Stephan Micus: Winter’s End (ECM 2698)

Stephan Micus
Winter’s End

Stephan Micus chikulo, nohkan, 12-string guitar, tongue drums, voice, kalimba, sinding, charango, nay, sattar, Tibetan cymbals, suling
Recorded 2018-2020 at MCM Studios
Cover art: Eduard Micus (1925-2000)
An ECM Production
Release date: June 11, 2021

although there is the road
the child walks
in the snow

–Murakami Kijo (1865-1938)

Tempting as it is to characterize the music of Stephan Micus as the soundtrack of a solitary traveler, given the staggering amount of instruments he uses to articulate those songs, one can hardly say he is alone. With so much companionship through his interaction with, study of, and reactions to humanity’s need for music, his albums are consistently open-ended, each inhaling in anticipation of the next’s exhalation. Every project, too, has its focal instrument, and in this case, it is the chikulo, a bass xylophone from Mozambique with a distinct buzzing quality (though for many tracks, Micus removes the plastic membrane responsible for that quality). It is heard most distinctly in the “Autumn Hymn,” which convenes three of those instruments with the nohkan, a Japanese bamboo flute used in Noh theatre. Though often used for its dissonant effects (which add to the drama of Noh’s out-of-time sensibilities), here it is as clear as a mountain stream, quietly wandering its way through barren trees in search of nothing but its fulfillment of a natural order. In “The Longing Of The Migrant Birds” (3 tongue drums, 2 chikulo, 14 voices), the buzzing is left aside for percussive melodies to clear a path for tongue drums (wooden boxes with “tongues” of various sizes cut into the top surface) and a chorus of magnified voices, cradling sacred things to leave a profane world behind. This same combination is called upon in the less nomadic “Sun Dance.” In “Baobab Dance,” a single chikulo holds counsel with 4 kalimba and one sinding, a West African harp fitted with five cotton strings. In the absence of fleshly voices, fashioned ones are bid to share their narratives of experience. “Black Mother” also uses one chikulo as its anchor, while sinding arpeggios and 11 voices carve their glyphs into the tablet of their becoming. The ultimate dive into this instrument’s heart, however, is “Oh Chikulo,” in which a quartet of these wooden wonders opens a drum-like heart.

Sprinkled throughout these scenes are interludes that bend the light more intimately. The harmonics of “Walking In Snow” (12-string guitar solo) dance off Micus’s fingertips like clumps of snow shaken from heavy boughs. Micus detunes and alters his instrument so that it jangles with glorious details, turning what might normally be seen as a travelogue into something far more profound: an elegy. Paying homage not to lives that have come and gone but to those who never get the chance to materialize, it offers those unrequited journeys a place for souls to converse, play, and love. Its companion piece, “Walking In Sand,” is the hymnal counterpart.

In “Southern Stars,” four charangos (small guitars of the Andes) convene with five suling (recorder-like flutes associated with Balinese gamelan orchestras), one sinding, and two nay (Egyptian hollow reed flutes). Shades of these cultures mingle without conflict, birthing new associations of light to dispel the dark arts of reductionism. This is where the most light can be found—not in terms of brightness but of distance and symbolic charge. Here are the album’s most ancient sounds brought forth as if they never died.

“A New Light” is a standout in the sequence, not only for its instrumentation (using three sattar, long-necked bowed instrument played by the Uighurs of Western China) but also for its subliminal potency. Another is “Companions” for two charangos, whose resonant strings indeed feel like hands joined in friendship to weather the implications of faraway storms. “Winter Hymn” adds to the opening combination, the nohkan and buzzing chikulo now tempered by Tibetan cymbals, whose voices articulate what we, perhaps, have all been feeling this past year: fatigued and in need of a loving embrace.

Migration is the language of life, but all too often borders get in the way of our understanding of it. Here we can rest in the full knowledge that beauty is not a choice but a given.

