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens,” as also in his bluesy handling of “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” the latter a veiled stand-alone among extroverted peers. Randalu, for his part, is as comfortable laying foundations as he is building on top of them. Whether orienting his compass to the lodestar of “Bydło” or jazzing up “Baba Yaga” with exuberance, he makes sure that every wisp of proverbial smoke fulfills its promise of fire. As a unit, he and Liebman find profoundest coherence in “Il Vecchio Castello,” of which they make an understated dirge.
And so, by the time we reach the farewell of “The Heroic Gate,” we are confident in having been somewhere. This is, of course, the whole point of Mussorgsky’s greatest hit: to place us in that gallery so that we may feel the colors of every scene as if they were our own.
(This review originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
Kristjan Randlu piano
Ben Monder guitar
Markku Ounaskari drums
Recorded July 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 6, 2018
In the past decade, ECM Records has welcomed a range of new artists into its fold, but perhaps none so unassuming as Kristjan Randalu. Equally versed in classical and jazz performance, the Estonian pianist offers a debut that forgoes breaking ground in favor of the tectonic shifts beneath it. The title of Absence therefore accurately describes the music’s lack of allegiance to ear-catching grooves and sly hooks. Randalu and his bandmates—guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Markku Ounaskari—explore new territory without mapping it, per se, as the latter would imply a sense of colonial control in which they are clearly uninterested.
The album’s topography is nevertheless trail-marked by four of its briefer artistic statements. “Lumi I” and “Lumi II” are the most revealing in terms of process. Monder’s painterly sensibilities are free to roam here, as also in counterparts “Adaptation I” and “Adaptation II.” Together, these tracks illustrate the band’s core principles. Whether grounded in occasional arpeggios or expanding like lungs filling with air, they show a contemplative, physical awareness achieving greatest symmetry in “Partly Clouded.”
Although the album for the most part treads an even atmospheric keel, there are standouts. “Forecast,” for one, opens from Randalu’s crystalline intro into the album’s first and longest tune. But the brightest stars in the mix are “Sisu” and “Escapism,” both of which render some of the most achingly cinematic vistas to be developed out of the ECM camera in a long time. Working slowly and surely and with promises of nothing other than their own honest reflections, both are deeply moving works of art. The same holds true of the concluding title track, a lyrical vehicle for Monder’s balladry that ends with a tender kiss. An appropriate way to finish, to be sure: rewarding love with love, in the hopes of birthing more in kind.
(This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)