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This was an exceptional year at our local Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which has become one of the premiere small jazz festivals in the country, if not the world. It is mind blowing to think a lineup like this year’s could exist in the provincial parts of rural west Sonoma County, but it has not only existed – over the course of its 21 years it has thrived, attracting world class acts from around the country.

This year’s festival acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the ECM label. One of the first weekend’s highlights was the Carla Bley Trio with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard. Carla, who’s 83 and had cancelled the trio’s fall tour last year, seemed frail and very thin, but her focus and energy were apparent from the first note. The trio played a number of tunes off their first and second ECM albums and a couple new pieces as well. From the first downbeat there was such a palpable feeling of rapport between the musicians – deep listening was the evening’s theme, and every musical gesture was clear, concise and inspired. The tunes were respected almost like hallowed ground – even when improvising, the players kept in mind the spirit of the composition and exercised great restraint. These three artists are not “lick players” by a long shot, but here everyone digging in, mining the hidden gold within the musical structures.

Highlights for this listener were Wildlife and the beautiful Utviklingssang, a delicate, relatively simple composition, imbued with deep emotion, brought the house down. Carla announced the trio had just recorded new music in Lugano. She also said at the end of the show, “This is not goodbye.”

 
 

 
 

The other highpoint of the festival for this listener was the series closer, the Dhafer Youseff quartet, a surprising act for a festival that tends to cleave to the mainstream and has a tendency to be American-centric. It’s a pity the jazz crowd who attends these shows didn’t know who these guys were, because it was far from sold out – It should’ve been packed.

Although I really like Dhafer’s music, I had unfortunately been turned off to his recorded work by a couple of early releases that seemed too experimental and unstructured for my tastes at the time. (Malek). Years later, I only bought the excellent Abu Nawas Rhapsody because Tigran Hamyasan was on it. The album wears well- the compositions are strong (4 are collaborations between Dhafer and Tigran.) I have since gone back though his catalog only to discover the collaborations he has made with Eivand Aarset, Nils Petter Molvaer and other great Norwegian musicians. I have had a lot of catching up to do.

Tigran Hamyasan is an extraordinary pianist with a wide palette of musical interests, including jazz (he won the Thelonius Monk International Piano Competiton at the age of 19,) prog rock, heavy metal and electronica. You can hear some of these influences on Red Hail, Shadow Theater and Mockroot. His own recorded work tends to be highly compositional – there are a number of albums where he doesn’t even feature himself soloing on piano, even though he is a singular force of nature as a soloist.

The quartet performing last Sunday evening had one change in personnel from the album: instead of the highly competent, powerful (but to my ears, somewhat sterile) Mark Guiliana on drums, Marcus Gilmore was in the drummer’s seat. It made all the difference for this listener. As Gary Burton once said, “you only sound as good as your drummer.” Well, Marcus Gilmore, who incidentally is the grandson of none other than Roy Haynes, certainly knows how to make a band sound great. First, Dhafer chanted while Tigran extemporized. It was like a ritual, a meditative preamble for what was about to happen. After a few minutes of contemplative bliss, the band literally exploded – when Gilmore, Tigran and bassist Chris Jennings hit it, a visceral shockwave went through the room. At the end of that very first tune, the entire audience leapt to its feet

Besides being a wonderful singer (if an acquired taste,) Dhafer himself is a fine oud player, composer and soloist, yet generously gave plenty of blowing time to his sidemen.

 
 

 
 

Tigran Hamyasan seems to be the one pianist on the planet who possesses secret rhythmic knowledge – yes, there are many jazz pianists with advanced rhythmic concepts, but there are few as well versed in eastern rhythmic systems or as comfortable playing in odd meters as Tigran. It’s as though besides mastering the odd meters of his own Armenian roots, he seems to have studied and absorbed the Indian Konecol system. This study has allowed him to subdivide the long odd metered periods of this music like no other pianist. While I love hearing him on his own music, the openness of Youseff’s modal compositions, with their long beat cycles is the perfect musical landscape for Tigran to let forth his prodigious rhythmic and melodic concept. And whereas the compositional discipline he exercises on his own albums doesn’t seem to allow a lot of room for blowing, here he was given plenty of room to stretch. He seems to relish playing in this band as a sideman- watching him play in this context is quite different from seeing him play solo or even when he’s fronting his own band. He was far more expressive Sunday night, moving, smiling, interacting with the band and displayed fiery chops. Occasionally a line would fly off his fingers and he would literally be thrown backwards from his seat, as if a bolt of lightening had transmitted itself from the keyboard into his body.

