REVIEW: ‘Entendre’ – Nik Bärtsch

WITH THAT INVITATION to simply ‘hear’, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch releases solo album Entendre – an intimate performance that bears a particular attraction.

Over the last fifteen years, the predominant outlet for Bärtsch’s distinctive, cyclical music has been his Ronin project – an ensemble with a core of piano, bass clarinet/alto saxophone, bass, drums and percussion that interprets his signature shifting metres, phrases and grooves, each composition identified only as a numeric ‘Modul’. The crafting of what can sometimes deceptively appear as digital processes, but are in fact acoustic, physical manifestations of Bärtsch’s writing, have long been a fascination through ECM albums such as Stoa (2006), Llyrìa (2010) and Awase (2018) – and this ‘minimalist’ approach can find a comparison with the music of Terry Riley or even La Monte Young.

For Entendre, recorded in the spacious surroundings of the Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Bärtsch sits alone with a Steinway grand, laying bare the wireframes and stratifications of his polymetric ‘ritual groove music’ (described more as templates, rather than prescribed compositions). At face value, it’s difficult to imagine how the complexity and fullness of the Ronin sound world can be presented this way; might it be just a pale reflection? As these absorbing fifty minutes or so prove, honed after Bärtsch’s 2017 solo piano tour experiences in Teheran, Cairo, Alexandria, Kolkata and Delhi, certainly not.

The pianist opens with a single, syncopated note, from which the widening mesmerism of Modul 58_12 unfurls, combining themes from the Awase and Continuum releases. Bärtsch’s deftness in maintaining and expanding on a bubbling, minor-key motif is immediately apparent, while complementing or combining with pealing and pirouetting melodies, adding depth through sustained string shimmers. The momentum is infectious, characteristically repetitive, while never lacking colour or contrasting oases of invention. There are muted hints of the blues in searching Modul 55, the piano’s ‘prepared’ chord strikes and tremors awakening these eight minutes with chromatic, Bartokian/Debussyian mystery; and Bärtsch’s metrical discipline is fascinating, both in the sparser passages and the heavier, internally-effected episodes.

Gradually-shifting layers in Modul 26’s delicate yet chattering dance (reminiscent of Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’) climb towards the light – and, at some fourteen minutes’ duration, how Bärtsch holds together the framework of its increasingly busy saturation is quite extraordinary before percussively descending the keyboard to its conclusion. A suggestion of symphonic Glass is palpable in the sinister, rhythmically inertial merry-go-round of Modul 13 as tintinnabular discords intersperse its hypnotic progression; and reinterpreted from 2016’s Continuum, the harmonic glow from Bärtsch’s impetuous, hard-hitting technique leads the way into Modul 5’s ferocious gallop. To close, Déjà-vu, Vienna (modelled on the live album’s Modul 42) winds down with the tolling reverence of Arvo Pärt, albeit with this pianist‘s inner scrapes and dampened bass motifs.

In Ronin’s output, there’s energy, dialogue and an amalgamation of individual creativity (which prompted my return to their back catalogue). Bärtsch’s singular focus at the piano is similarly engaging, for different reasons, while still communicating exhilaration, pace, intensity and serenity. Remarkably, everything heard is created with precision and minus post-production embellishment or multi-tracking, offering an immersive and deeply rewarding personal connection with each listener.

Released in the UK (more than once delayed by Brexit issues) on 2 April 2021 and available from ECM Records and Proper Music.

 

Nik Bärtsch piano

nikbaertsch.com

ECM Records – ECM 2703 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Uma Elmo’ – Jakob Bro, Arve Henriksen, Jorge Rossy

SLOW-BURNING, ruminative, even introspective, Uma Elmo is an intriguing new collaboration between electric guitarist Jakob Bro, trumpeter Arve Henriksen and drummer Jorge Rossy.

Danish-born Bro’s original compositions are true to the elevated spirit of ECM Records, this being his fifth album as leader for the label. Recorded in the late summer of 2020, when the increasing tremors of a virus-torn world had already begun to shake the foundations of artists’ livelihoods, this esteemed trio entered the studio with respected engineer Stefano Amerio to produce an hour of both abstract and melodic sounds which, Bro says, reflect (as always) what is going on around them. The album title doesn’t require translation – it’s simply derived from the middle names of the guitarist’s two young children, with much of this music apparently composed around his newborn son’s naps.

