IF EVER there was a jazz piano trio album whose informed, creative invention deserved the proposition “just buy it”… well, Vein plays Ravel is most certainly a contender.
After more than a decade together, the partnership of pianist Michael Arbenz, drummer Florian Arbenz and bassist Thomas Lähns has spawned numerous recordings; and the Swiss trio’s recent release of originals (The Chamber Music Effect) beautifully reflects the freedom of interpretation to be found in classical chamber works. To approach the output of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) might, then, be seen as a natural progression; though also an audacious step, as it’s a sound world brimming with much-loved melodies and impressionistic piano and orchestral textures. However, Ravel famously listened to early-20th Century jazz (meeting George Gershwin in the States) and embraced it in his writing… so there’s a sense here that, if any of the historical composers were to sit on Vein’s collective shoulders, the Frenchman might well have collaborated with the greatest enthusiasm.
Importantly, the trio are way beyond any idea of simply retouching Ravelian manuscripts with a superficial swing or a cheery, ornamented solo line – on the contrary, it’s their depth of thought which is so compelling, understanding how to substantially deconstruct then sensitively reshape this glorious music without it becoming grotesque. Seemingly a labour of love – and what a triumph!
The recognisably babbling piano Prélude to Le Tombeau de Couperin organically integrates perpetuum-mobile bass and drums, drifting in and out of its formal structure with contemporary abandon, yet always faithful to the romanticism of Ravel. Forlane‘s original 6/8 dance is initially stated with exquisite fluidity before being decorated with fine percussion and lithe bass expressions; and there’s a magical, almost levitational intricacy to the opening of Toccata – the last of Vein’s three interpretations from this six-movement work – and the most dynamic, syncopated transformation, complete with rapid piano-and-bass figures and flamboyant drumming.
Entitled Blues by Ravel himself, the already impudent-sounding middle movement of his second Violin Sonata is the perfect vehicle for Vein’s mysterious, tango-like searching as Lähns’ arco octaves toy vocally with their suspicious accompaniment, whilst similarly playful Five o’Clock Foxtrot (from opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges) is magnificently refashioned as an episodic arrangement full of cat-and-mouse chase, elegant piano sorcery and rock-heavy riffs. Guest saxophonist Andy Sheppard joins the trio to reimagine Movement de Menuet (originally a piano sonatina) in a contemporary jazz setting of undulating tenor-led improvisation; and at first disguised within the charming, musical-box softness of Michael Arbenz’s prepared piano, the familiar motifs of Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte evolve into one of the most limpid, even emotional interpretations imaginable (replay it many times to luxuriate in its otherworldliness).
At the centrepiece of this project is, arguably, Ravel’s most familiar work – the repetitive orchestral progression, Bolero. Though sometimes derided, this is a unique masterpiece of crescendoing orchestral arrangement – and Vein’s octet interpretation (augmented by Sheppard and a quartet of reed and brass players) is extraordinarily imaginative. The constant snare drum motif of the original is cleverly expanded upon by Florian Arbenz, somehow managing to maintain its building momentum through elaborate rhythms whilst lush, rising, almost Zawinul-like harmonies and exuberant improvisations are underpinned by morse-code piano ostinati. Initially quite a jolt to the senses – ultimately an absolute tour de force.
The title Vein plays Ravel doesn’t begin to describe the detailing and the brilliance of this project – and it wouldn’t be surprising if Maurice is right there, in the midst.
Michael Arbenz piano
Thomas Lähns bass
Florian Arbenz drums
Andy Sheppard tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
(on Bolero and Mouvement de Menuet)
Martial In Al-bon trumpet, flugelhorn
Florian Weiss trombone
Nils Fischer soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, bass clarinet
Noah Arnold alto saxophone, tenor saxophone
Challenge Records – DMCHR 71179 (2017)