Jorge Rossy: Puerta (ECM 2661)

Jorge Rossy
Puerta

Jorge Rossy vibraphone, marimba
Robert Landfermann double bass
Jeff Ballard drums, percussion
Recorded September 2020, Jazz Campus Basel
Engineer: Daniel Dettwiler
Assistants: Daniel Somaroo, Eric Valle, and Alexander Beer
Cover photo: Max Franosch
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 5, 2021

After making his ECM debut on drums as part of Jakob Bro’s Uma Elmo trio with Arve Henriksen, Jorge Rossy returns as leader, this time swapping out drumsticks for mallets. Equipped with his trusted vibraphone and marimba, the Spanish multi-instrumentalist glides his way through a suite of originals.

“Post-Catholic Waltz” is quintessential Rossy in all respects. It opens with a smooth, understated introduction before allowing the vibraphone to make its presence known as if on the most unobtrusive red carpet imaginable. His bandmates, bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jeff Ballard, move in step into deeper forest, carrying a wealth of implications, only some of which will see the light of day. Rossy’s approach is always to the point. Were it rendered in speech, every word would count. This is especially true of “Taínos,” which breathes with a measured vocabulary against a nested rhythm section. That said, Rossy credits his sidemen for being soloists in equal measure rather than traditional supports. In this respect, “Adagio,” “Scilla e Cariddi,” and “S.T.” form braids of three distinct yet complementary colors. The title track, too, with its adventurous percussion and arco lines, paints with an enchantment that requires full commitment from all members.

Despite the generally preference for slides and jungle gyms on this proverbial playground, the trio makes sure to get in some good swinging on “Maybe Tuesday” (a nod to George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”) and “Ventana.” Their focus is on texture and tactility rather than blend, per se, although the trio coheres without stepping on each other’s toes. With just as much shimmer as shadow, these tunes breeze their way through the changes in organic shifts of light. Like the quiet tango of “Adiós” that closes out the set, it treats every gesture as a paragraph’s worth of ideas and leaves the listener to unravel the details.

The only outlier in this set, “Cargols,” comes by way of Chris Cheek, alongside whom Rossy played as part of Steve Swallow’s Into The Woodwork quintet. This slow-motion jaunt is the album’s fulcrum. As such, it carries much of the weight that follows in its yielding net. It is itself a portal into a world in which Rossy operates under the banner of rhythm, reminding us that here, too, his role is significantly bound to the pulse.

Shai Maestro: Human (ECM 2688)

Shai Maestro
Human

Shai Maestro piano
Jorge Roeder double bass
Ofri Nehemya drums
Philip Dizack trumpet
Recorded February 2020, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover: Mayo Bucher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 29, 2021

After making his ECM leader debut with The Dream Thief, pianist Shai Maestro returns with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya, adding to their mix trumpeter Philip Dizack (in his debut for the label) for a sound that feels as solitary as it does tapped from the veins of collective experience. If this album’s predecessor was a reflection of past harmonies, this follow-up holds a mirror to the future. Forward-looking tendencies are immediately apparent in “Time,” which after a clear opening thesis dissipates into the gentlest of body paragraphs, and (speaking of mirrors) “The Thief’s Dream,” wherein new secrets abound. In these blushes of information, window-framed views outline the possibilities of constant change. Similar atmospheres in the title track and the brief “GG” uphold chance encounters as examples of purposeful living.

If any glimpses of permanence are to be caught, one might find them in tracks like “Hank and Charlie” (an elegiac tribute to Hank Jones and Charlie Haden) and Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” (the only tune here not written by Maestro). By focusing on ephemeral subjects, they reinforce the solidity of what’s left behind in the process of memorializing them. The same holds for the album’s deepest moments, reserved for such master narratives as “Mystery and Illusions,” which further highlights the musicians’ strengths. From the gentle way Dizack lays down the theme like a parent transferring a napping baby from arms to crib to the graceful drumming and piano aside, and Roeder’s dancing synchronicity drawing a thread through it all, the band’s sense of touch makes a statement of its age, for the ages. Like “Compassion” (a solo offering from Maestro) or the concluding “Ima” (a wonder to behold), it is a new level of music making that must be heard to be believed.