Terje Rypdal: Conspiracy (ECM 2658)

Terje Rypdal
Conspiracy

Terje Rypdal electric guitar
Ståle Storløkken keyboards
Endre Hareide Hallre fretless bass, Fender Precision
Pål Thowsen drums, percussion
Recorded February 2019 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Martin Abrahamsen
Mixing: January 2020 by Manfred Eicher, Terje Rypdal, and Martin Abrahamsen (engineer)
Cover photo: Woong Chul An
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 11, 2020

For his first studio album in twenty years, Norwegian guitarist and composer Terje Rypdal convenes the talents of Ståle Storløkken (made familiar to Rypdal fans by his contributions to Vossabrygg and Crime Scene) on keyboards, Pål Thowsen (whose association with ECM dates back to Arild Andersen’s projects during the label’s first decade) on drums and percussion, and the youngest recruit, Endre Hareid Hallre, on fretless and Fender Precision basses. Known collectively as Conspiracy, they map territories that are at once well-trodden and uninhabited.

While Rypdal intended to use the group as a platform for reexamining old tunes, it became entity unto itself, yielding the six new cuts (many first performed for the first time here) included on the present disc. Foremost among them is “As If The Ghost… Was Me!?” As enigmatic as its title suggests, it opens with crisp cymbals before Rypdal’s unmistakable crooning snakes into frame. This clarion call to (and of) the creative spirit recalls the fishing lines cast into the waters of If Mountains Could Sing. Storløkken’s washes bring temperance to Rypdal’s fire, while Hallre’s bass dances without ever severing its roots.

The production yields organic details throughout. The buzz of Rypdal’s amp in “What Was I Thinking,” for example, is a bright comfort in an otherwise nocturnal hymn. In the face of such introspection turned into song, there’s hardly a lyric that would fit it. The keyboard swells are like breathing—so natural and automatic that we barely think of it. Not all is mist and gloom, however, as the rock-leaning title track attests. Even so, Rypdal’s painterly sensibilities are no less impeded by the harder canvas. 

Hallre absorbs the spotlight of “By His Lonesome,” wherein his flexible tones take low flight, surveying the landscape set before him with careful regard. Although such rounded topographies might be impossible in reality, save for the windswept dunes of faraway deserts, they sculpt a mountain with its own songs to sing. “Baby Beautiful” submerges its heart in a pool of liquid mercury. Cohering groovily halfway through, riding the tails of brushed drums and Hammond organ, it suggests rather than declares. The waves are dynamic but short-lived, content with never knowing another shore. And as “Dawn” crests with bowed tones and gongs, it signals the transformation of immobility into nomadism.

Conspiracy offers much to celebrate and admire for the longtime listener. Licks and atmospheres will go down as easily as favorite comfort foods. What shakes the boughs of expectation a bit, however, is the music’s clarity of purpose, which can only be born of experience. Gone are the 20-minute jams of his Odyssey days. In their place are concise yet dense short stories that parse nothing to convey their characters’ inner worlds, each a wayward blush with which we are privileged to share this leg of the journey.

Two New Releases from Marilyn Crispell

To say that pianist Marilyn Crispell, who turns 74 this month, has charted new territory would be an understatement. It would be just as accurate to say she has redrawn maps of old territory. At her hands, the keyboard leaps like a compass gleeful over its sentience, directing notes with the same force of intention that a seafarer would a ship carrying precious cargo. Whether solo or, as in the two discs presented here, in combination with others, she brings a reverent sense of space honed over decades. 

For ConcertOTO, she planetarily aligns with Eddie Prévost (drums) and Harrison Smith (bass clarinet, saxophones) for a traversal of freely rendered terrain. Recorded live in November of 2012 at London’s Café OTO, the album documents most of what went down on that stage. On the one hand, it’s a study in contrasts. “An Exploratory Introduction” opens with just that, reacting to space as much as defining it. The “Finale” balances it with forthright exposition. At many points between them, however, something powerful happens—a magical kind of coalescence that only musicians who truly listen to one another can achieve. And so, whereas “A Meditative Interlude” is a dreamy combination of pianistic icicles, moonlit bass clarinet and hand-swept drums, its quiet moments are no match for the main concert portions flanking it. In those, one will find a veritable catalog of touchpoints linking chains around the ears. In this respect, Crispell is a master collage artist. Because nothing is planned, passages of exhale make the inhalations that much tenser and wilder with possibility. Prévost is a fabulous player, never losing track of the inner thread even when he severs it while Smith treats time as a physical dimension. Their occasional exchanges in absence of piano are just as visceral. An interesting coincidence that the club’s name is homophonous with the Japanese word for “sound,” as this is a gift articulated in that very medium.

