The Tone Poetry of Charles Lloyd

(Photo credit: Dorothy Darr)

To regard a line of improvisation in the key of Charles Lloyd is to walk a spiral from the peaceful depths of one’s soul to the chaotic terrains beyond it. The tenor saxophone with which he is most commonly associated is a scepter that sounds, in his words, “a clarion call to truth and love.” A tender warrior committed to restoration, he sees no lines of demarcation in his music:

“That wouldn’t be right for the tradition I serve. You must have your elixir, and the elixir is in sound and tone. When you’re at the feet of the Universe, she will always bless and take care of us. It’s not politicians we need but sages. Many have their hand out for something, but I try to let my heart be filled so I want for nothing. I live in awe, drunk with the music.”

Hence the moniker of his latest collective The Marvels—featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums—of whom Lloyd is at once leader and faithful servant, a vessel for languages without script. Lloyd debuted The Marvels on the 2016 album I Long To See You with special guests Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, and reconvened the band for 2018’s Vanished Gardens which featured Lucinda Williams on half the album. For his latest Blue Note release Tone Poem, Lloyd presents The Marvels without guest vocalists for the first time on a nourishing nine-course meal of spiritual food. Lloyd recalls the genesis of the group:

“I used to play at this club in Memphis, where a country band was always finishing up as we came in. Their pedal steel guitar player, Al Vescovo, fell in love with my playing, and I with his. He and I became friends, which wasn’t easy on account of the color lines. But the warmth of our friendship was pure. I eventually left for California, and we never saw each other again. Years later, I started performing with Bill Frisell—a seeker whose music, like mine, dances on many shores. On the road, between concerts, I was always reminiscing with him about this young musician from my teens. One night, he invited a pedal steel guitar player to sit in on a concert we played at UCLA’s Royce Hall. That turned out to be Greg Leisz. Hearing him brought full circle a childhood feeling of that instrument and its sonority. Thus, The Marvels were born, because what had happened was a marvel.”

Indeed, the fluid way in which Frisell and Leisz finish each other’s sentences speaks of a mastery that eschews boundaries in deference to flow. The same holds true of Lloyd’s rhythm section, which finds coherence in the absence of rules. If Harland is the heartbeat, Rogers fortifies the blood in its arteries. But how is that sound achieved?

“Don Was and the folks at Blue Note believe in me. The songs we create are my children. They come back home with me. There’s an old saying: What you’re looking for is looking for you. As the character of sound flows, the world drops away, allowing you to make a contribution. This is my offering, my inspiration and consolation. Music has always brought me that. It heals me; I hope I can heal others. Even in the wide cast of artists I’ve played with over this long life, I still have beginner’s mind. Only now, I have the benefit of experience to go along with it.”

If one were to see this album as a ship, then the album closer “Prayer” might be its dotted path across a map of time. Although the parchment on which it is marked is frayed at the edges, it has enough empty space left on it for voyages of reconciliation yet to come. The arco bass and pedal steel guitar herein constitute a longitude and latitude, while drums played by hand glow like a compass in the night. Lloyd and his crew sail forth on a raft culled from bits of nature, each ragged and sun-scorched on its own yet, in unity with others, stronger than the waves. In the midst of the vast waters of this quest stands a chain of islands that includes the album’s original title track, “Tone Poem,” which from rhythmless materials builds a gently grooving structure. Next, it swings from sonic rafters of Thelonious Monk (“Monk’s Mood”)—last heard in duo with Frisell on Vanished Gardens—and on to the shimmering beaches of Bola de Nieve (“Ay Amor”) and Gabor Szabo (“Lady Gabor”). The latter tune offers a taste of Eastern airs and harks to Lloyd’s legendary performance at Montreux in 1967. Out of the primordial soup of that past, it hits the ground running as a fully formed creature—scintillating and agile. Such is the wonder of Lloyd’s playing: he is a traveler weary of the world yet unwilling to let it pass without a song in which to wrap it. He understands the vision of life as having fallen like a teardrop from a cosmic eye in need of being wiped away. And with his horn, he does just that. This music is so comfortable that it feels like a second skin.