(This review originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Craig Taborn: Shadow Plays (ECM 2693)

Craig Taborn
Shadow Plays

Craig Taborn piano
Concert recording, March 2, 2020
Wiener Konzerthaus
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 8, 2021

Since releasing Avenging Angel, Craig Taborn’s first spontaneous recital for ECM, a decade ago, the pianist’s traversal on the label has brought him to collective enterprises with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell, Thomas Morgan, and Chris Potter. All the while, his language has been as much his own as it has been a force of adaptation to contexts big and small. If that earlier effort can be said to evoke disembodiment, then let Shadow Plays be its embodied other half. From the gestures that open “Bird Templars,” one gets the sense that each of Taborn’s hands is a traveler engaged in a slow-motion contest for a single path ahead. And yet, there is no feeling of animosity—instead, a sense of wonder, especially as the music quiets in the left, allowing the right to offer its soliloquy in the spirit of accompaniment. If it is possible to whisper through a piano, then Taborn has accomplished that here. “Discordia Concors” and “Concordia Discors” both offer frantic searches for meaning balanced by the jauntier rhythms of “Conspiracy Of Things” between them. These pieces find themselves pulled to the keys by a gravitational force they cannot quite escape.

The jazziest inflections await interpretation through “A Code With Spells” and the concluding “Now In Hope,” both of which convey honeyed textures with cinematic sensibilities, each coated by resistance against the storms that have barraged us over the past year and a half. The most epic stretches are reserved for “Shadow Play,” in which chords resuscitate the possibility of harmony. As one of the cleanest concert recordings I’ve heard, it felt like I was the only one in the room: an intimacy we need more of than ever.

(This review originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Eberhard Weber: Once Upon A Time (ECM 2699)

Eberhard Weber
Once Upon A Time (Live In Avignon)

Eberhard Weber bass
Concert recording, August 1994
Théâtre des Halles, Avignon
Recording producer and engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mixed May 2021 at Studios La Buissonne
Cover painting: Maja Weber
Cover background: Thomas Wunsch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 5, 2021

In 1994, during a solo European tour, bassist Eberhard Weber appeared at the Théâtre des Halles in Avignon under the auspices of the Festival International De Contrebasse, organized by Barre Philips. Much of the material presented in this recording came to the stage by way of Pendulum and Orchestra, echoes of which germinate seeds given more time to sprout. Recognizing familiar themes throughout this set of seven is as joyous as experiencing how much they change in a live context.

Setting the tone for this traversal is Weber’s “Pendulum,” a meditation that gives both rhythmic underpinnings and flights of fancy their space to sing. This is the signature of Weber’s overhanded style: he allows all gestures to make use of the air. His five-string custom instrument is an extension of his body, articulating the balance of playfulness and inner pulse as only he can.

“Trio For Bassoon And Bass” makes flowing use of overdubs for an intimate orchestra. In this composition, Weber allows the bass to interpret itself—a form of therapy that sends blood to the ears where it is needed. Without so much as a blink of interruption, he allows motifs to spread beneath the subcutaneous layers of our listening like tattoos in sound. This tune in particular allows him to flex his virtuosic muscles with unmatched stride and depth of character. Astounding here are less the denser rises and more the quieter passages in which he brings out his most artful details—each affording an unimpeded view into his heart as a musician.

The faster excursions are breathtaking in their ways. Take “Ready Out There,” for instance, which clarifies its purpose from the first step. Its otherworldly atmosphere is superseded only by its harmonic language, through which is expressed a novel’s worth of environments, actions, and enough moral glue to hold them all together.

“Silent For A While” leverages more understated overdubbing, Weber’s swelling loops drifting toward an island of promise. Thus, he turns colors into structural elements. “Delirium” likewise exhibits a melodic edge that only sharpens with speed. A faint drone gives him just enough backbone to turn an invertebrate impulse into a vertebrate melody that shines with conviction. 

“My Favorite Things” is yet another overdubbed gem. That the backdrop stays within the same lilting key makes the melody taut in its reflectiveness. It also gives Weber freer license to make of it what he will, turning the title into a mission statement rather than a pleasantry. “Air” ends things without self-accompaniment. A tender and breath-heavy farewell, it gives way to restfulness and active dreams—and that is where it remains.

There is an unshakable poignancy to this album, as underscored by its title, which implies the story of a bygone era. The age of this document makes its appearance 27 years later ghostlike in reminiscence of a genius whose future remains uncertain. Either way, we live with the knowledge that such glimpses of eternity are here to savor thanks to ECM’s dedication to contributions that will outlive us all.