Streams pairs Crispell with Yuma Uesaka (saxophones, clarinets), whose compositions constitute the set in its entirety. If ConcertOTO was about being in the moment, then this meeting of minds is about connecting moments as one would a constellation: each piece is minimally indicative of its title and, over time, seems to take on those characteristics as if by default. If anything connects the two projects, it’s a willingness to move wherever the winds of inspiration blow—this, despite the through-written nature of every melody Uesaka offers on the altar of improvisation. Hence the beautifully contradictory atmosphere at play. The title track and “Torrent” are exactly as they should be. The former feels like water that pools and eddies when blocked by fallen branches; the latter like a cannonball dive. Further dichotomies of description abound in the prophetic tinge of “Meditation,” in which a bass clarinet courts the piano’s deepest growls. Elsewhere, dialogues are pushed to extremes, each infused with equal parts catch and release, before funneling into “Ma / Space,” for which the duo welcomes Chatori Shimizu on the shō (Japanese mouth organ) for an added touch of sunlight through branches.

(This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Nock/Stuart/Wilson/Zwartz: This World

This World brings together a new quartet of seasoned players. Recorded after a string of shows given in 2019 by Mike Nock (New Zealand, piano, who turns 80 this month), Hamish Stuart (Scotland, drums), Julien Wilson (Australia, tenor saxophone and effects) and Jonathan Zwartz (New Zealand, double bass)—all four of whom are based in Australia—the album glistens with music written especially for this studio session around a core of unmistakable experience. Said experience translates not into mountaintop pontificating for the fortunate few but rather into a grounded message that all can understand. The album’s title, like the Zwartz tune after which it is named, is therefore more than an anthem; it’s a mission statement from a group of musicians content in forgoing the flaunt in favor of the flavor.

Other examples of the bassist’s writing are “And in the Night Comes Rain” and “Home.” Where the latter comes across as being less about being home than about returning to it after a long time away, the former is a highlight of the set for its collective pause in anticipation of a storm. Instead of thunder, we get the gentle kiss of autumn as prelude to a soulful dance that goes from solid to liquid and back again.

These scenes highlight the evocative abilities of Wilson, who adds two parts blues (“Riverside”) and one part groove (“We Shall Rise Again”) to the compositional brew. As performer, the saxophonist renders a painterly wisdom that is fully integrated into its surroundings and is enhanced ever so subtly by an application of electronic effects. Whether lending sparkle and shine to “Any Heart” (a cinematic montage by Stuart in which the drummer’s vacillation between skating and dancing is equally wonderful to behold) or tempering the edges of Nock’s swinging “Old’s Cool,” he excels at unpacking vivid dreams beneath the surface of things.

The pianist, for his part, wields the most multicolored pen of them all, delivering the persistence of “The Dirge” with just as much conviction as he does the blush of “Aftermath” with gentle persuasion. Regardless of mode, he and his cohorts prove that at a time in history when division is the order of the day, four souls crafting melody together can abide by a deeper principle of love and listening.

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

Sun of Goldfinger: Congratulations to You

Most of the material on this record was captured at the first performance in 2010 by David Torn (guitars and electronics), Tim Berne (alto and baritone saxophones) and Ches Smith (drums and electronics). Known since then as Sun of Goldfinger, this power trio opened a sonic can of worms to be reckoned with that’s only now seeing the light of aural day.

Featuring three tracks of hefty proportion, the album opens with “Bat Tears,” in which alto, sampled in real time and cast into the active volcano that is Torn’s looping guitar, gives way to a skronky baritone, ending in a mix of drone and catharsis. Following this, “Coco Tangle” dances as if its pants were on fire (though, to be sure, this is honest music rendered in tough love). Sampling does the trick again this time around while arpeggiators and percussive accents from Smith fill in every pothole. That said, no roads herein stay smooth for too long and even the thickest tires of expectation will find themselves beautifully compromised by the terrain ahead.