“When I think back on my life and how long I’ve been here. Most of my heroes left long before the age I’ve attained. I am always paying homage in a dream state of bringing a better world, a universe that heals and touches. The model of the world as it exists is very primitive to me. Man’s inhumanity to man continues to cause great pain and destruction.  And yet, the fierceness of exploration stays fresh with me. I’m not here for roses. I’m still blessed and interested. The world continues to make history about generals…but my generals—Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Bird, and Trane—are lovers of the heart.”

This is especially apparent in two Ornette Coleman tunes (“Peace” and “Ramblin’”), neither of which were a part of Lloyd’s repertoire, yet which felt organically suited to the band. In both, the listener will find spirit-making sounds, all powered by the solar panel of Lloyd’s saxophone and released in melodic energy. The sense of forward motion here is phenomenally astute and something that, in these times of social distancing, crackles with a level of intimacy the pandemic has all but snuffed out.

“Some of the notes and cries you hear now on my instrument, I didn’t have as a young man. They articulate something. Then, I have these ensembles serving a higher goal. Sensitives are abundant on the planet; they just aren’t given credit for it. To be drunk while also being non-toxic and non-harmful to the world is a contribution worth making, a song worth singing.”

It’s also why poetry lingers even in the absence of words. In Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” it sings wordlessly and with a deep simplicity that needed to be explored in this context. And in the temperance of Lloyd’s own “Dismal Swamp,” it turns an individual truth into a universal one.

“I’m an archeologist and astronomer, trying to make a breakthrough. I have this dream that I’m going to melt into the music and I’ll become what it is. It’s such a beautiful gift that I’ve been given of being able to continue to explore. I pick up the instrument and I play and I can’t put it down. It takes me. I go out in nature and come home with these quantum mechanics in my heart.”

Music, because it is connecting to and opening up a spiritual purpose, brings about eternal effects, whereas everything we do in the flesh has a finite existence. But we’re so busy screaming at each other that we’ve forgotten how to sing. This is why Lloyd’s music has so much vitality: it is a gift in song form. It is a refuge.

“We speak the same heart. The heart of all hearts, we’re aligned with that. And the soul of all souls will bring us home. To be at Oneness. There are many windows into this house. You must be sincere and you must have a desire for truth, and somewhere you must have inspirations along the way, someone to guide you who knows the path. It’s incumbent upon all of us to sing that song of the infinite.”

A “dreamer of worlds” is how Lloyd describes himself. In that capacity, he offers inspiration and consolation to the named and unnamed alike. And now, with this sacred book, bound and stitched as an incantation of light, we can dream those worlds together as our own.

Tone Poem is available directly from Blue Note Records by clicking on the album cover below.

Trio Tapestry: Garden of Expression (ECM 2685)

Trio Tapestry
Garden of Expression

Joe Lovano tenor and soprano saxophones, tarogato, gongs
Marilyn Crispell piano
Carmen Castaldi drums
Recorded November 2019 Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover Photo: Caterina Di Perri
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 29, 2021


Following in the footsteps of its 2019 self-titled debut, Trio Tapestry returns with an intensely meditative successor. Saxophonist Joe Lovano (playing tenor and soprano, as well as tarogato and gongs), pianist Marilyn Crispell, and drummer Carmen Castaldi take their atmospheric coherence to the next level with this set of eight Lovano originals. His lilting tenor in “Chapel Song” manifests spiritual possibilities from first breath. As piano and brushes render the sky at his back a canvas of lost hopes, keys and time signatures melt into an echo of their former meanings. This nexus of the two Cs functions as the album’s paper, across which Lovano keeps an honest diary in his flowing script.

