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)

‘Home’ – Søren Bebe Trio

sorenbebe

IN DENMARK, the traditional expression of ‘hygge’ (rather than its commercial ‘hijacking’) can be defined as an acceptance of what we have; the contentment in taking time to celebrate, with family and friends, life’s simpler pleasures. And the shortening of daylight hours – when all outside seems endlessly dark and cold – can, indeed, find us grateful to retire to the familiar warmth and coziness of our dwellings… if we are so fortunate.

Reflecting that ambience, Danish pianist Søren Bebe’s latest trio release Home, with bassist Kasper Tagel and drummer Anders Mogensen, is an intimate collection of original material which never shouts from the rooftops. Instead, each of its eleven compositions is conveyed through spacious, considered serenity, not unlike the work of Tord Gustavsen (Tango for T is intentionally and recognisably in homage). Yet, Bebe has his own imprint, delivering Time with such delicacy of restraint (Tagel’s high bass melodies quite affecting), whilst quietly rhythmic, Latinesque A Simple Song is ornamented with a precision of touch which isn’t simple to accomplish.

Averaging four minutes, the pianist’s compositions don’t overstay their welcome – in fact, the entire programme resembles a partita as the succinctness of each ‘movement’ roomily achieves its intentions before moving naturally into the next. The gossamer suspension of Look Out Now hints both at Bill Evans and Erik Satie, its major/minor moods blurring 4/4 with 3/4; and Tyst (‘Quietly’) magically jangles to Mogensen’s miniature bells, evoking memories of the MJQ’s Connie Kay (more of such oblique enchantments will always be welcome).

The Path to Somewhere appropriately feels its way through softly-beaten percussion, and Haarlem Landscape – part of a 2011 suite commissioned by the National Gallery of Denmark – waltzes gracefully, as if pictorialising marbled hallways of grand masters’ artworks (Harald Slott-Møller comes to mind). Trieste‘s Gustavsen-like clarity and rising progression display a quiet confidence, as does Bebe’s softly-lit title track, full of meticulous, folky piano inflections. The darker, chromatic chordal shifts of Floating are redolent of Esbjörn Svensson; and reverent Tak (‘Thank You’), with Tagel’s cantabile bass again so listenable, closes almost prayerfully.

Recorded and mixed by renowned engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, Søren Bebe reveals that this album is the truest he has been to his artistic vision, and therefore it feels like Home to him. It may well also hold the sense of equilibrium that so many of us seek; after all, creative music can possess the extraordinary power, even as subtly as this, to reach deeply into our souls.

Released on 1 November 2016 and available as CD or digital download at Bandcamp.

Studio video: Trieste.

 

Søren Bebe piano
Kasper Tagel bass
Anders Mogensen drums

sorenbebe.com

Find Out Here Music – FOHMCD008 (2016)

‘celebrating The Dark Side Of The Moon’ – Nguyên Lê / Michael Gibbs / NDR Bigband

NguyenLe

FOR ANY DIE-HARD Pink Floyd fan (arm held aloft here), the sight of a reinterpretation – a what?! – of their seminal 1973 colossus Dark Side Of The Moon might be met with an equal measure of trepidation and intrigue. After all, those of us whose teenage years were coloured by the thrill of ‘prog’ are likely to have this particular Gilmour, Waters, Wright & Mason album in their DNA, even to the very detail of guitar and vocal solos.

It’s been done before, of course – Ari Hoenig, The Flaming Lips, dubstep, reggae, string quartet, a cappella – and the initial signs here are particularly good: a concept fostered by Siggi Loch, on his go-ahead ACT label, with the venerable approval of Nick Mason and featuring dynamic guitarist Nguyên Lê (who has recorded exclusively with ACT for some time now, including collaborations with Pete Erskine and Michael Bonita). The anticipation, excitement and validity of this seemingly-audacious venture is further raised by the personnel involved – the renowned NDR Bigband realising the orchestrations of respected British composer, arranger and band leader Michael Gibbs, joined by Youn Sun Nah (vocals), Gary Husband (drums) and Jürgen Attig (fretless bass).

