10 Vein RavelVein plays Ravel
Vein (featuring Andy Sheppard)
Challenge Records Int. DMCHR 71179 (vein.ch)

Claude Debussy was at the head of the re-emergence of a complete French school in music that began as a reaction against Wagnerism. His most famous lieutenant was Maurice Ravel who, however, never completely followed Debussy’s lead into the world of extreme formal and tonal ambiguity. It was Ravel who cultivated a style that combined the Classical with the contemporary and famously – especially in Le Tombeau de Couperin – fostered a more complex hybrid that included Romani music, jazz, Spanish culture and the music of the Far East. It is with that iconic suite composed originally for solo piano that Vein begin their unusual tribute to Ravel.

On Le Tombeau de Couperin Vein employs the jazz trio format to re-imagine Ravel’s suite, adding to the subtle colours and evanescent textures of the music. In the hands of pianist Michael Arbenz, bassist Thomas Lähns and drummer Florian Arbenz, the listener is not merely dazzled by sound, but rather introduced to Ravel’s marvellous sense of melody and structure. This tribute to the dead, written during World War I, is brought back to life by Vein with unconventional and progressive harmonies. A horn section on Bolero finds saxophonist Andy Sheppard its most skilful advocate. Florian Arbenz never loses concentration either, adopting a well-judged pulse and joining the full group in moulding a wonderfully rich orchestral texture. Vein plays Ravel is classic jazz.

11 DolphyFlauto Dolphy
Dominik Strycharski
Fundacja Sluchaj FSR 03/2017 (sluchaj.org)

Jazz avatar Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) was proficient playing alto saxophone, bass clarinet and especially flute in Charles Mingus’ and John Coltrane’s groups. Here, his compositions and improvisations are saluted by Dominik Strycharski. Moving confidently through the eight tracks during a live session that leaves little space for miscues, the Polish polymath serves up unaccompanied interpretations of the Dolphy canon using soprano, alto, tenor and bass recorders, as if this is the most normal musical showcase.

Such Dolphy classics as Gazzelloni (named for the classical flutist) and Hat and Beard (saluting Thelonious Monk) are sophisticatedly reconstituted. That’s because Strycharski’s technical skills allow him to build up the second piece from atom-sized bites that are both percussive and triple-tongued, to a selection of dissonant pitches. Meanwhile Gazzelloni divides into exploding multiphonics seemingly squalled from more than one recorder at once, only to descend into a delicately tonal coda. Screeching atonality that brings out the instruments’ pseudo-metallic buzz on Iron Man confirms Strycharski’s skilful appropriation of both solo and accompaniment functions. Meanwhile his own composition, the concluding Sam, sets up ecstatic airy whorls and whirls that are as vocalized as they are played, yet still manage to capture and salute the melodic as well as the militant attributes of Dolphy’s art.

12 GolanGolan Volume 2
Hubert Dupont
Ultrarack UT 1005 (ultrabolic.com)

More cosmopolitan than curious, French bassist Hubert Dupont’s idea is for his quintet to intertwine Arabic-rooted sounds with strands of improvised music. Golan does so by stripping away the tinge of exoticism, treating the Middle Eastern instruments and melodies no differ-ently than if both were part of the Western canon. Having players flexible in both idioms helps. Besides Dupont, who has worked in many jazz formations, the band includes countryman clarinetist Matthieu Donarier who has similar improvised music experience. Flutist Naïssam Jalal is French/Syrian, and she and Tunisian violinist Zied Zouari play jazz as well as traditional music. Meanwhile Palestinians, oud player Ahmad Al Khatib and percussionist Youssef Hbeisch, work both in Europe and the Middle East.

Accept the Changes, with its dual-meaning title, is a perfect example of this formula. Beginning with spiccato lines from the violinist that are quickly given jazz underpinnings by double bass strokes, a Maghreb-like rhythm from Hbeisch’s darbouka joins at the same time as contralto clarinet glissandi arrive as counterpoint. With cymbal slaps and conga-like raps added, the piece crosses and re-crosses figurative borders without losing fluidity.

Themes expressed by various soloists include a flamenco-like showcase for Al Khatib’s oud on Furatain completed by sly contemporary plucking from Dupont, plus a harmonized clarinet and flute lilt on Midday Promise that suggests 17th-century Graz more than present-day Gaza.