The notes of “Night Creatures” speak with the power of a supernova, which through a satellite telescope appears peaceful and nebulous but in the moments of its birth was surely violent at the molecular level. Such are the dichotomies being sung, where something as unseeable as the transmission of a virus can bring the world to a virtual standstill. The title track is a melodic wonder, which Crispell cradles as a mother would the head of a newborn. Implications of life dance in “West of the Moon.” With all the understated charge of a Paul Motian tune (and by no force of comparison, given that Lovano played in the drummer’s trio with guitarist Bill Frisell for three decades), it finds contentment not in the fallback of a groove but in the ever-changing currents of air that a groove risks prematurely denying.

Lovano’s tenor enables a study in physical contrast. Between the delicate altissimo of “Sacred Chant” and guttural lows of “Dream on That,” he paints with a variety of liminal shades in the middle range. His soprano in “Zen Like” points to yet another register, speaking in haiku rather than tanka. Any quantifiable border between day and night, except for that delineated by the act of sleep, loses all importance. We are bid to listen with eyes open to the language of a distant solar system. With so much to discover on repeated listening, perhaps no other description could feel so apt as that which names track 5: “Treasured Moments.” Given its focus on the simple and the beautiful, we can take the album’s dedication to victims of COVID-19 as more than a reactionary statement but as a prayer within a prayer.

(A condensed version of this review originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

David Virelles: Transformación del Arcoiris

Despite, if not because of, the fact that David Virelles’ Transformación del Arcoiris was born in a time of social distancing, it feels close enough to smell the creativity in its breath. With a borderless aesthetic that pushes two hands outward for every foot planted inward, it treats the canvas of an album not as blank but as a living surface whose own imperfections must be articulated in the spirit of truth. As much an ambient sound collage as a musical object, it grinds expectation in the respective mortar and pestle of future and past until a mélange of the present reveals its fragrant spice. Playing a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer, piano and sampler and accompanied by Los Seres, a virtual percussion ensemble programmed by himself, Virelles begins the circle with “Cause and Effect,” in which the sounds of chickens activate a schism between history and its erasure. As in other tracks that follow, but especially the concluding “Fin del Cuento,” a found-sound aesthetic prevails. While there are moments of transcendence, including the sun-drenched blush of “Holy City,” there’s a sense that shadows are always lying in wait for the chance to sink their teeth into progress. It’s as if our pre-pandemic state was digital and the new normal was analog. Sensations of flesh and flora meet in “Babá la Paloma,” the tropical climate of which yields two distinct seasons. In the dry we encounter the goodness of “Tiempos” (made all the dreamier by guest Marcus Gilmore on MPC drumkit) while in the wet we inhale the spores of “De Cómo el Árbol Cantó y Bailó” as if they were life itself. Each of these requires the microscope of an ear and nowhere so magnified as in the cinematic wonder of “Babujal.” Here the piano feels like a relic in a sea of orchestral trembling. Virelles is always exploring, examining and analyzing genealogies that have lodged themselves within. This is music that does more than stand at a crossroads; rather, it ties those roads into a bow until their beginnings and endings are one and the same.

Transformación del Arcoiris is available on bandcamp.

(This review originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Dominik Wania: Lonely Shadows (ECM 2686)

Dominik Wania
Lonely Shadows

Dominik Wania piano
Recorded November 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 18, 2020

After contributing so beautifully to two albums—Unloved and Three Crowns—as part of the Maciej Obara Quartet, pianist Dominik Wania offers this studio recording of solo improvisations. While Wania notes a range of influences drawing from his classical background, including Satie, Weber, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Messiaen, he seems to have taken cues from these composers as emotional rather than technical suggestions. In doing so, he unravels a trajectory that feels fresh yet familiar in the sense of reuniting with a friend one hasn’t seen in decades. Thus, the light step with which the title track opens seeks the future as if it were the past. As the atmosphere builds and more notes enter the scene, a narrative structure suggests itself. And yet, the characters seem not to know each other. They walk by without acknowledgement, meshing in their indifference.

“New Life Experience” is the first among a handful of expository wonders. If this and the sharper attack of “Relativity” feel more jarring, it’s only because they speak of a musician unafraid to examine himself. Each agitation unpacks itself with philosophical rigor. And if “Think Twice” and “AG76” are heard as darker autobiographies, then “Subjective Objectivity” and “Indifferent Attitude” reveal a playful side. The latter is especially virtuosic but uses its acumen to tell more than show.

