Strønen/Tanaka/Lea: Bayou (ECM 2633)

Thomas Strønen
Ayumi Tanaka
Marthe Lea

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.

Thomas Strønen: Lucus (ECM 2576)

2576 X

Thomas Strønen

Thomas Strønen drums
Ayumi Tanaka piano
Håkon Aase violin
Lucy Railton violoncello
Ole Morten Vågen double bass
Recorded March 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 19, 2018

Time is a blind guide….
To remain with the dead is to abandon them….
One becomes undone by a photograph,
by love that closes its mouth before calling a name….
–Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

Since its ECM debut in 2015, drummer and composer Thomas Strønen’s “Time Is A Blind Guide” has grown by apparent parthenogenesis into a project of malleable form. On Lucus, that form assumes a variety of shapes, intersecting in the same limpid pool of night. As a treatment of celestial expressions, the material is as much suggested as composed, trusted to flourish in fortifying hands. Strønen kindly explained to me via email TIABG’s continued growth:

“Time Is A Blind Guide has more and more become an autonomic organism with its own musical life. Different constellations (duos, trios, etc.) appear within the ensemble, and the material is treated with more freedom and stronger interplay. Variations in how the pieces are preformed have grown and a stronger personal language has been developed, to the point where we manage to form ideas into our own world, thus allowing us to widen our musical expression.”

Strønen’s sense of widening expression wraps its amorphous arms around “La Bella,” which by its triangulation of violin (Håkon Aase), cello (Lucy Railton), and malleted drums elicits a feeling of circulation given blood by the piano (Ayumi Tanaka). This quiet yet resolute introduction, itself an awakening into moving imagery, embodies a cinematic process: a projection of light onto uniform surfaces where freedom dances to the tune of a faintly outlined script. “Friday” is potent in this metaphorical regard. From its montage of recollections emerges a story to which only listeners may add a beginning and an end. Bassist Ole Morten Vågen taps into the very spine of this music, while Tanaka’s presence, a relatively new addition to the TIABG nexus born from live performances, is magical in these turns of phrase. Her gestures elicit speech without words. And while there are no solos to speak of, save for Strønen’s narrative stroke of brilliance in “Baka” and Vågen’s intro to “Tension,” as organs of the same body, each has its function, singing with the whole in mind.

“Fugitive Pieces,” referring to the novel from which Strønen adopted the band’s name, is an intimate and poetic character study, given wings by instruments of touch. The title track, too, separates filaments of interpretation from emotional moonbeams. So much of what happens in the horizontal regressions of “Release” or the more detail-oriented rhythms of “Wednesday” is built on foundations wrought in the foundry of live performance:

“We have toured a lot over the past year, having played in the US, Brazil, Japan, and Europe. This, combined with rehearsals, has contributed to the way we play today. We knew the material well and recorded the whole album within a day and a half. The music was written with the acoustics of the studio in mind and that has also lead to us wanting to play more concert halls and larger concert rooms than small clubs.”

Producer Manfred Eicher, as always, had a hand in what transpired, giving that extra puff of wind needed to satisfy even the most tattered feathers:

“I wasn’t surprised but rather happy that Manfred had great belief in the record. He also contributed strongly in studio, communicating ideas and details that shaped the compositions. He quickly understood what I aimed for and was a strong force during the recording.”

If inclinations of that force of, and desire for, space weren’t already apparent, they step forth most boldly in “Truth Grows Gradually” and “Weekend,” both of which unfold as stories told out of time. Like the album as a whole, they are a chronology of the soul, wrapped and unwrapped until nothing but truth remains.