Ayumi Tanaka Trio: Subaqueous Silence (ECM 2675)

Ayumi Tanaka Trio
Subaqueous Silence

Ayumi Tanaka piano
Christian Meaas Svendsen double bass
Per Oddvar Johansen drums
Recorded June 2019, Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, Oslo
Engineers: Daniel Wold, Ingar Hunskaar (mix)
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Mastering: Stefano Amerio
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 29, 2021

Following her introduction to the ECM constellation via Thomas Strønen’s Time Is A Blind Guide, and more recently in her appearance alongside the drummer and clarinetist Marthe Lea in Bayou, pianist Ayumi Tanaka shines her starlight as leader across a spectrum of humbling atmospheres. In the hands of her bandmates, bassist Christian Meaas Svendsen and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, Tanaka’s music for trio introverts the form in a way that makes us feel subcutaneously placed as listeners. Thus, we can immediately detect her appreciation for molecularity. Any ECM admirer will understand that this concept is suited to the label, where suspending articulation in favor of physics is an almost sacred leitmotif. I asked Tanaka in an email interview whether her approach to space is a conscious decision:

“In the process of making this album, I always aimed to answer my fundamental question: ‘What would I like to hear?’ As a result, the music has space to invite silence, allowing us to hear sound surrounding and within us, and take note of musical sound more deeply, when it arrives.”

That image of arrival is a profound one to consider in the album’s opener, “Ruins.” For while it does take precedence by virtue of being our doorway into Tanaka’s sound-world, it has been singing long before we encountered it, as it will continue to when we leave it. For now, we have its attention, sharing a room as lines with neither beginnings nor endings invite us to float somewhere between inhalation and exhalation. Brushed drums and understated bass evoke creaking trees and winter-kissed leaves while the piano speaks in the language of silhouettes before shaking the boughs of their snowy dusting and moving into the future with echoes of the past in its arms. Holding these images in mind, I ask about Tanaka’s connection with the natural world:

“Since I was a child, I always enjoyed being in nature and listening to its sounds. When I am in the forest, listening to the birds, water dripping, the trees shaking in the breeze, I feel that it is more perfect than music—everything is harmonized. I am trying to learn from the sound of nature. I would like to create music that would resonate with nature.”

We hear this as much in “Ruins II” as in “Zephyr.” Both speak of landscapes vaster than can be expressed under a single title. The depth soundings of the latter improvisation for piano and malleted drums evoke the debris of human action, swirling like so much dust in the winds of collective memory. Hence “Black Rain,” a picture of time’s ablution against the wrongs of our political missteps. While the title, for me, evokes the postwar novel by Ibuse Masuji, Tanaka sees it as about more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

“There are things we need to learn from the past and need to carry with us to end and avoid more wars and conflicts.”

This message of hope wavers in every shadow of Subaqueous Silence. Its purpose is indeed broader than specific tragedies would have us believe; it is a formulation of the human condition written in the ink of experiential harmonies. These are the underlying tensions of “Ichi.” Here is the singularity of existence unrolled like a scroll on which a single human life has been recorded with varying levels of realism. Where one moment might find a flash of childhood rendered in vivid clarity, the next only hints at an experience too painful to bear with whispering brushwork. In that sense, I find myself wondering how (and whether) aesthetic considerations are central to the flow at hand. Given that Tanaka was born and raised in Japan and has lived and worked in Oslo for the past decade, it would be easy to draw bicultural conclusions along those lines. This characterization, however, may be far too concrete to inject into the processes documented here:

“I am not sure if I want to have an aesthetic of my music at this point in my life because I want to discover something in each moment. Being in the moment and dedicated to the music is something I am always trying to do. ‘Find your own voice’ is something that Misha Alperin, an amazing pianist and my mentor, was always saying to me. It stays in my mind and I am always seeking that. All my experiences in Norway definitely had a big influence on my musical expression. On the other hand, since I moved to Norway, the more I have sought my own approach and the more I have started to realize my deep Japanese roots and to appreciate the beauty of Japanese culture, especially in art and music. Delving into two such different cultural environments is a gift that has shaped my musical expression.”

By way of example, “Towards the Sea” teaches us that a journey is nothing but a chain of small ones linked to form a retrospective trajectory. Every gesture tells a story within a story until only single words are left to stand in for memories. This implies, too, that music is a universal language and an appropriate medium through which to explore these modalities. Tanaka agrees:

“Since I was 15 years old, I have seen music as a ‘universal’ language. When I was invited to perform my compositions in Germany, I was very moved by this experience because I felt that universal language at work. Music is a gift. It consoles us, questions us, gives recognition of something within us. I am hoping that people experience my music in their own way. I hope I will be able to give something to someone through music because music has helped me in life.”