Despite the fact that Sun of Goldfinger can break out the big guns when it feels so inclined, there’s a distinctly meditative heart beating at the center of it all. One hears this especially in the final and title track, where a train crossing signal-like guitar stretches over head-nodding drums before alto kicks in the door bearing gifts of awakening. The sheer depth of coherence that ensues is a balm to behold in these wounded times.

(This article, in its original form, appeared in the September 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Marcin Wasilewski Trio/Joe Lovano: Arctic Riff (ECM 2678)

2678

Marcin Wasilewski Trio
Joe Lovano
Arctic Riff

Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double bass
Michal Miskiewicz drums
Recorded August 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 26, 2020

Too much time, it seems, has passed since pianist Marcin Wasilewski and his trio with bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz graced the studio for our privileged scrutiny, and as soon as “Glimmer Of Hope” tickles the ear drum, we are reuniting with old friends. A glimmer is exactly what we encounter in Wasilewski’s pianism, which opens this tender vision with a play of light and shadow such as only he can render. In turning these movements into song, he opens a new portal through which to step on our way toward musical discovery. But then a new companion in Joe Lovano joins the shoulder-link of arms to block any who would even dream of passing across the double line of expectation. And so we trail behind, absorbing the language of their traversal. Three more selections by the bandleader, including the flowy sojourning of “Fading Sorrow” (a yielding stage for Kurkiewicz’s soloing) and the sparkler-to-fireworks groove of “L’Amour Fou,” along with Lovano’s “On The Other Side,” complete the in-group compositional picture. The latter tune unfurls a veritable tapestry from the tenorist’s bell and pictures the synergy of ears and fingers required to pull off this collaboration. Carla Bley’s “Vashkar” gets two treatments thereby. In keeping with its ever-deepening roots, and nourished by five decades of interpretation, the quartet taps into its historical embeddedness.

If these are the album’s bricks, then its mortar is mixed in freely improvised material. The nine-minute “Cadenza” is the most cohesive of the bunch, metaphysically speaking. Its balance of gentility and strength is downright beautiful, as is the linear unfolding of “Arco.” Where one moment might breed shimmering near-stillness and the next a fibrillation of darkness, neither mood dominates. Instead, the musicians follow where they are led without struggle. One hears it just as vividly in the nocturnal slink of “Stray Cat Walk” as in the restless leg syndrome of “A Glimpse.”

2678_Wasilewski Lovano_PF1

What really distinguishes this record, however, is the apparent gap between the trio’s interlocking poetry and Lovano’s hard-won prose. What at first may seem to be a disjunction actually opens up a space that can only be filled by the listener. By inserting ourselves into the equation, the proof becomes clear: our presence has been desired from inception to execution, our variable the final piece. And with that completion, we emerge on the other side of the equals side having carried the one of experience.

Scofield/Stewart/Swallow: Swallow Tales (ECM 2679)

Swallow Tales

John Scofield guitar
Steve Swallow bass
Bill Stewart drums
Recorded March 2019, The James L. Dolan Recording Studio at NYU Steinhardt, NY
Engineer: Tyler McDiarmid
Cover photo: Max Franosch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 12, 2020

Over 40 years of friendship and collaboration exist between guitarist John Scofield and his mentor, bassist Steve Swallow. But everything that happens here is in and of the moment. Playing the room with drummer Bill Stewart, they slowly unwrap one candy after another in the form of Swallow’s own timeless compositions. About them, Scofield says in this album’s press release: “They’re grounded in reality with cadences that make sense. They’re never just intellectual exercises, and they’re so melodic. They’re all songs, rather than ‘pieces.’ They could all be sung.” And sing the trio does in its own wordless way, drawing out less obvious nuances from familiar melodies and vice versa.

Between the laid-back groove of “She Was Young” and the slicker lockstep of “Radio,” an understated allure wiggles its way into the heart and nods to every beat. Along the way, each musician lays out a personal reflection of his métier. Scofield abounds in contrasts, bringing a hardened edge to the shadows of a ballad like “Away” just as comfortably as he dances light-footedly across the terrains of “Falling.” The latter is also a showcase for Swallow’s unerring sense of purpose and Baroque approach to syncopation, as is “Hullo Bolinas,” in which his soloing embraces retrospective charm.