Bassist Chris Jennings was the ground for all of the pyrotechnics. He laid down a solid foundation for these wild excursions, keeping the music rooted to the earth.

Marcus Gilmore seemed quite comfortable in this world of long, odd beat cycles (I counted 25 beats on one tune.) He is such a smooth yet soulful player-he made it all look and sound effortless. His technique is fabulous, but it’s his remarkable feel that helped glue the music together that night. The magic was also due to his incredible sense of dynamics. With music this open and modal, solos need to shape themselves and grow to a climax or one can feel like the player is treading musical water. This was never the case that evening; Every solo started at near zero, and took time to build rhythmic tension, eventually exploding into a crescendo as Dhafer would cue in the next unison line and beat cycle. With music this improvisational, it is worth mentioning the great skill Youseff exhibited in subtly directing the band, often cueing dynamic changes with a subtle hand gesture or bringing in a line with a slight nod. He often conducted the band from his oud, sometimes dancing around the stage, keeping eye contact with the players at all times.

It was a generous show; the band played two full sets. They ended the show with one of my favorite tunes off of Abu Nawas Rhapsody, Les Ondes Orientale, which starts off in 17/8 but goes through multiple beat cycles over the course of the tune. Dhafer said this was the encore and they wouldn’t be coming out for another one. (The band had flown in the day before and was probably exhausted.) That didn’t stop the audience from going wild – with a standing ovation that must’ve lasted 5 minutes or longer, even when the applause coalesced to the “one clap” and not without more than a little stomping, the band didn’t come back out. Which didn’t matter to this listener. This was one of the more memorable concerts I had seen in a year of extraordinary shows.

Here’s one of my favorite youtube videos, the band (with drummer Guiliana) playing the closer, Les Ondes Oreintale. Note that this video has over 1.5 million views – a high number for music like this …

 
 
I was lucky to see the first duo performance ever by Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless, two of the founding members of Oregon last night at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. It’s interesting to note that Oregon is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, which has to be some kind of record. Yet considering the enormous influence this group has had, it’s surprising and sad to realize the short shrift they have received here in the States. They haven’t performed on the West Coast for nearly 10 years, and amazingly, they have never graced the stage at the SF Jazz Center. With Ralph having turned 79 this year, and Paul not that far behind him—it is anyone’s guess whether there will be another Oregon tour or album. All of which is to say that seeing these guys perform together is a very precious and rare thing.

I’ve been a follower of Oregon since I was a teenager. I was lucky enough to see the original lineup featuring Colin Walcott on numerous occasions. I am an unabashed Oregon completist, having tracked down virtually everything they ever recorded (except for the elusive Oregon Trio’s Music for a Midsummer Night’s Dream.) No, it’s not all essential, but it all tells something of the Oregon story, a long strange trip of a very different sort.

The history of that legacy was palpable in the elegant, light-filled room at the Soda Springs Winery last night. The crowd was mix of local concert supporters and Oregon fanatics, those of us in the latter category seeming to immediately gravitate towards one another. One guy had traveled from Sacramento to see the duo; another had come all the way from New Jersey. I recognized amongst the fanatics, music journalist extraordinaire Anil Prasad, who has a wonderful website (and a great book) where one can read interviews with cutting-edge musicians from the jazz, pop, and prog worlds. There is a fairly recent McCandless interview and at least one major Towner interview (www.innerviews.com). We shared a bottle of wine and the stories began to flow. We started to talk about our most memorable concert experiences. I realized that many of mine belonged to those performed at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. In its heyday, amidst its excessively ornate, velvet-Victorian beauty—the building once housed a brothel—the stage hosted some of the greatest jazz acts of the mid to late 20th century. (The Great American has since become a boring venue which hosts mostly mediocre rock and pop acts.) It was there in that intimate hall in 1977 that I saw the original Pat Metheny Group. They played “San Lorenzo” and all the white album stuff, threw out new tunes from the yet-to-be-released American Garage. It was here that I saw Eberhard Weber and Colours play the entire Silent Feet album, with the added bonus of “T on a White Horse” for quartet. (Imagine my surprise to find the entire concert was recorded and is up on YouTube.) And it was here that, around 1976, I saw Gary Burton with the Passengers lineup sharing the bill with none other than Oregon. While Gary and Ralph were playing duos between band sets, my date asked Paul to come over to our table and share a blunt. That was the first time I met Paul. He now lives in Healdsburg, and we are friends.