Sympathetic dynamics and mutual compatibility are attributes ascribed to notable musical groupings. That’s why so many are made up of players from the same country or even the same region: think of the Budapest String Quartet, Liverpool’s The Beatles or the New York Jazz Quartet. But as music becomes more global this nationalism is increasingly rare. Here are CDs whose direction has been changed – or not – by adding a foreign player to an existing local combo, by creating a new entity with one expatriate element, or when players from various national backgrounds root themselves in one place.

01 Ghost LightsJudging from the results on Ghost Lights (Songlines 1621-2 songlines.com), French pianist Benoît Delbecq joining the Vancouver-based trio of clarinetist François Houle, guitar and oud player Gordon Grdina and percussionist Kenton Loewen was more like mixing two complementary compounds than introducing an unstable element to a scientific formula. That’s because the Houle/Grdina/Loewen trio has been together since 2014, while the clarinetist and keyboardist have worked as a duo since 1996. Delbecq’s familiarity with non-Western scales coupled with Loewen’s skill on the Arabic lute give pieces such as Ley Land and especially Soft Shadows an Eastern cast. Ley Land’s moody and crepuscule feel is further advanced by slurred string fingering and Houle’s chalumeau slurps. Meantime Soft Shadows’ Eurasian tinge is intertwined with minimalist tones as organ-like drones from processed loops create a continuum. Placing a wispy reed narrative atop sharp guitar lines, percussion shuffles and restrained pianism as on Ghost Lights only works for so long. Like a dainty tiara perched on a massive head of hair the wrong movement can upset the balance. Luckily equilibrium is maintained due to contralto clarinet cries matched with modulated piano tones. The CD’s most jazz-like piece is Gold Spheres which evolves into a suite of multicoloured, almost Africanized tinctures. Ghostly and atmospheric via reed snarls and plucked inner piano strings, the wavering theme is both percussive and succoring. Underlying harshness is relieved with slurred guitar fingering while the quartet demonstrates perfect control of the material, since neither this timbral softening nor the preceding firmness prevents the tune from attaining a notable finale.


02 FillFreeA similar situation is delineated on the aptly-titled Everything is a Translation (Fiil Free Records FFR0916 larsfiil.dk); a suite composed by Danish pianist Lars Fiil and interpreted by the Fiil Free septet of five Danes, Swedish guitarist Henrik Olsson and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Dąbrowski. Composed so that each subsequent track bleeds into the next, the five sequences go through sections of speed and static, Arcadian lulls and aggressive outbursts. Symbolically the session also marks how completely Dąbrowski has integrated Scandinavian ethos. Unlike some showcases where the soloist seems to be jammed on top of the ensemble, the trumpeter’s muted grace notes are present from the first track Why Search for Common Ground, with textures reflecting back onto Fiil’s low-frequency, Lisztian chording and offhanded cracks and swats by drummer Bjørn Heebøll and vibraphonist Martin Fabricius. There’s such bonding that the tempo speeding up and becoming more swinging almost passes unnoticed. Later instances such as a blustering brass call plus piano pumps show how to fearlessly inhabit the groove between hard bop and cool. That piece fades seamlessly into the neo-pastoral title tune, where sour brass whistles in counterpoint to smeared reed lines also don’t upset the narrative flow or detract from the overall beauty. At the same time, since the suite is sturdy and organically constructed to highlight beautiful colours, it never lapses into mere landscaping. To demonstrate its modernity and the versatility of the players, a track like Is It Doubt includes brass shakes and mouthpiece kisses from the trumpeter that keep the relaxed piano and decorative vibraphone narrative from sounding too comfortable.