Scofield Trio

But while the guitarist and bassist are true masters of their craft, it’s Stewart who holds my attention most throughout this swiftly realized session (the result of only four hours in the recording studio). The drummer’s glittering cymbals and rustic snare strike just the right balance, catching every detail of “Portsmouth Figurations” and extending its effect before it fades, luxuriating in a decaf version of “Awful Coffee” (a normally peppier tune), and bringing freshness to “Eiderdown” (the first tune Swallow ever wrote). But his grandest slam is in the opening breaks and leaping denouement of “In F”—a performance only decades of experience could yield.

And while each track comes preloaded with its own history (“She Was Young” being originally sung by Sheila Jordan on 1980’s Home and “Portsmouth Figurations” dating back to 1967’s Duster by Gary Burton), they make new history here in the present arrangement. And here we are, sitting on what feels like the wrong side of the fence, trying to make things right by holding on to that which shines a light on the inside. Thankfully, music like this hands us a match, already lit and waiting for our attention to lend it a fuse.

Oded Tzur: Here Be Dragons (ECM 2676)

2676 X

Oded Tzur
Here Be Dragons

Oded Tzur tenor saxophone
Nitai Hershkovits piano
Petros Klampanis double bass
Johnathan Blake drums
Recorded June 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Jean-Guy Lathuilière
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 14, 2020

Born in Tel Aviv and based in New York, tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur could not have found a more suitable home than ECM for his gentle brand of jazz. His uniquely tonal approach to the instrument, channeled through a rare melodic purity, make for a powerful combination. Heavily schooled in Indian classical music, he treats each tune as a raga in and of itself, and uses likeminded structures in distinctly jazz-oriented parallels to unleash the inner life of every motif. Ensuring that nothing goes to waste are his trusted crew of pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Johnathan Blake.

After a tender yet angular introduction, “To Hold Your Hand” ushers in a dimly lit performance that relies more on the contour of sound than on the sound of contour. Tzur lends an ear to both internal and external travels, and gives the listener over to possibilities of metaphysical experience. His saxophone, despite being rooted in the body, seems without one, taking on instead the skin of a cosmic animal stealth-walking through constellations—bending but never breaking the shapes we’ve come to interpret.

The emotional beauty of Tzur’s playing reaches its zenith in “20 Years,” which marks the period of time since his father’s death. As Tzur notes in the CD booklet, “I could feel that my father was somehow present in the room, and it was as if I was having a conversation with him.” In this respect, he converses not only with the dead but also with the living. Blake’s brushwork is exquisite in the trio section. Klampanis and Hershkovits intertwine as equal partners while Tzur drops into Child’s Pose for a spell. By the time he resurfaces, his solo is so attuned that every inhalation and exhalation is matched to the contractions and expansions of its surroundings.

The band shifts with barely a forethought between three solo “Miniatures.” The first, played by Hershkovits, is a balance of sparkle and shadow. The second, by Klampanis, is contemplative and touched by grace. The third, from the bandleader, sings like a flute carved from an ancient tree. This leads us to the masterstroke of “The Dream.” Despite being upbeat, a certain embrace of shadow prevents it from being a dance. Hershkovits is particularly ebullient and gives voice to love, while Blake adds a traction so tactile it makes one want to hold on to it. Just as the preceding tunes give robustness to gentility, so does this one give airiness to strength, as embodied in the continuous energy linking every note from Tzur’s lips. At last, we touch down in a surprising landing strip called “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Made famous by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, it brims with nostalgia. Though undoubtedly familiar, it takes on a life of its own, divorced from popular association and remarried to the listener in real-time ceremony.

It is worth noting that the album’s title refers to HIC SVNT DRACONES, a Latin phrase that once marked uncharted territory on medieval maps. Tzur has indeed set out on a voyage into dangerous waters, understanding the risks of never seeing that which is confirmed only in myth. Such spirit is evoked with gentility in the eponymous track that opens the set, working its way into the center of our humbled attention. Even when the waves pick up, bringing with them hints of the unknown, Tzur relies on his bandmates to keep the sails hoisted and the deck free of debris, so that only they and their integrity may set foot upon shifting sands at landfall.