To my ears, Wania understands that music is nothing if not a reifying force. Despite the ephemeral implications of “Melting Spirit” and “Liquid Fluid” in titles alone, their lyrical charge makes them fully present as entities in their own right. They guide us “Towards The Light” by reminding us of the fleshly struggles of which life itself is composed as we now search for something divine in a world bogged down by cloud of a pandemic. Opening our eyes to a brighter tomorrow, “All What Remains” suspends itself in prayer, the requiting of which will never materialize until we close our mouths and open our ears.

This music is a sentient river acknowledging the obstructions that define its winding trajectory. It would be nothing without impediment, each rock and fallen tree a challenge to redefine itself at every turn. This is precisely what Lonely Shadows can be at its freest moments—a continuity through the traumas we carry inside before the ocean of mortality swallows them whole.

Strønen/Tanaka/Lea: Bayou (ECM 2633)

Thomas Strønen
Ayumi Tanaka
Marthe Lea
Bayou

Marthe Lea clarinet, voice, percussion
Ayumi Tanaka piano
Thomas Strønen drums, percussion
Recorded August 2018, Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Cover photo: Caterina Di Perri
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 9, 2021

From Thomas Strønen’s Time Is A Blind Guide emerges the drummer/bandleader alongside pianist Ayumi Tanaka, delineating a fresh triangle with clarinetist/vocalist/percussionist Marthe Lea. Though metaphysically grounded in free explorations of musical moments, Bayou has a rhizomatic quality that blends apparent influences ranging from Claude Debussy to Jimmy Giuffre. These genetic strands and more feel cohesive in their new body, intertwining in search of (and in fleeting possession of) wonder.

After immersing myself in this album’s details, I arranged a video chat with Strønen to explore its genesis and inner lives. I first asked him about the relationship between this trio and Time Is A Blind Guide. His response:

“It’s everything and nothing, in a way. I think the similarities are quite obvious in that I like working on space and all the things that are not said. But this trio is totally improvised, while Time Is A Blind Guide is my play garden. I see my role in it more as a composer than as a drummer. I know where the music is heading. The main idea of the trio was to explore ground rather than perform, without the pressure to be or turn into anything. By accident, we got asked to play somewhere. I recorded that concert on one microphone and played it for Manfred. He said it sounded very fresh and insisted that we bring it to the studio. We recorded for three hours in the morning. We had lunch, then started mixing. It was very relaxed. It was also the first time I recorded totally improvised for ECM and we were excited to see whether we could bring about the same interplay we had experienced during rehearsals.”

Having two different versions of the title track speaks to this multifaceted approach, through which one face reveals new features when illuminated differently. Yielding a Norwegian folk tune, it parallels the whisper of Strønen’s brushes with the raindrops of piano, bringing forth a touchless space in which breath becomes the language of primary communication. The song emerges on its own wings but hovers within sight like a hummingbird in dream-like slow motion—watching, waiting, and listening.

Strønen parallels this impression:

“Music is integral to their lives. I think you can hear that in the way they play. It’s not just skills or training but an extremely strong will to create an atmosphere and interplay that’s larger than all of us. We’re different musicians but we have the same attitude toward playing music, despite our distinct roles in a band. Ayumi and I are more delicate, but we never know what Marthe will pull out next. For example, this record was the first time she sung in the context of this trio. She is a free bird who stirs things up and makes them alive.”

“Pasha” skims wider waters, alighting at last on shore. The surface tension of the pond becomes the page for a delicate grammar, the arrangement of which etches its poetry where ink cannot remain. “Water was always with us,” says Strønen, who knew the trio and its music would be aquatic in nature. Beyond that, however, nothing was planned.