The title track is the culmination of all of this and more: gestures born in climates, geographies, and eras that are as much drawn together as pushed away by the distances that separate them. With a heavying presence and biological self-awareness, it works its percussive prayers in the sunlight of a future age when dreams are the only things that will be real. This is the music of aftermath and new beginnings wrought in earth, stone, and wood. It searches, unafraid to share its discoveries so that we might know the honesty in which they were embraced, then freed. Instrumental highlights abound, but their cohesiveness goes against the spotlighting of “solos” or moments of interest. Surely, this connectivity cannot exist without the trust of her bandmates and producer?

“I am very lucky to have the trio members who have built trust and respect over the years. I think Christian and Per Oddvar are really good listeners, not only musically but also in general. They are open-minded and flexible in their capacity of accepting things in each moment. Christian and I were studying at the Norwegian Academy of Music at the same time, and Per Oddvar is the musician who we had been listening to. Given our common education in improvised music in Norway, I think we naturally evolved a mutual understanding. In addition to that, we happen to have common interests in ancient Japanese music, arts, and culture. It reflects on the way we play the music together. Also, the music Manfred has produced is one of the strongest reasons I am here now. I deeply appreciate his trust and confidence in my music. That personal recognition is something I carry with me.”

Said extends to the listener who, while not present during the recording, is retroactively invited to absorb every reaction as it emerges. Such intimacy is rarely given and primes our ears as pages for inscription. And so, in the wake of these expressions, I find myself returning to the question of finding one’s voice:

“Facing myself is often hard, especially when I am working alone, but it is rewarding. The joyful element is when I find my voice through collaboration with others. I think it’s natural that our voices change because we are changing all the time through all the experiences we have. I am working on finding my own voice with the hope that my musical expression becomes deeper and deeper every day.”

Let this be the first step of that staircase.

Keith Jarrett: Budapest Concert (ECM 2700)

Keith Jarrett
Budapest Concert

Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded live July 3, 2016
at Béla Bartók Concert Hall, Budapest
Producer: Keith Jarrett
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Cover photo: Martin Hangen
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 30, 2020

From the 2016 European tour that gifted us with Munich 2016 comes this improvised solo concert from Keith Jarrett recorded at Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest. The pianist’s Hungarian heritage and love of the venue’s namesake gave the experience a homecoming feel that fed into every note he rendered, whether spontaneous or previously held in mind. Jarrett has since held the result in high regard as epitomizing what he is capable of at the keyboard—and rightly so, because what we have here is crafted in a spirit of such welcome that one might easily forget the album was released during a time of social distancing and quarantines.

In twelve parts spanning two CDs, Jarrett digs deep within to give much without. I offer this image as something more than a metaphor; he is physically mining his cells in search of the ore that we on the outside might call splendor. That said, there’s nothing lofty about the music that results from this process of elimination. If anything, it builds ever downward to build a private kingdom. Remarkable, then, that we might share in its retrospective pleasures.

From the moment Jarrett lays hands to instrument, he touches fertile soil from which to yield the striking contrast of his shadowy left and playful right. A dance-like quality struggles to be heard but instead feels the temptation of convention slip off like clothing that is far too big for its body. This music is also very fibrous, as if Jarrett were tying a knot, fraying the leftover end, then tying a smaller one, and so on until even his nimble fingers can no longer separate the strands. Part II works its way into the silhouette dreamed of on a traveler’s pillow. It turns this way and that but only changes its outline, neither approaching nor receding. After Part III pulls out the weeds, Part IV offers a dark, jazzy affair with smoky trails and squinting brilliance. Though restrained, it feels unbound in its emotional impulses, as ancient as an image on a cave wall drawn in the dying light of day. So begins an epic harvest of which the ripest fruits are picked in rhythms woven from strands of convolution, development, and dissolution. The sweetest among them is Part VII, which elicits some of the most astonishing textures Jarrett has ever liberated. It moves with a depth of feeling that can only have been arrived at when one has less of life ahead of them than behind. Near contenders include Part V, a lyrical aside that curls like a diagram of relativity into the innermost thoughts of childhood, and Part VIII, the near-constant fluttering of which evokes the wings of an angel just out of reach.

After the bluesy Part XII, Jarrett takes an evolutionary leap from fundament to firmament in two encores: a sweeping take on “It’s A Lonesome Old Town” and the achingly comforting “Answer Me, My Love.” Thus, we are left with a lifetime’s worth of listening in the dimensions of a delineated object. And even as the atmospheric shifts of the heart turn their eyes toward a brighter tomorrow, they never seem to forget the lightless void from which they emerged into being.