Thomas Strønen: Time Is A Blind Guide (ECM 2467)

Time Is A Blind Guide

Thomas Strønen
Time Is A Blind Guide

Thomas Strønen drums, percussion
Kit Downes piano
Håkon Aase violin
Lucy Railton cello
Ole Morten Vågan double bass
Siv Øyunn Kjenstad percussion
Steinar Mossige percussion
Recorded June 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed July 2015 in Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug, Sun Chung, and Thomas Strønen
Mastering: Christoph Stickel, MSM Studios, München
Produced by Thomas Strønen and Sun Chung
U.S. release date: November 15, 2015

At night, a few lights marked port and starboard of these gargantuan industrial forms, and I filled them with loneliness. I listened to these dark shapes as if they were black spaces in music, a musician learning the silences of a piece. I felt this was my truth. That my life could not be stored in any language but only silence; the moment I looked into the room and took in only what was visible, not vanished.
–Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

Thomas Strønen follows in the ECM tradition of path-defining artists. Even if that means straying from the path one has already defined. Such is the modus operandi of the Norwegian drummer and composer, whose neural wanderings speak in soft bursts of ideas and creative directions. His relationship with the label began on 2005’s Parish, a leader debut whose acoustics stand apart from the electronic flights of his next three albums—Quiet Inlet, Mercurial Balm, and This is not a miracle—as part of the roving collective that is Food. In a recent interview, I asked Strønen to elaborate on how the band came together for this particular recording.

“The ensemble started when I was commissioned to compose a concert by Fiona Talkington (BBC Radio 3), who at the time was curating a concert series called Conexions. The concept was to bring UK musicians to Norway to collaborate with Norwegian musicians. While brainstorming with Fiona, I landed on these particular musicians. Some of them I knew from before and some of them I had never played with. The plan was always to only play this one concert, but it ended up being something musically new to me, as well as a lovely combination of people, so I decided to continue the adventure.”

Connections indeed nourish the lifeblood of this music, which in the network of its composer’s venation flows through human experiences, and beyond them into experiences of the human. Such flexible dichotomies are fully operational on Time Is A Blind Guide, yet another turn of the Strønen prism that reveals fresh hues of collaboration. Beyond departure, it is also integration, as the bandleader explains to me when I ask about its distinctions:

“This particular ensemble combines three constellations in one: it’s a piano trio, a string trio, and a drum trio. It’s an all-acoustic setting with more through-composed material than any other band I’ve ever played in. It’s a cross between a chamber ensemble and a jazz group, and the music was specially written with these musicians in mind. In a record industry struggling to survive and adjust to new ways of treating music (technically and economically), ECM still manages to be an important voice. To me, the release of Food’s latest record and this one shows how open-minded Manfred Eicher and his label are (and always have been).”

Group Time

Strønen’s characterization of ECM is no small one to consider when approaching Blind Guide as an historical experience. For while it mines some igneous influences, it also draws light from aboveground into its balances. One might, in fact, say it’s his most cosmic record to date—all the more impressive when you consider the acoustic matrix in which it is based. As “The Stone Carriers” breaks the five seconds of silence that begin every ECM album, the sensation is of a comet reversing its trajectory to interstellar origins. From this diffuse texture coalesces a steady bass line, and with it the promise of a full groove going forward. Violinist Håkon Aase is an obvious defining presence from the start, one to listen for as the album progresses.

As one track break sets me up for the next, I can’t help but feel the album’s literary nature. Did Strønen have any particular stories, books, or narratives in mind while making it?

“While writing most of the music for this album I was (re)reading Canadian author Anne Michaels’s novel Fugitive Pieces. It’s a poetically written book in which language is as important as the actual storytelling. I’m not sure how much this affected my actual composing, but it set me in a state of mind and inspired me to use some words and sentences as titles for the pieces. The band name is the book’s first sentence.”

Alternatively, one might call this music cinematic in character, as if it were a soundtrack in search of images. Strønen, in his fashion, is amenable to the idea but also has his own:

“I tend to think less abstractly about my own music, as it is the result of a longer process from drawing board to recording session. The term ‘cinematic’ is versatile, and if the music brings associations to other art forms, I appreciate it. But it means something different to me. When I listen to my own music (something I seldom do), I seek ways to develop and improve. I enjoy working with various media and have been composing for theatre, film, and dance. These are areas I would like to explore more and I would be happy to see this music used in a movie score.”

