REVIEW: ‘Momento’ – Dave Milligan

I SOMETIMES WONDER if ‘charm’ – that genteel expression of beauty that can often be lacking in our present age – is at risk of becoming consigned to the ‘lost words’ chest. But, for all the right reasons, Dave Milligan’s delightful new piano trio album, Momento, with double bassist Danilo Gallo and drummer U.T. Gandhi, has enchanted me endlessly over the last few weeks… to the point of not being able to leave it alone!

The Scottish pianist’s career, across the last decade or so, has seen him focus on projects with artists including Scott Hamilton, Trilok Gurtu, Colin Steele and Karine Polwart; and, as musical supervisor, he collaborated with Mark Knopfler on the stage adaptation of Local Hero. So the finalisation of this first album as leader since 2008 only gained impetus due to the artistic hiatus created by the Coronavirus pandemic. The recording of these seven tracks – part of a longer session captured with typical clarity by Stefano Amerio at Italian studio Artesuono – actually goes back to 2015.

It’s a great mix. Going Nowhere, one of Milligan’s five original pieces here, was written down in a departure lounge between flights; and described as a ‘sketch’ which didn’t request a specific melody, its quiet, Escher-like progression evokes resonances of Tord Gustavsen. With similar opening delicacy, (There’s) Always Tomorrow – from a suite inspired by letters between Robert Burns and Agnes McLehose, and reduced from big band arrangement to trio intimacy – increasingly coruscates with lively pianistic improv and cymbal flashes, while They Said It Was About You (‘For Ella’) actually displays a precise, Italianate piano charisma akin to Giovanni Guidi, buoyed by Gallo’s prominent bass colorations.

Dave Milligan’s national roots are represented by dancing Parcel of Rogues (trad., first printed in 1792) and evocative, north-of-the-border Freedom (John McLellan, 1875–1949), whose marching origins (not without a hint of ‘Loch Lomond) are cleverly refashioned with lush, ebullient chordal rhythms and percussive momentum. Quietly affecting piano solo Sandy’s 70th easily brings to mind Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopédies’ – but perhaps more so, the moving serenity of the adagio from Ravel‘s Piano Concerto – in a particularly elegant birthday tribute ‘For Dad’. Finally, inspired by a tune from a book of collected fiddle music, Milligan’s Made In The Border features sternly-planted ‘riffs’ and a ‘Scotch snap’ folk melody (Gallo in whimsical Arild Andersen mode) before Gandhi swells its arresting, extended race to the finish.

After a few cycles of listening, at around the midpoint of these 43 minutes came the realisation that I had discovered what can only be described as the heart of the recording. In that moment, the overall flow of the pieces fell into place, shedding a brighter light on the whole – and therein, the spell was smilingly cast. A word of caution, though – do not attempt to sample or listen to this fine album on a ‘tin box’ (ie smartphone speaker), otherwise its musical richness is likely to be obscured. 13 tracks remain ‘in the can’, so rumours of more seeing the light of day are keenly anticipated.

Initially released in digital format on 28 August 2020 (though a physical CD release is also indicated for perhaps later this year, complete with Milligan’s background notes), Momento is available from Bandcamp and Amazon.

Video: (There’s) Always Tomorrow

 

Dave Milligan piano
Danilo Gallo double bass
U.T. Gandhi drums

davemilligan.co.uk

Big Bash Records – BBRCD018 (2020)

‘Distilled’ – Sunna Gunnlaugs

Distilled

SOME THOUSAND MILES in a South-Easterly direction, Sunna Gunnlaugs’ latest release took its journey to my door (Reykjavik, or thereabouts, to North West England)… and to my heart. The pianist’s new trio album, ‘Distilled’ – with Þorgrímur Jónsson (double bass) and Scott McLemore (drums) – is a masterclass in how to achieve the tricky balance between accessibility and invention; melody and the unexpected; feel-good and mystery.

Hailing from Iceland – but also having spent a number of years in the USA and touring worldwide – Gunnlaugs has a catalogue of recordings to her name, the more recent being ‘The Dream’ and ‘Long Pair Bond’. But I am in that happy, exciting position of only now discovering the treasures out there – and this new album, with all but one of the compositions written by the trio’s members, is a great starting point.

‘Momento’ is a lively, brash and bluesy opener – right from the hard-edged drum introduction of McLemore, it promises a satisfaction which Gunnlaugs’ bright piano style confirms, bass adding the bounce. Title track, ‘Distilled’, presents a homely, melodic piano line and the shared trio aim of creating an easy-going countrified appeal, whilst also possessing an agreeable edge of uncertainty. The anarchic swagger of miniature ‘Switcheroo’, with its slightly inebriated manner, is a delight, the rhythm intentionally taking its time to find its feet, but building towards a more steered, octave-driven (cheeky, even) piano lead… before dissolving once more into further random acts of brilliance.

‘Smiling Face’ is aptly titled – a sweet, unpretentious piano tune (shades of Bill Evans) in which Jónsson takes up an articulate bass solo, McLemore fluttering delicately through a battery of cymbals and brushed snare. Cantering steadily in, and gradually picking up the pace, is one of the album’s real gems – ‘Gallop’. It has an affable air which then develops the same kind of abandon that characterised the more playful pieces of the late, great Esbjörn Svensson. Very attractive indeed.

The two short, freely-improvised numbers, ‘Spin 6’ and ‘Spin 7′, reveal the band members’ empathy with each other, the latter’s sensitivity suggesting (to me) an early-morning creaking ‘frostscape’, sun rising to wake the day. ‘The New Now’ is so ‘together’, Gunnlaugs’ delicately propelled soloing shining above the equally sprightly rhythms of drums and bass, leading to the sonorous, meandering bass introduction of ’24H Trip’. This exquisite seven-minute jewel, with a gentle Bachian feel reminiscent of John Lewis’s renowned MJQ recordings, finds writer Jónsson in great form, creating a slightly disquieting undercurrent, and McLemore contributing atmospheric rumbles and shimmers.

Based on an old Icelandic melody (‘Lóan er komin’), Scott McLemore’s ‘Things You Should Know’ provides the pianist the space to state and then expand lucidly on the folksong charm, its simplicity never overblown by her colleagues. Paul Motian’s ‘From Time to Time’ is a brief yet alluring rendition, the expressive openness of the interpretation a real pleasure. Equally spacial is ‘Opposite Side’ – one of Gunnlaugs’ four compositions here – its late-night mellowness and inquiring bass suggesting the merest hint of melancholy.

With so much warmth and colour emanating from this beautiful production, ‘Distilled’ is certainly much more a case of Aurora Borealis than Icelandic Low. Since its arrival, the CD has barely left my player, such is its charm and breadth of interest – and I sense it will remain close for a long time to come.


Sunna Gunnlaugs
 piano
Þorgrímur Jónsson  double bass
Scott McLemore  drums

http://www.sunnagunnlaugs.com/

Sunny Sky Records – Sunny Sky 730 (2013)