Jakob Bro: Uma Elmo (ECM 2702)

Jakob Bro
Uma Elmo

Jakob Bro guitar
Arve Henriksen trumpet, piccolo trumpet
Jorge Rossy drums
Recorded September/October 2020, Auditorio Stelio Molo, RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Jean-Marc Dellac
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 12, 2021

When Jakob Bro lays his hands on an electric guitar, the guitar lays its hands on us. This chain reaction of touch was already apparent when the Dane painted the shadows of early appearances on Paul Motian’s Garden of Eden and Tomasz Stanko’s Dark Eyes. Since then, after a flight of leader dates on Loveland and a welcome home away from home on ECM since 2015’s Gefion, Bro has varnished a personal altar, placing upon it a family of melodic proportions. Indeed, the title of the present disc is derived from his children’s middle names, each a cypher of lives yet to be lived yet already full beyond delineation. Having written much of this material while his second, still a newborn at the time, was napping, Bro offers eight tunes that flow like scenes of video. Not knowing its biological origins, however, Uma Elmo evokes for me an uninhabited island that flourishes in sound, each tree the bearer of fruit that can only be discovered through listening.

The trio convened here is so new that it had never played as such before entering the studio for this session. Nonetheless, trumpeter Arve Henriksen and drummer Jorge Rossy, each of whom has charted separate paths through the label, are natural companions. Through names and motifs alike, Bro reaches out to other allies, whether living or non. Inspired by his collaborative transversal with Motian, “Reconstructing A Dream” funnels the drummer’s pliant architectural sensibility with reverence. Henriksen’s fluted playing widens the landscape with its breath and Rossy’s brushing opens its heart as Bro’s enhancements glisten in downward prayer.

“To Stanko” is a poignant reminder of how intersections can yield paths in their own right. Its mournful qualities shapeshift beyond the confines of a mere dedication, wandering through the Great In-Between as might a song in search of lyrics. “Beautiful Day,” like the album as a whole, is patient in its exposition. Bro is just as content providing liquid texture (as also in the later “Housework”) as he is providing a solid backbone. And though Henriksen grazes the clouds without releasing a single drop of rain, climatic changes abound in tracks like “Music For Black Pigeons” (in memory of Lee Konitz, who gave the piece its title) and “Slaraffenland,” ebbing and flowing to diurnal rhythms. 

High points of the set are to be found in “Morning Song” and “Sound Flower.” In the latter especially, Bro’s manipulations glow against the backdrop Rossy’s poetry and Henriksen’s siren song. Bro takes the hand offered by the dawn, shakes it in welcome, and pulls its possibilities into frame. The effect is so restrained that whenever the guitar voices itself more overtly, it feels like a momentary embrace before release. Despite often moving at a crawl’s space, this music is quick to locate its spiritual heart. Like the last star of night hanging on to its light in the face of the rising sun, it continues to shine even when it fades from view.

Parker Quartet/Kim Kashkashian: Kurtág/Dvořák (ECM New Series 2649)

Parker Quartet
Kim Kashkashian
György Kurtág/Antonín Dvořák

Parker Quartet
Daniel Chong
 violin
Ken Hamao violin
Jessica Bodner viola
Kee-Hyun Kim violoncello
Kim Kashkashian viola
Recorded November 2018, Radiostudio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Cover photo: Woong Chul An
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 22, 2021

If the phenomenality of existence is rooted in its fleetingness, then music cannot be clothed in any raiment other than its mortality. Such is the impetus (and the slip-through-your-fingers brilliance) of György Kurtág’s composing, which never bites off more than it can chew so as to absorb every nutrient of its dialogic vocabularies. In the invocational architectures of his Six moments musicaux, op. 44 (2005), which open this program of ear-opening juxtapositions, there is much to be uncovered by listeners willing to seek the fragmentary in the harmonic and the holistic in the dissonant. Whether dancing with exuberance or wallowing in the eventide of mourning, the strings manifest as much meaning untouched by the bow as humming beneath its pressure. Shades of motifs that came before crack themselves open like eggs to reveal two distinct textures that cook at different temperatures. The Parker Quartet treats these dichotomies as anything but, reveling quietly in their gradations of white and yellow. The icy “Rappel des oiseaux…” (an etude rendered mostly in harmonics) is the clearest example of how sensitive one must be to speak Kurtág’s language. The quieter his grammar, the more robustly it leaps from the score.