The name of Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen is familiar to many through ECM recordings which have included his own Cartography (2008) as well those of Tigran Hamasyan, Trygve Seim and Trio Mediaeval; and Spanish drummer Jorge Rossy has worked with a long catalogue of jazz luminaries such as Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter. Bro himself formerly played in Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band and and was a member of Tomasz Stanko’s Dark Eyes Quintet.

It’s fair to say that these shifting, minimal landscapes won’t realise their potential if only allowed cursory attention. Conscious immersion is key to the listening experience – and then the effect, though low in dynamic or compositional variance, progressively rewarding.

Reconstructing a Dream (previously recorded many years ago with Paul Motian) heralds the focused landscapes the trio inhabit in a shadowy, sustained episode. Reminiscent at times of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Part 1)’,  it develops texturally and dynamically, Henriksen’s simple improvisations becoming more complex over turbulent drumming and overdriven guitar and electronics. To Stanko, dedicated to the late Polish trumpeter, finds the guitarist’s clear, lapping accompaniment (redolent of ‘Spanish Romance’ – Sor, et al.) wistfully supporting Henriksen’s dry, breathy improvisations; and Rossy’s sparse colouring around the kit is especially effective.

The more one listens, the more the detail emerges. Beautiful Day’s gong-like effects and tunnelled echoes underpin busy percussion as Henriksen’s inquisitive and increasingly agitated lines explore a piece which curiously belies its title. In Morning Song, an aubade of gently burbling electronics and cymbals uplift soft, sunrise trumpet and guitar melodies that attractively rise and then fall to earth (its later variation, though, appears so subtle that a more contrasting take would have been welcome). Across eleven-minute Housework, Arve Henriksen’s effected, rasping trumpet produces low-register impressions reminiscent of the baritone sax of John Surman before its pellucid ‘after the rain’ atmospheres are suffused with heavier, prog-style guitar.

In spacial Music for Black Pigeons (titled by and dedicated to the memory of another of Bro’s musical associates, saxophonist Lee Konitz), Henriksen’s high, muted melodies possess a beguiling vocal quality, their electronically intervallic mystery also suggesting Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’. Sound Flower slowly unfurls to Bro’s calmative, rippling guitar effects, its sense of measured expectation highlighted by cymbal flashes and aspirational trumpet phrases; and Henriksen’s beautiful, melodic falling pairs in Slaraffenland (again associated with Paul Motian) offer a freeform mood of fragile optimism.

Expressing that hope, the quietly persuasive meanderings of Bro, Henriksen and Rossy can be a balm to the soul – if given space and time.

Released on 19 February 2021, Uma Elmo is available from ECM Records and Proper Music.

 

Jakob Bro guitar
Arve Henriksen trumpet, piccolo trumpet
Jorge Rossy drums

jakobbro.com
arvehenriksen.com
jorgerossy.com

ECM Records – ECM 2702 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘Human’ – Shai Maestro

THIS ALBUM has already become very special – and it’s taken a while to evaluate why, on each listening, Human continues to play on the senses in such a powerful way.

Israeli pianist Shai Maestro, who recorded four albums with bassist Avishai Cohen’s trio, recently appeared on Ben Wendel’s High Heart (Edition Records, 2020), doubling with Gerald Clayton to create dynamic atmospheres on piano and Fender Rhodes as part of a sextet fronted by Wendel’s tenor sax and the unique voicings of Michael Mayo. This new quartet release, however, with double bassist Jorge Roeder, drummer Ofri Nehemya and trumpeter Philip Dizack finds Maestro returning to the his own chamber project, presenting original music alongside an adroit Duke Ellington reinterpretation.

So what marks it out with such distinction? The acoustic line-up isn’t especially unusual. But this feels so sensational – often quietly so – that it pulses the kind of emotional electricity experienced when hearing a specific contemporary jazz approach for the very first time; and that in itself is a remarkable achievement. Human follows The Dream Thief (ECM, 2018) with Roeder and Nehemya – a recording that presented a pianist whose classical training paved a way to his uniquely restless, oblique yet precise impressionism; and a trio that, through some extraordinary kind of alchemy, considerably elevated the traditional expectation of the format. But now, Dizack adds a significant dimension to Maestro’s work, his seemingly inexhaustible palette of trumpet textures, always beautifully toned, melding immaculately with the original personnel’s established creativity. Here is an ensemble that walks the enigmatic tightrope between precise arrangement and spontaneous improvisation, which feels crucial to the success of these eleven tracks.