Last night, Ralph first appeared on stage solo and played a lovely set comprising old and new tunes, mostly off of the latest album. The title track, “My Foolish Heart,” was given a tender and detailed rendition. A new as yet unrecorded tune called “Flow” (Ralph spelled out the title to make sure we understood it wasn’t a woman’s name,) was presented. A spirited performance of “Saunter” followed, along with a lively version of “Dolomiti Dance” and a very sweet rendition of “I’ll Sing to You” (which Ralph forgot the title to for a minute, but, hey, he remembered all the notes).

Paul came on stage, armed with just his soprano sax and bass clarinet, and the two launched into a set of classic and lesser known Oregon tunes, all Towner compositions, including Duende, Anthem and The Prowler. It was a beautiful set, and a deeply emotional experience for me. As I mentioned, I grew up listening to these guys, and here they were, still playing, exploring and taking chances, leaning into the moment some 50 years later. The duo received a warm welcome and undivided attention through the set. After the the classic Oregon closer “Witchi Tai To,” on which Paul played penny whistle, the duo came out and played an encore of Towner’s “Celeste,” a delicate tune written for his daughter. Afterwards, I spoke with Paul about the show. He told me the fact that the duo had never performed before made the music feel very fresh for both artists.

It was hard and a little embarrassing for this fan nerd to do, but I had brought the cover to Ralph’s newest solo disc and was determined to have him sign it. When I approached him, he smiled disarmingly as if he recognized me. I reminded him of a workshop the original lineup of Oregon had given at Sonoma State University back in the late 1970s. I had taken a composition class with Ralph and recounted how he had sat at the piano and asked students to throw out chords for him to play at the piano. He wrote them down and attempted to find melodic common ground, a thread that might bind together these random chords. (It was almost as if the students were messing with him, suggesting the weirdest possible succession of chords.) He remarked, “Hey, that was a cool idea. How did it go? Did I succeed?” “Not really,” I told him and we both broke out in laughter. But it was a fascinating exercise in getting a glimpse at his composition process: Start with a couple good chord voicings, which hopefully suggest a melody on top, and then keep at it until a tune emerges. It was a revelation for me personally: His process was no different than that of the rest of us mere mortals; he just had a better ear and perhaps a lot more determination and patience than we did.

After the performance, Ralph and Paul hung around, and no one seemed to want to leave. Pictures were taken. I got my precious autograph and drove home, thinking of all the musical gifts I had received from these two masters for the last five decades.

2019 17 Feb

Big Ears Festival 2019

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This has to be one of the most exciting and most cutting edge music festivals I have ever come across in the US. It’s a staggering lineup this year, including a significant group of ECM musicicians in celebration of the label’s 50th anniversary. I would definitely have made this show, but we’re all set up to go to the Kongshaug Festivalen in Oslo, our Big Trip for the year. It will torture my significant other with Arild Andreson’s latest trio and other more “out” groups, as well as delight her with Mathias Eick’s Quintet. I will also be a reporting Manafonista on this diverse festival that goes beyond ECM artists exclusively.

But back to the Big Ears Festival this year – a formidable and diverse event worthy of Manafonistas. And of all places, it’s in Knoxville Tennessee. Check out the lineup

 

2019 27 Jan

Fred Soul-La Comedie des Silences

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I stumbled across this 2016 gem through a Tidal search recently, and was surprised to find out about a very talented artist working in the World Jazz field who I’ve never heard of. Fred Soul grew up in France and was drawn to both classical and world music. He is both a pianist and percussionist. He doesn’t seem to have a great many recordings, but even if he only had one, La Comedie des Silences should’ve been enough to put him on the map. It is an unassuming one of a kind little miracle of recording, blending jazz, western classical elements, Brazilian jazz, middle eastern and African influences into a completely coherent artistic statement.