The painted side of this mirror is Kurtág’s Officium breve, op. 28 (1988/89). Written in memory of composer Endre Szervánsky (1911-1977) but also paying respects to Anton Webern (1883-1945), its fifteen movements open as if tuning, bleeding into concentrations of light. Like a candle during a power outage, its quotidian purpose is magnified to near-sacred focus. For the most part, however, these pieces are reflections of reflections. From the sonority of the “Sostenuto” to the fragile spirituality of the “Canon a 2,” the Parkers erase the “d” in “breadth” and leave it to exhale into the slow-motion slumber of the final “Larghetto.” It is, as Paul Griffiths best describes it in his liner note, “A homecoming, to a lost home.”

Between these two destinations blossoms the String Quintet No. 3 in E-flat major, op. 97, of Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). Composed in 1893 during a sojourn in the small Iowa town of Spillville, its rendering here with special guest, violist Kim Kashkashian (a mentor of the musicians), immediately boldfaces the brightness for which the Czech composer was so well known, soaring in search of a place without winter. What begins as a splash of sunlight in the Scherzo shifts into fluid motion, the violin working its way like a bird in slow motion without any other purpose than to mark its path with invisible ink. Heat comes in the slow burn of the Larghetto, which rests its weight on Kashkashian’s shoulders as on a savior in dark times. This is a highlight for the quartet’s ability to mesh with itself and incorporate the extra instrument as if it was always there. Between the light footfalls of the cello’s pizzicato and the dreamlike tremble of its higher cousins, everyone has a chance to make peace with the fullness of their message, finding in the Finale a way to begin again: by inhaling with a prayerful spirit.

Thomas/Orazbayeva/Railton: Three Or One (ECM New Series 2640)

Three Or One

Fred Thomas piano
Aisha Orazbayeva violin
Lucy Railton violoncello
Recorded 2012/2018
University of Huddersfield,
courtesy of Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay
Recording and mixing engineer: Alex Bonney
Balance engineers: Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay
and Rob Sutherland (trios),
Elliott Parkin (solos)
Recording producer: Fred Thomas
Cover photo: Manos Chatzikonstanzis
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 22, 2021

Three Or One documents the prismatic transcriptions of pianist Fred Thomas, who for this project dips his fingers into the font of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. He adds to that unfinished book of organ chorales and canons a selection of vocal movements and other Bachiana, lovingly sequenced by producer Manfred Eicher. As revealed in a liner note, Thomas sought to “subvert the associations of the piano trio (so remote from Bach) and induce a hushedness that I heard in his compositions.” Bringing said trio to life are violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and cellist Lucy Railton, whose sense of color, space, and time humble the proceedings to a scriptural level.

The opening chorale, “Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 649) gives majesty to the very air as if it were only a medium for melody. Such presence is strong yet yielding throughout, as most apparent in the organ pieces. Of these, “Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes Sohn” (BWV 601) is especially touching for its heartfelt composition and centuries-delayed interpretation. “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 639) is another spiritual well from which is drawn the water of life itself.

The arranging is as sensitive as the playing. Whether in the delicate cello pizzicato of “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt” (BWV 637) or the sustained violin lines of “Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott” (BWV 721), one can feel the close-eyed bliss of the creative process in both directions. The program offers solo piano interpretations as well, including a flight of four cantata arias and a sinfonia. In these are light-footed grace, intensifying passion, geometric wonder, and childlike whimsy all rolled into a holistic package.

Culminations of these signatures are found in the shining beacons of “Liebster Jesu, wir sind heir” (BWV 633), in which the strings blend like siblings while the piano sermonizes as if to a congregation of three, and “O Gott, du frommer Gott” (BWV 767), in which the violin sings as if a choir of one. Perhaps, this is a hidden nuance of the album’s title, referring not only to the number of musicians but also an evangelical diversity. Another doctrinal nugget is “Gott, durch deine Güte” (BWV 600), in which a closely miked violin played sul ponticello fills the left channel with birdlike movements.

We can be sure that everything gained here is the result of something lost. Hence the poignancy of what we are hearing: the cycle of birth and death that allows these beauties to exist in the first place. We can feel history coming together as much as separating, working to define the sounds through equal parts memory and unknowability. Notes Thomas: “Bach set out to discover, not create, the musical rules of the universe.” Indeed, there is much to discover in these hymns, sung before we could ever sing them.