Lea’s clarinet in “Duryea” lends insight into the inner workings of flight as it navigates the tangle of forest brush it calls home. To that daylit scene “Nahla” and “Varsha” are the night—a tender submersion of cellular mapmaking for the impending dawn. The creaking of tired trees bracing themselves for winter melds with subtle changes in temperature and air current.

One aspect that makes this music so special is its lack of allegiance to dialogue. It renders different parts of a shared scene while finding sameness through difference. It has no other protagonist than the landscape itself, replete with waterways, pockets of lichen, and lives of its own. Such are the winding journeys of “Eyre” and the amphibious diary that is “Dwyn.” In these are whispers of distant climates as yet untouched by the trio’s collective dreaming. Strønen elaborates on the inner dynamics at play:

“What I like in this ensemble is that we are not necessarily talking to each other but always listening. Parallel musical ideas are going on at the same time with really big ears from all three of us. It’s a challenging way of communicating—trusting that what you do is essential to what the others do but not in a conventional way. The essence is still there whether I am present or not. Jazz is usually about leading to a special point; we are not searching for that. Ours is a more parallel way of communicating.”

Nowhere more so than in “Como” (an album highlight for its suspended qualities and understated glory), which coaxes the sun from its slumber before it dissipates the mist of “Chantara.” This is, perhaps, why Lea hums wordlessly, as no form of human meaning can capture that which refuses to be caged by semantics.

“It’s common for a record to define a band. This has the side effect of getting onto a one-way street. I can find myself wanting to recreate what we did on a record, but listening later I am happy to find out it didn’t. You play what you are.”

A profound reminder that we listen what we are as well. The bayou is a mirror and we are its reflection.

Sinikka Langeland: Wolf Rune (ECM 2674)

Sinikka Langeland
Wolf Rune

Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocal
Recorded December 2019 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Recording supervision: Sean Lewis
Engineer: Martin Abrahamsen
Cover photo: Christian Houge
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 9, 2021

My eye and God’s eye
is one eye,
and one sight,
and one knowledge,
and one love.

–Meister Eckhart

After a loosely bound series of five tablets, the most recent being 2015’s The Magical Forest, Sinikka Langeland chisels an authorial portrait of the highest order with her first solo album. With so many multicolored scenes in collaborative form behind her, the Norwegian singer and kantele storyteller offers this monochromatic wonder as an ode to becoming and dissolution.

For the opening “Moose Rune,” she attunes the acoustic signatures of Rainbow Studio through her 15-string kantele, playing it with a bow to bring every molecule into sacred order. So begins an extended prayer of which the 39-string sister instrument breathes like an elder of time perched on a stony crag to oversee the histories Langeland has been blessed to carry. Playing the traditional “Polsdance from Finnskogen,” she expands the sonority at hand with liquidity to spare. Such instrumentals carry themselves with a fleshly quality, leaving footprints in every patch of earth they traverse.

Two “Kantele Prayers” give solace. Played on a 5-string instrument, they are like a child cultivating a mature soul, waiting for the day when, as an adult, she can do the opposite. Thus do the strings resonate in “Winter Rune” with all the force of a life lived circularly—tender yet aware of the rigid climbs one must complete to survey paths of learning. Past traumas blush on the horizon, but the voice gives assurance that not a single drop of their storms will make itself known upon the skin of the here and now. And when Langeland’s bow opens its heart for the second time, she creates a portal of escape for anyone who wishes to follow.

While her heart pumps with the blood of tradition, as in the modest folk tune “The Girl In The Headlands” and the hymnal “I See Your Light,” it also chambers a deeply generative spirit. From the latter is birthed a handful of original melodies. Langeland composes with an ancient sensibility and gives a wealth of experience to every turn of phrase. In “Row My Ocean,” her setting of a text by poet and playwright Jon Fosse, she evokes the movement of oars more emotional than physical, extending every string as a current in its own right, while “The Eye Of The Blue Whale” curls its fingers around her own verses, describing a disembodied whale’s eye as a metaphor for songs that, once sung, belong only to themselves. Such observations take wing in “When I Was The Forest.” Every gesture encoded in these words after 13th-century philosopher Meister Eckhart contains sparkle and shadow in equal measure. At tip of finger and rim of lip, Langeland enacts wandering, supplication, and regard for the natural world in ways that blur the lines between flesh and fern.