Beyond associations with extra-musical art forms without context, I am further tempted to place this album in the grander realm of its ECM associations. In particular, I am tempted to draw threads of continuity back to the works of Jon Balke’s Batagraf (cf. the percussive interlude “Tide”) and Christian Wallumrød (“Everything Disappears”). I ask Strønen if these similarities are coincidental:

“My writing carries the weight of my experiences in my (musical) life. ‘Tide’ is a baka, a drum signal like the ones used in West African Wolof music. The difference is that ‘Tide’ compositionally goes through a special combination of time signatures and rhythmic modulations, while the original bakas are less metrical. I got introduced to Wolof music while traveling to Gambia together with Jon Balke and other musicians. I like Batagraf and worked with them in my own drum ensemble, Extended Ground. We have different approaches to drum music compositionally, but share some of the same aesthetics. I grew up listening a lot to European jazz and improvised music in my early years as a player. But I’ve also discovered treasures in the American jazz tradition, Japanese classical music, West African music, electronic music, and European and American minimalism. All of these have inspired me in many ways.”

Despite any lack of overall genre affiliation, artistic intent is the constant glue of Blind Guide. The extreme tactility of tracks such as “Pipa” and “I Don’t Wait For Anyone” invites the listener to be a piece of the puzzle. Melodic currents held by pianist Kit Downes are remarkable, complementing Strønen’s palette with comforting ease. At times, a silver-tongued violin regales with stories of long ago, moving in tandem with bass and percussion toward the attainment of conversational magic. In concert, these instruments move like a Rubik’s cube until colors begin to orient themselves along uniform sides.

Whether activated by chance or circumstance, the motivic gestures of “The Drowned City” feel as inevitable as the progression of time, thus intuiting the project’s title. Watery gongs and other submarine percussion give visuality to a lost civilization, while cascading pianism is the only indication of the grandeur that once thronged its avenues. “Lost Souls” treads a fraternal archaeology, matching the thread of a bowed string with the thicker rope of drums.

In light of these impressions, one may feel like this music is rooted in the ancient past even as it looks to the future. Strønen’s view is humbler:

“The music simply reflects my interests and my ideas of music. If I manage to create something some define as new, that’s great, but I’m not very concerned about having to create something that hasn’t been made before. There’s so much good music being made all the time and the last thing we probably need is more music. Still, we discover new elements or perspectives and many of us have a need to pen them down and try them out. So I guess it’s not a conscious choice, but more of a natural process.”

The title track demonstrates this organic quality in spades. Anchored by percussion, persuasion, and persistence, its steadiness is dotted with details in relief: a flower for every stem. “As We Wait For Time” further engages the subconscious with its thoughtfulness, violin and piano phasing like two reflections in search of the same radiance.

That being said, conscious connections to material lives do matter, as in “Everything Disappears (Pt. 2),” a quiet drum circle that bears dedication to pianist John Taylor, with whom a project was in works at the time of his death. But in the end, it’s the droplets of notecraft in “Simples” that belie the album’s oceanic casting, and unravel its hidden fortress of dreams.

As one immediately involved in both the recording and production of this album, Strønen has touched nearly every aspect of its growth from idea to digital reality. Blind Guide is a Polaroid snapshot of the serendipity that pulses through his musical universe, shaken to the beat of an unseen heart for want of an image that can only be your own.

Thomas Strønen: Parish (ECM 1870)


Thomas Strønen

Fredrik Ljungkvist clarinet, tenor saxophone
Bobo Stenson piano
Mats Eilertsen double-bass
Thomas Strønen drums
Recorded April 2004 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Parish, in title and in name, presents one of a handful of side projects by the prolific jazz drummer and composer Thomas Strønen, who along with reedman Fredrik Ljungkvist, pianist Bobo Stenson, and bassist Mats Eilertsen elicits a holistic brand of chamber jazz. This is Strønen’s first appearance on ECM. His collaborations with saxophonist Iain Ballamy as Food have since yielded two further albums for the label—Quiet Inlet and Mercurial Balm—both of which forge a more ambient, electronically savvy sound-world. Here the emphasis is on acoustic textures, soft yet sure in their possibilities.