Maestro’s intricate ornamentation, across an hour that demands absolute concentration, is exquisite. Following the abstract prelude of Time, waltzing Mystery and Illusions is the first indicator of his chromatic searching, punctuated by beautifully fidgety drum invention, before Dizack matches the piano’s melodic lines and then takes stratospheric flight. In GG, the rapid complexity of these shared piano and trumpet ‘improvisations’ is simply extraordinary, while homey title track Human culminates in a grandeur featuring Dizack’s distinctive, portamento-shaped phrasing. Bristling, explosive The Dream Thief continues the theme of the previous album’s title track. In Hank and Charlie is heard the most graceful, country/gospel-imbued tribute to Maestro‘s heroes, Hank Jones and Charlie Haden – 4:42 of sheer, balladic perfection, right down to the concluding harmonic effect as the piano’s sustain pedal is lifted.

In an imaginative reworking of In a Sentimental Mood (in particular, the Ellington/Coltrane meeting), staccato snippets of the melody are stated over continually bobbing rivulets of accompaniment, with the various strands seamlessly intertwined. Only at its conclusion comes a reverent nod to the original’s legato elegance. Understated Compassion allows Maestro’s vocal expressions to be heard, while They Went War represents futility through repeated snare pattern and mournful trumpet. A simple, falling, Beethovenesque figure is central to Prayer, featuring Nehemya’s fascinating percussive maelstrom; and the meditative Middle-Eastern swirl of Ima once again highlights the pianist’s semitonal finesse.

Shai Maestro describes this music as often arriving in quick bursts of creativity during the stillness of night, and then letting it “just be”, presenting it as a “human effort”. As a listener completing that circle (or square), I extol the beauty, craftsmanship and warmth found in both Human and The Dream Thief – wondrous, attentive recordings that will undoubtedly stay with me for a very long time.

Released on 29 January 2021, Human is available from ECM Records and Proper Music.

 

Shai Maestro piano
Jorge Roeder double bass
Ofri Nehemya drums
Philip Dizack trumpet

shaimaestro.com

ECM Records – ECM 2688 (2021)

RECENT LISTENING: May 2020 (1)

Pale Blue Dot – Johnny Hunter
Mark Hanslip, Gemma Bass, Aby Vulliamy, Mick Bardon, Seth Bennett, Johnny Hunter
Release date: 14 January 2020 (Northern Contemporary)
johnnyhuntermusic.bandcamp.com

To The Earth – Dinosaur
Laura Jurd, Elliot Galvin, Conor Chaplin, Corrie Dick
Release date: 15 May 2020 (Edition Records)
dinosaurband.bandcamp.com

Discourses – Jon Balke
Jon Balke – solo piano
Release date: 15 May 2020 (ECM Records)
ecmrecords.com/shop

The Rainbow Mountain / Can We Care – Robert Mitchell
Robert Mitchell – solo piano
Release date: 25 April 2020 (Depth of Field)
robertmitchell.bandcamp.com

The Lost Tapes – James Hamilton Jazz Orchestra
Rod Mason, Andrew Cox, Simon Kaylor, Ben Mallinder, Emma Frampton, Gareth Smith, Greg Nicholas, Kim Macari, Reuben Fowler, Matt Ball, Stuart Garside, Ellie Smith, Tom I’anson, John Kelly, Jamil Sheriff, Garry Jackson, Dave Walsh
Release date: 23 April 2020 (New Jazz Records)
jameshamiltonjazzorchestra.bandcamp.com

Out of Doors – Bruno Heinen Trio
Bruno Heinen, Andrea Di Biase, Gene Calderazzo
Release date: 22 May 2020
brunoheinen.com

REVIEW: ‘Nightfall’ – Quercus

Quercus_Nightfall

THE ORIGINAL Quercus album of 2013 – a live recording of a concert from several years earlier – was one of those musically defining moments where folk and jazz were both eloquently and movingly brought together. So this second release from vocalist June Tabor, saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren should surely delight the many who first rose to applaud the emergence of these already respected musicians as a trio. 