03 Clarinet TrioA distinct variation of this add-a-foreign-player appears on Live in Moscow (Leo Records CD LR 781 leorecords.com) where the 15-year-old Berlin-based Clarinet Trio – consisting of Jurgen Kupke (clarinet), Michael Thieke (clarinet, alto clarinet) and Gebhard Ullmann (bass clarinet) was joined by Russian alto saxophonist Alexey Kruglov. Recorded in real time, the CD initially showcases four instances of the trio’s near-telepathic interactions as the members build a collection of layered sonic edifices. In low- or high-frequency elaborations, the sense of perpetual discovery is obvious with Kupke’s bugle-call timbre-stretching, Thieke decorating the themes with jagged glissandi and Ullmann puffing along freight-train-like preserving the bottom. Adding the saxophonist turns the interface more dissonant, but without losing the connective thread. Collective No.9 (Part 1-4) intensifies the reveille-like yaps, squeaking bent notes and foghorn-pitched smears from the clarinets with the saxophonist contributing tongue slaps, reed bites, then builds to a cacophonous crescendo where all four explore the deepest regions of their horns. Yet not only do the four on Kleine Figuren No.2 immediately unite high-pitched glissandi to create peppy, yet comforting harmonies that are almost as tonal as a Christmas carol, the preceding sounds are prelude to the concluding 14-minute-plus News? No News! Perfectly harmonized as a Baroque chamber ensemble, but with finger-snapping energy, they take turns propelling the theme, taking it apart and reconstituting it. Furry slurs from linked alto and bass clarinets suggest a Romantic tone poem, while Kruglov’s jagged and jiggling split tones describe an alternate sound portrait. Finally, a melancholy crescendo of crackling tones is attained and regularized by Ullmann’s rhino-like snorts. The four’s interlaid harmonies end the piece without schism and without sacrificing its cutting edge.

04 DefibrilatorKruglov’s potential disruptive forces were actually melodiously linked to the Trio’s longtime sound strategy. But an additional element can also push an already dissonant game plan to a strident peak. Consider Conversations About Not Eating Meat (Border of Silence BOS 001 borderofsilence.com). Here the Basel-based Defibrillator trio, made up of Polish brothers Sebastian Smolyn on electronically processed trombone and Artur Smolyn on electronics, plus Berlin-based drummer Oliver Steidle, invite powerful German multi-reedist Peter Brötzmann to record with them. The result could be likened to an aural record of North Korea’s nuclear tests. While a true defibrillator uses electrical shocks to help control arrhythmias, and although Brötzmann’s reed blasts have usually been linked to power from the guts, it’s mostly the trio’s electronic boosts which pump out a blitzkrieg of themes so that obbligatos from the saxophonist sound almost moderato. This aural landscape of industrial noise also gains traction from the trombonist’s extended plunger forays. With the processed oscillations arriving as unexpected as a prolonged power outage in a city’s downtown core, on pieces such as The Man with One Ball and Fuckir Brötzmann’s doggedly straightforward improvising, trombone siren calls and drum bumps cut a path through the swooshing wave forms like a bowling ball scattering pins. Asserting the primacy of human lung power through a combination of multiphonic growls and altissimo screams is further proof of the saxophonist’s skill. In fact, by the climactic Cellulite Guru finale, many of the underlying drones and signal-processed timbral distortions have become so regularized and dampened that Brötzmann’s usual overwrought reed narratives seem as mellow as Sonny Rollins elaborating a tune backed by a conventional rhythm section.


05 TernionThe final variant of our theme involves trombone, saxophone, bass and drums. That’s the configuration of Danish-born Anne Mette Iversen’s Berlin-based Ternion Quartet (Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records BJUR 062 bjurecords.com). Iversen organized the group in 2015 with alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard, percussionist Roland Schneider (both German) and trombonist Geoffroy De Masure (French). Working in classic contemporary fashion with round-robin solos from the frontline firmly grounded by Iversen’s bass pulse and rattling drum beats, the four never stray far from swing. This emphasis on foot-tapping also means that except for the odd cymbal slap and snare clunks on tunes such as Trio One Schneider stays in the background, with the bassist. Overall, the quartet’s most notable work occurs on a trio of tunes placed in the CD’s centre. Debacled Debate gives the trombonist space for vocalized cries, which evolve to bel canto grace notes decorated with twisted trills from Eberhard and a squirming bottom from the rhythm section. Reversing pitch roles, the saxophonist and trombonist extend A Cygnet’s Eunoia by moving brass tones upwards and reed timbres downwards. Slippery smears from Eberhard and bottom burrs from De Masure result in harmonies that join to produce skipping swing. The trombone tone remains in the basement during Escapade #7. But before De Masure and Eberhard engage in some jaunty tune-ending call-and-response she constructs a Dolphyesque solo that’s harsher and more dissonant, but doesn’t upset the tune’s forward motion.

Such coherent playing is an indication not only of the band’s mutual musical understanding, but also marks an instance in which individual nationality is an invisible part of the performance. It’s this connection to which all these ensembles aspire.