For this jazz/rock ‘celebration’, Nguyên Lê arranges all nine (or ten) numbers from the original, as well as weaving-in five self- and co-written Floyd-inspired miniatures. The transitions are remarkably organic, and Gibbs’ big band orchestrations frequently breathtaking, but how well do these familiar tracks translate into this new guise?

Heralded by the electronic cross-conversations of Speak To Me and Lê’s similarly impressionistic Inspire, the big vocal of Breathe is presented soulfully by Youn Sun Nah against a wall of big band splendour. Following on, the panicky momentum of On The Run is expertly effected by Jürgen Attig’s bass and Christof Lauer’s swirling soprano until, waking to radio-controlled timepieces, Time is cleverly reimagined, announced by Gary Husband’s thunderous toms and powerful big band blasts. There’s a tendency for Gilmour’s originally-relaxed, oscillating semitone lines to somehow become mechanical, even monotonous, in this arrangement, and Youn Sun Nah’s later lyric entry appears an unnecessary add-on. But, otherwise, it rocks to Lê’s distinctively complex guitar improvisations and electronics.

Magic Spells and the charming marching band-like Hear This Whispering (both from the pen of the guitarist) precede a dazzling adaptation of The Great Gig In The Sky, Clare Torry’s classic, impassioned (and presumably improvised) ’70s vocal imitated incredibly accurately by the blistering big band. That transcription is so satisfying, and all too brief, though segued by Jürgen Attig’s luxuriant, Jacoesque fretless bass and Nguyên Lê’s impossibly rapid guitar runs in Gotta Go Sometime.

The timeless 7/4 ‘prog’ wonder of Roger Waters’ Money translates magnificently here into super-funky, clav-driven brilliance, Gary Husband’s heavy-yet-bejewelled drums and percussion ringing through it as a golden thread; and the incisive rhythmic urgency in the band, plus Lê’s liquescent, amplified lead, is mind-boggling – a triumph, in fact. Us And Them is ingeniously reshaped – a delicate oriental motif which extends into big band grandeur, Fiete Felsch offering a beautifully effortless alto solo; and, again, Lê prompts sympathetic improvisation – the trumpet of Claus Stötter – in his Purple Or Blue. Full-on groover Any Colour You Like leads to Youn Sun Nah’s psycho-interpreted Brain Damage, maintaining its bizarre combination of disturbance and affirmation, again rippling to Husband’s extraordinary drum prowess; and closing, there’s the heightened big band illumination of Waters’ anthemic Eclipse.

Having had this running through my veins for the past few weeks, its overriding success has really caught my attention – and, along with the ’41-year-old’ on the CD shelf, it has pleasingly become something of a repeat player!

Released on 3 November 2014, further details and audio samples can be found at ACT Music.

 

Nguyên Lê electric guitar, electronics
Youn Sun Nah vocals
Gary Husband drums
Jürgen Attig electric fretless bass

NDR BIGBAND conducted by Jörg Achim Keller:
Thorsten Benkenstein
trumpet
Benny Brown trumpet
Ingolf Burkhardt trumpet
Claus Stötter trumpet
Reiner Winterschladen trumpet
Fiete Felsch alto saxophone, flute
Peter Bolte alto saxophone, flute
Christof Lauer tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Lutz Büchner tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Sebastian Gille tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Marcus Bartelt baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Dan Gottshall trombone
Klaus Heidenreich trombone
Stefan Lottermann trombone
Ingo Lahme tuba, bass trombone
Vladyslav Sendecki piano and synths
Marcio Doctor percussion

Orchestrations by Michael Gibbs
All arrangements by Nguyên Lê, except tracks 4, 14 & 15 by Michael Gibbs
Special thanks to Nick Mason

ACT Music – ACT 9574-2 (2014)