The starlit melody of “Don’t Come To Me With The Entire Truth” practices what it espouses: a humbling exaltation of the drop before the ocean, content in knowing just enough to make every breath count. All that’s left to regard is the title track, a rendering of an old rune song in which the Trinity is loosed like a pack of light to roam the darkness of this world, devouring every demon in sight. The stepwise motions of the kantele here are beyond virtuosic: they are fully integrated into their environment.

This is the soul of the forest made clean, a hearth in which to hibernate until the clouds pass over us in search of dawn.

Cymin Samawatie/Ketan Bhatti: Trickster Orchestra (ECM 2696)

Cymin Samawatie
Ketan Bhatti
Trickster Orchestra

Cymin Samawatie vocals
Ketan Bhatti drums
Trickster Orchestra
Recorded January 2019, Meistersaal, Berlin
Engineer: Martin Ruch
Assistant engineer: Philip Krause
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover photo: Fotini Potamia
An ECM Production
Release date: April 23, 2021

I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
–Psalm 130:5-6

Since gracing ECM’s catalog with three facets of its musical wisdom, Cyminology reconfigures itself on a larger scale. This time, the group’s leader, singer Cymin Samawatie, and mainstay percussionist Ketan Bhatti drop their stones into the pond of the Trickster Orchestra, forming a 23-piece supergroup poised to interpret a wide repertoire that includes Old Testament scripture and Sufi poetry, connected by linguistic threads spun in Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi. Instruments span an even wider gamut, from the koto of Naoko Kikuchi, the kanun of Bassem Alkhouri, and the sheng of Wu Wei to the clarinet of Mona Matbou Riahi, the recorders of Susanne Fröhlich, and the viola of Martin Stegner. Among the resulting music’s many excitements is the feeling that, despite finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, the musicians paint with an exploratory quality that makes every blade of grass their own.

“Shir hamaalot” is one of two songs cowritten by Samawatie and Bhatti. This stark setting of Psalm 130 evokes the inner turmoil born of self-awareness that prompted David to praise God with such fervency, while “Keşke” (“If Only”) melodizes a poem by Efe Duyan. This playful exploration of morbid topics, from trauma and self-harm to disaster and desire of the flesh, presents the human voice as a fluid presence given afterlife through electronic manipulations in what is arguably the album’s expressive apex.

On their own, each composer emotes with a genuinely distinctive quality. Samawatie’s sound-world is designated by its careful attention to syntax, its validation of textual histories, and its uplifting of the human experience. In “Gebete,” the tangible words of Rumi blend into Psalm 23, the former’s resignations easing into the latter’s divine comforts through tribulation before the sun’s radiance shines crosswise through the mesh of Sura 91. Like the verses themselves, the music blurs the line between inner and outer. Samawatie’s voice is joined by those of Rabih Lahoud and Sveta Kundish, who string their incredible harmonies from far and wide. In “Modara” and “Por se ssedaa,” we encounter freer singing and groovy undercurrents, respectively. Both look beyond the veil of religion to a place where reverence can flourish without constriction.

Bhatti’s atmospheres are more overtly about contrast. From the whispered imaginings of “Tounsibuurg,” which constitutes the album’s solar plexus, to the urgency of “Hast Hussle II,” he examines a mélange of influences, cultural touchpoints, and philosophical inquiries. Even the emerging chaos of “Kords Kontinuum” feels narratively structured, especially when the bass clarinet of Milian Vogel peeks above a rim of cloud while the viola works clockwise through its string games.

These songs are sirens of tomorrow gracing the here and now, each strand of their hair fanning out to reveal a possible trajectory across arid land, through murky waters, and over snow-dusted mountains. Still images are so frequent and congruent that, before long, they begin to take on the illusion of movement one would expect to find in the flipbooks of childhood.