01 Cory WeedsDreamsville
Cory Weeds & The Jeff Hamilton Trio
Cellar Live CL072216 (cellarlive.com)

Dreamsville, the latest recording from Vancouverite Cory Weeds, pairs the soulful saxophonist with drummer Jeff Hamilton’s trio for a set of fine jazz loosely framed around the work of the late American film composer, Henry Mancini. While Weeds and company (pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist Christoph Luty and Hamilton) are all unique soloists and ensemble players with individualized approaches to the music, the overarching shared quartet values of infectious swing, purity of instrumental tone and good taste rudder this recording to a satisfying place that should find it included on many year-end “best of” lists. This, the second pairing of Weeds and the Hamilton trio, again demonstrates that there is much creativity to be mined from this classic jazz horn/rhythm section format, when master musicians coalesce to collectively elevate the music to a higher plane than can be achieved by one individual. Jazz is a social and participatory music and Weeds – as his impressive discography exhibits – is skilled at seeking outside musicians who share this attitude, choosing or writing music that encourages creative collaboration and setting up a relaxed environment for musical joy to flourish. Accordingly, Dreamsville bounces along with an effervescent pulse that showcases all parties in a most swinging and flattering light. This is a set of happy music (case in point: How Do You Like Them Apples?) and yet another accomplishment for Weeds, who as saxophonist, booking agent, label owner, composer and concert promoter, continues to be a going concern on the Canadian jazz scene.

03 Florien HoefnerColdwater Stories
Florian Hoefner
Origin Records 82740 (originarts.com)

The songs of Coldwater Stories by pianist Florian Hoefner seem to run one into the other, and despite the sometimes pronounced silences which form part of the music, the sound is continuous. This is just like the icy waters of the Atlantic Sea off the coast of Newfoundland, “tumbling in harness,” as Dylan Thomas once said singing from the Welsh coast. Wearing his profoundly lyrical skin comfortably, Hoefner’s own poetry can also be chameleonic as he invents new harmonies and chords that are tantamount to reinventing tonality itself, as in Iceberg 1 and Iceberg 2.

There, as elsewhere on his Coldwater Stories, the pianist begins to explore a compositional/improvisational process that avoids conventional thematic development, instead moving its material through constantly-shifting harmonic backgrounds – impression seeming to matter more than direction. A great example of this celebrated vagueness is heard in the sophistication of The Way of Water. Meanwhile, Sunrise Bay is sublimely evocative music and is at times played at such perfect pianissimo that it comes closest to being hammerless piano.

But Hoefner never completely renounces traditional tonality and form, even as he cultivates an utterly contemporary pianistic persona. His songs – for they are such works – The Great Auk and Green Gardens are shimmering and seductive and come from the moment of reconciliation. Hoefner is in his element here, revelling in the opulence of new songs of the sea, performed on the piano in all of its orchestral sonorities.

04 Janis StepransAjivtal
Janis Steprans Quintet
Effendi Records FND145

The album title, Ajivtal, is Latvija (Latvia) spelled backwards and is inspired not only by the music of Janis Steprans’ ancestors who came from there but also by Sonny Rollins’ Airegin, which is Nigeria spelled backwards. Steprans’ own sense of melodic sense, though, is more rooted in the lyrical leaping of Charlie Parker. You won’t find any of the 1.2 million Latvian texts or any of the 30,000 melodies that still survive in the Baltic state’s traditional music. However, in the high and lonesome melodic, almost mystical hum of Steprans’ soprano and alto saxophones, the low throaty rasp of his tenor and even the voluptuous, woody bleat of his clarinet there are indeed faint echoes of the lyrical dainas, the drone vocal styles, and even a hint of Baltic psaltery.

The textural and rhythmic tightness of Steprans’ writing and the intensity of his playing give the performance of this repertoire a compressed timbre, which, despite digital technology, makes it sound like something fulsome and almost analogue. Compositionally as well as in terms of performance – especially in group dynamics – there is a knitted pattern that emerges as the music unfolds its undulating melodies in the saxophone-guitar-piano contrapuntal progressions. Flowing rhythms inform the exquisite Ajivtal and Chambre No.5. Meanwhile, the pulsing bass throughout and the climbing reed and wind lines bloom in Suite de Thèmes Lettons, and in Un Autre Original there is a glorious headlong celebration of instrumental virtuosity.

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