Initially, Nightfall does appear to be the anticipated, natural progression – why wouldn’t it? But as you allow yourself to take them to your heart, these eleven new expressions of songs (of traditional folk origin and from the likes of Bob Dylan and Stephen Sondheim / Leonard Bernstein) begin to surrender their emotional array of treasures; so much so that perhaps it even surpasses the attraction of that still much-played debut. Recorded in rural Somerset, this studio account loses nothing of Quercus’ perfect synergy as they again combine to present music from different sources with customary poise and attention to detail.

Ballamy’s instantly distinctive tenor sound, one of the most oratory in contemporary jazz (and still summoning the magic of his The Little Radio album with Stian Carstensen) is flawlessly matched to the rich, resonant voice of June Tabor, who has remained such a great ambassador of English folk music. And though Huw Warren is also known for his pianistic exuberance – as witnesses to the fervour of his Brazilian- or African-flavoured jazz performances will concur – here his ruminative and precise focus unwaveringly articulates Tabor’s poetic storytelling, where predominant themes of longing, love and loss are balanced with glimpses of light.

On Berrow Sands‘ warning of the perils of the Bristol Channel are elucidated by Tabor’s siren-like lament (reminiscent of her Ashore album), the haunting repetition of ‘Away, keep away, the gulls do cry…’ affirmed by Warren’s ominous, perpetual currents and darkly-plumbed depths. Reinterpreted strains of Auld Lang Syne paint Robert Burns’ familiar words with subdued melancholy; and Iain Ballamy’s subtle control which, throughout this session, can enter and recede almost imperceptibly, is so intelligently shaped. His more obvious lyricism can be heard intertwining with Tabor’s heartfelt four-line stanzas in 19th Century folk tale The Irish Girl and the evocative, sunset hues of The Shepherd and His Dog, whilst Emmeline – Ballamy’s own instrumental, shared with Warren – tumbles with sweet, open innocence.

An especially bluesy rendition of You Don’t Know What Love Is aches to June Tabor’s rubato enunciation, inviting breathy improvisations from Ballamy; the singer’s tormented narrative in traditional folk song The Manchester Angel is particularly compelling; and Huw Warren’s piano-and-soprano sax instrumental Christchurch possesses a wistful elegance. In that vein, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright is almost unrecognisable in a superbly resigned reinvention of Bob Dylan’s sparse guitar-and-vocal original, Tabor’s subtle, conversational inflections bringing the lyric to life over Huw Warren’s deliciously chromatic gospel accompaniment. Both pianist and saxophonist charmingly ornament the blithe poetry of Dorset gypsy song The Cuckoo; and Sondheim/Bernstein favourite Somewhere, maybe more than ever, has the power to echo our ever-present feelings of despair and hope, Iain Ballamy’s luscious tenor spirit suggesting a pathway to the latter.

This is a recording which, to quote Sondheim, needs ‘a time, a place’. Ascend a tor or a ‘moel’ with Nightfall in your ears – and for a mountain-top experience like no other, it’s up there… somewhere.

Released on 28 April 2017 and available from ECM, Amazon, iTunes, record stores, etc.

 

June Tabor voice
Iain Ballamy tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Huw Warren piano

topicrecords.co.uk/junetabor
ballamy.com
huwwarren.com

ECM Records – 574 3078 (ECM 2522) (2017)

‘Hommage à Eberhard Weber’

Eberhard

RARELY has a live jazz album felt as emotive or as broadly momentous, encompassing and celebrating so many strands and decades of sublime creativity.

Read the full review at LondonJazz News…

 

Pat Metheny guitars
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Gary Burton vibraphone
Scott Colley double bass
Danny Gottlieb drums
Paul McCandless English horn, soprano saxophone
Klaus Graf alto saxophone
Ernst Hutter euphonium
and
Eberhard Weber double bass (from tape)

Michael Gibbs arranger, conductor
Ralf Schmid arranger
Rainer Tempel arranger
Libor Šíma arranger

SWR Big Band conducted by Helge Sunde

ECM Records – 473 2344 (ECM 2463) (2015)