This unusually thorough (and thoroughly unusual) experience is an ode to those who feel most at home in liminal spaces.

Vijay Iyer: Uneasy (ECM 2692)

Vijay Iyer
Uneasy

Vijay Iyer piano
Linda May Han Oh double bass
Tyshawn Sorey drums
Recorded December 2019 at Oktaven Audio Studio, Mount Vernon, NY
Engineer: Ryan Streber
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover photo: Woong Chul An
Produced by Vijay Iyer and Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 9, 2021

while in the midst of horror
we fed on beauty – and that,
my love, is what sustained us.

–Rita Dove

The term “microaggression,” often thrown around in today’s politically wounded climate, is a misnomer. There’s nothing “micro” about the injustice that a (seemingly) offhanded remark can inflict. Such impacts are felt at the macro level, returning to the systemic ashes from which they spring like so many phoenixes of abuse. These feelings and more circulate throughout my blood vessels as I listen to Uneasy, Vijay Iyer’s seventh leader date for ECM. Says the pianist of his chosen title, “Maybe, since the word contains its own opposite, it reminds us that the most soothing, healing music is often born of and situated within profound unrest; and conversely, the most turbulent music may contain stillness, coolness, even wisdom.” To unpack this semantic time capsule, he welcomes bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey into a studio workout of spectral proportions.

The opening “Children Of Flint,” like much of what follows, bears the scars of recent social history. Dedicated to the residents of its titular Michigan town, where families were tragically deprived of safe drinking water from 2014 to 2019, it blends its first blush into a firmament of bass and piano before cymbals greet a new day. Already, we know that we are in for distinctly animate(d) music that moves like the wind: swift, powerful, and able to adapt to any structure that would threaten to impede its passage. “Combat Breathing” (the latter word, of course, completing a larger-than-ever circuit of tragedy) handles its subjects with equal care. Oh and Sorey till a powerful soil into which Iyer throws handful after handful of melodic seeds. Oh waters them with her solo, keeping one set of fingers on the strings and the other curled around Sorey’s hand as they navigate the rays of a setting sun.

This diurnal cycle of life requires stasis to explode and vice versa. Hence, the melodic forest that is Cole Porter’s “Night And Day,” which in this iteration inhales more than it exhales, as if to protect itself from the political oxygen deprivation of which it was an unwitting(?) reflection. The bassing is so exquisite in its regard for textural detail, a signal of agency and purpose. Drawing on McToy Tyner’s cartographic precedent, it is the very embodiment of exposition as practice. The polyrhythmic “Drummer’s Song” is a nod to another master composer, Geri Allen, whose spirit blossoms in this rendition, born of an obvious amount of consideration. Each movement connects to the next, ball to socket, until the choreography lays itself on an altar of forgiveness.

“Touba” (cowritten with Mike Ladd) has a more insistent quality, which by its understatement pulls a thread of unwavering allyship through varicolored beads. Iyer’s unbound spirit here is glorious, singing of freedom without forgetting the sacrifices suffered to flex it like the historical muscle it has become, while the groove-oriented “Configurations” reveals a sonic Rubik’s cube that trio coaxes it into a solved state by breath alone. In this instance, virtuosity is a necessary means of engagement. Sorey’s drumming glistens with the persuasiveness of an ice cream cone in July.

The title track is the album’s solemn soul. Fueled by self-awareness and grit, it sheds its aquatic nature to run on land. A phenomenal yet brief image takes shape when Iyer plays single high notes, as if suspending the action before diving into the fray. If this one looks inward, then “Retrofit” looks forward, holding on to that which is good instead of merely abandoning it for the sake of the new. This is the trio’s M.O.