Parish Portrait

Admirers of Paul Bley will feel right at home in the delicate suspension bridges walked from beginning to end. Accordingly, the album builds on crystalline foundations, each impulse a new spine jutting from the core. Most of those impulses take form spontaneously, as in the three “Improvisations” peppered throughout. In them are wrought the band’s artistic strengths: Ljungkvist’s charcoal, Eilertsen’s primary colors, Strønen’s filigree, and Stenson’s pointillism. Ljungkvist swaps clarinet for tenor saxophone for a few of these canvases, including the rubato “Daddycation” and the shot-of-espresso happiness of “In motion,” which swings as if simply to prove that the group can, although he seems to prefer the darker reed.

Combinations range from solo (“Travel I” and “Travel II” feature Strønen shifting across colorfully percussive terrains) to trio and full quartet combinations. Of the latter, “Quartz” is an especially enchanting example. Not only does it deepen the crystal metaphor; it also, more than any other portion of the album, grows beyond the sum of its parts. The four-part “Suite For Trio” elides the bass for a significant spell, tripping but always regaining equilibrium on its way toward the veiled final movement. This is complemented by “Easta,” which evokes the mythology of the standard piano trio, thus laying fertile ground for incantation. Like the track “Nu” that concludes things, it signs it name with a splash of melody—just enough to whet the appetite.

Sparse but never deflated, Parish balance in negative spaces and hugs the ether as a parent would a child, waiting for the quiet reciprocation of having been heard.

Food: Quiet Inlet (ECM 2163)

Quiet Inlet

Thomas Strønen drums, live-electronics
Iain Ballamy tenor and soprano saxophones
Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, electronics
Christian Fennesz guitar, electronics
Recorded live in Norway, 2007/08
Produced by Food and Manfred Eicher

The earth is very still, like an infant asleep. Into a quiet inlet, a streamlet is falling. It is singing to the sleeping earth, telling it of the days to come when the great silence shall be broken by the voice of man, and life shall fill alike the darkling wave and the sunlit field.
–T. A. Rickard, “A Story in Stone”

Considering the distinct lyrical path Food has been forging since 1998, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the group would migrate into ECM territory. The guest appearance of Nils Petter Molvær is therefore a no-brainer. Fans of Molvær’s work will feel like they are slowly falling into the Norwegian trumpeter’s waking dreams. The results are an undeniably unique blend of nu jazz sensibilities and ritual melodic power.

“Tobiko” opens with metallic percussion against a cascade of synths and muted beats. A radio dial is tuned, reaching through the airwaves as if for a familiar voice to latch onto. Only then does Ballamy’s sax rise to the surface of this oceanic passage: if our ears are vessels, then here is the dolphin swimming silently alongside them. Before long, live drums make their presence known and lead us out of the fog. Having shown us the way, our guides then recede into the darkness, where light and sonar dare not venture. “Chimaera” is a gentler number. Sax lines continue their passage as percussion and electronics cocoon them with deep thematic threads, free-flowing and heavenly. “Mictyris” is distinguished by Strønen’s intense rhythmic drive, over which we encounter some fantastic electronics that sound as if a sax were being torn apart and rebuilt as a train whistle. Tight drumming, combined with the protracted ambient wash in the background, meshes wonderfully with Ballamy’s constellate reed work. “Becalmed” builds itself around a repetitive leads motif, its aftereffects ever ghostly and omnipresent. Whether intentional or not, this track also contains oblique references to Eleni Karaindrou’s “Parade” from the film Happy Homecoming, Comrade. “Cirrina” and “Dweller” both flow with Molvaer’s distinct sound, seeming to revel in their grace and liberation from formulaic constraints, while “Fathom” ends the album bittersweetly, as if the music were looking into a mirror, unsure of what it sees.

The electro-acoustic sound honed on Quiet Inlet works wonders at every turn. And on that note, it’s inspiring to see a wonderful artist like Fennesz crossing over into the ECM circuit. Let’s hope this is a sign of things to come.

(To hear samples of Quiet Inlet, click here.)