PJEV/Kit Downes/Hayden Chisholm: Medna Roso

When using the word “inspire” today, we tend to think of it from an emotional perspective. If you look it up in a dictionary, however, you will find that it also means to inhale (think of it as a combination of “in” and “respire”). In that sense, the music documented on Medna Roso, the third and latest release on producer Sun Chung’s Red Hook Records, is inspired in the most physical way one could imagine. Recorded live at Cologne’s Agneskirche in the summer of 2021, and meshing the voices of Kit Downes (organ), Hayden Chisholm (alto saxophone, shruti box, analogue synthesizer, and throat singing), and Zagreb-based female vocal quintet PJEV, the program resituates songs from the Balkans, cultivating endangered traditions in the foreground of our attention in search of new growth.

Downes’s organ is firmament in which the album’s breaths flow from the pursed lips of invisible ancestors. The pipes, resonant and harmonic by virtue of their location, feel omnipresent—never close enough to touch yet never far enough to deny. What begins as a statement of heavenly creation reveals an earthly heart as PJEV churns the soil of “Listaj goro ne žali be’ara” (Bloom you mountain, don’t regret the blooming flowers). In combination with the subsequent “Ova brda i puste doline” (These hills and desolate valleys), it captures the carelessness of youth and the darker realities of adulthood. The titular landscapes and their features are the measures of a contemplation that pales in scope, always struggling to evoke the majesty of a universe so vast that, ultimately, death is required to comprehend it.

The ensuing journey takes us two steps inward for each outward. Through the solo strains of “Što si setna, nevesela” (Why are you sad and cheerless?) floating over a gong-like substrate, the haunting call and response of “Odkad seke nismo zapjevale” (Since when sisters, we haven’t sung), and the a capella “Službu služi viden dobar junak” (Been in service, a good hero), in which the singers hinge themselves in a massive temporal pivot, we can feel the immensity of things.

Connecting these songs are six instrumental interludes where the divisions of reed, metal, and breath melt in the crucible of singularity. The resulting alloy looks like silver, tastes like copper, sounds like gold. As with the throat singing that sometimes escapes Chisholm’s lips, it trembles in the presence of something formless. Settling beneath the weight of our transgressions, it takes shape in the listening while the terror and fury of nature, but also its quiet invitation, attune us for the time being—because time is only being.

Qasim Naqvi/Wadada Leo Smith/Andrew Cyrille: Two Centuries

Two Centuries is the second album from former ECM producer Sun Chung’s Red Hook label and may one day be regarded as its most defining release. As electronic musician Qasim Naqvi, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Andrew Cyrille put 11 of Naqvi’s tunes under their triangular microscope, the cells of our listening are magnified.

“For D.F.” opens with a political charge. Written for Darnella Frazier, who captured George Floyd’s murder, it uses distortions to evoke the white noise of our collective trauma. As subtle as this music is, with its near-comforting swells and honest lyricism, it offers not a moment of reflection but the reflection of a moment, a vivid gaze at a life lost on the brink of a society in turmoil. This is, perhaps, the deepest nuance of the titular centuries, the dividing line of which is drawn not numerically but on the shifting sands of justice.

What follows is a veritable tilling of melodies made possible as much through listening as playing. The foundation is often forged between Cyrille’s tools and Naqvi’s febrile choices of color. In fortifying each for harvest, they dip into disparate references. Hear, for example, the influence of Bryn Jones in “Sadden Upbeat,” while “Tympanic” recalls Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4.

Contrasts in mood abound, ranging from sunlit (“Palaver”) to brooding (“Wraith”). “Bypass Decay” is of special note, chugging like a train against (and ultimately losing to) an encroaching night. Throughout, Smith speaks (e.g., “Spiritual is 150”) and sings (e.g., “Organum”) in equal measure, but always with a message to convey in the role of griot, reminding us of something spiritual, though severed from any particular tradition. As is evident in “Orion Ave,” where the free-floating hymn reigns supreme, faith walks these empty streets alone, trailing its shadow like a burden of care.