“Entrustment” imbues the proceedings with subtle finality. It treads carefully so as not to hurt those it wishes to protect. This primes a canvas for brushstrokes of every imaginable thickness, each a window into a life that matters. Like the solo piano improvisation, “Augury,” that bathes us along the way, it manifests an internal spirit using external vocabularies, weaving a tapestry of foresight into the pandemic that loomed just beyond the horizon of its recording. Its poignancy finds solidarity throughout Uneasy, which affords a bird’s-eye view of our violent world, a place where even unrest must succumb to slumber. Knowing we cannot stop it alone, prayers like this are a necessity because they remind us that, even as we chant the memories of a select view, 99% of those who met the same fate are names we will never know, swept by the largest of brooms under the asphalt carpet. Let us take the five seconds with which this album starts, then, as an opportunity to reflect on what this music touches: the fragility of identity.

Nik Bärtsch: Entendre (ECM 2703)

Nik Bärtsch
Entendre

Nik Bärtsch piano
Recorded September 2020, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 19, 2021

The word entendre means “to direct one’s attention.” It’s root, entente, is the Old French from which we get the English “intent.” It’s akin to the modular concept that links the interpretive experiences of composer and pianist Nik Bärtsch—as indeed, each piece is a frame without a window. The nature of any light shining through that window is at the behest of the given moment, which arranges its particles simultaneously through passive and agentic being. Bärtsch serves the music rather than forcing it to bow at his feet. Its ritualistic qualities, therefore, have nothing to do with conjuring energies out of nowhere and everything to do with illuminating energies already around and within us so that we might begin to understand the generative qualities of the body’s interactions with the physical world.

While some of these modules will be known to longtime listeners, one will surely hear them anew when stripped of their brethren, flowing from ocean into river rather than the other way around. It would be challenging, however, to separate these self-directed readings from the bleed-through of their collective predecessors. One will hear the influences of not only his own projects, especially the well-documented Ronin, but also his relationships with producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Stefano Amerio, whose fingers leave their prints in the very air like Bärtsch’s on the keys.

“Modul 58” is a bird in our aural binoculars. It flits from one branch to another to engage the muscular scores with which it has been encoded, bone by bone and feather by feather. Passages of wonder give rise to fallen dances, a clan of hunters stripped of everything they own as a test of their inward focus. In place of swords, they wield a self-awareness that only the martial body can attain: efficient, visceral, and clean. As all of this blends into Modul 12 (an organic transition suggested by nothing more than the Lugano studio in which it was recorded), the touch of flesh, string, felt, and wood coheres into an ideographic language all its own.

The more forthright attack of “Modul 55,” as subtle as it is direct, eschews the violation of injury. Bärtsch shunts his bodily organs onto tracks of far less absorbent purpose so that flesh does not risk the temptation of polishing itself as a one-way mirror. Every time he strums the piano’s strings, the instrument’s very heart shimmers with a delight that can only be described as celestial. Thus, the moods and textures of Entendre are never stable. Realizing this is key to aligning oneself with the granular synthesis that abounds in this sequence. In “Modul 26,” an open sustain leads us into the temptation of a reverie, only to quickly fold itself in sentient origami. Each crease is so slight that the illusion of roundness reveals itself until the minimal becomes maximal. This highlight of the Bärtsch catalog shines with all the power of a supermoon, minus the fanfare. Cut off from all possibility of exaggeration, we stand before it in silent regard. This is enough.

“Modul 13” reveals only slivers of its various profiles, each more beguiling than the last but always within the reach of memory. Perhaps, this where all of this music is meant to live—that is, in a realm content with the idea of space but not its full realization. The seeking of harmonics on the dampened string of “Modul 5” unravels the biography of a half-tone. Loosely guided by variations on a heartfelt theme, it blurs its own skin until it is indistinguishable from the wind that caresses its follicles. Higher note clusters give way to moonlit floors across which only empty armor stands cast their shadows.

In the absence of geographical names, “Déjà-vu, Vienna” brings about the deepest blush of familiarity. Gone as quickly as it arrives, turning as a fallen leaf in search of its resting place, its veins flash a map for future travelers to follow when all is lost and prophecies fall dead, unfulfilled except as fertilizer for that one tree upon which the following verse will be carved:

to those who walk with eyes open
be not afraid to see with your ears
to those who walk with eyes closed
be not afraid to listen with your heart