There are a number of talented vocalists representing the above cultures. The music often plays with one cultural reference, then another, sometimes combining the two. One piece is pure Brazilian, then halfway through takes a detour through north Africa. There are side trips to the Middle East as well. Somehow, due to Soul’s exquisite musical tastes and compositional prowess, it all works beautifully.

Vietnamese French guitarist Nguyen Le also guests on a few tracks, bringing a distinctly southeast Asian vibe. This is Le at his most gentle and subtle, employing volume pedal, delays, whammy bar and other simple guitar tricks to transform his instrument into a Danbau, at other times a delicate, floating butterfly of sound.

This is also a very beautiful, attractive recording. It’s one of those all enveloping mixes, where every instrument seems to have it own place, in which the soundstage is so detailed and balanced it almost feels like a 3D aural experience.

The writing is deep and developed – the arrangements, lush piano and cello, layered percussion guitar and gorgeous voices in call and response makes this a sensual and soulful listen. Yet with all that’s going on, the music is surprisingly uncluttered, cushioned in a luscious atmosphere of space.

Les Comedie des Silences is dense in musical nutrients yet immediately accessible – delightful ear candy for body, mind and soul. Highly recommended.

 

 

 
 
 
I didn’t know Aaron Parks had a new release until I accidentally stumbled across it a few days ago on Tidal and was happily surprised to see the title, Little Big, which happens to be the title of one of my very favorite novels. Apparently it’s one of Parks’ favorites as well.

Little Big the novel was an allegory of life, a fantasy about a peculiar family, an exploration of relationships and karma, and a blend of mysticism and magic set in a sort of parallel Macondo deep in the heart of New England. Little Big was a fairy tale for adults, populated with visions of an alternate reality as filled with mysteries, paradoxes, and conflicts between light and dark as the world we inhabit.

Little Big the album (Ropeadope,) takes us on a journey that is at first deceptively simple, but a closer listen reveals deep roots under the soil. It grooves, lopes, and meanders along with its own logic, at times sounding like a Bruce Hornsby tune without words, at other times like an early Jarrett solo piano piece, at various times melding and synthesizing influences as disparate as Phillip Glass and Stephen Foster, Return to Forever and Procol Harum, an indie soundtrack vibe a la Sufjan Stevens, occasional forays into ‘70s fusion, and even hints of EDM. Every so often, Parks ratchets up the energy into a near frenzy of good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll. Yet regardless of the detours it takes, the sound of Little Big is decidedly Parks’, and always remains distinctively American.

Clocking in at about 80 minutes, it’s a long ride. I admit that at first I didn’t quite get the moderate tempos, stacked up one after the other after the burning opening track, but then I let the music wash over me and began to settle in for the trip.

Parks is a sure-footed conjurer of unique sonic textures. He needs far less notes than most to evoke these tonal hanging worlds, and the band seems to fully understand their job: Like Parks’, it isn’t to grandstand or show off their chops. Rather they are all entirely in service to the music and the particular spaces and stories Parks is invoking. Indeed, in a way, this music is entirely focused on storytelling; Parks and his band are all about the telling of the tale.

Some of compositions are long-form, while some consist of not much more than a repeated hypnotic ostinato. Odd time signatures appear as do phrases that require an extra measure or two, but these devices are never self conscious or employed to merely be clever; clearly these are the kinds of things that came unforced and organically, right out of the fingers and the heart. They have that fresh, newfound sense of joy that only seems to flow from genuine, improvised discoveries.

This is a very well recorded album of a simpatico band playing beautiful, accessible music. Go ahead- turn it up; Much of it is meant to be played loud. It’s not intellectual music per se, yet it certainly is intelligent. It is far less a jazz album than Parks’ fine ECM trio album, Find the Way, and more aligned with his first Bluenote release, Invisible Cinema. Parks is mining his roots here, while keeping his head high in the sky.

2018 13 Dez

Netflix: The Good Place

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At first The Good Place seems silly, shallow and slapstick. And yes, the broad humor was off putting at times, but then I quickly became aware of the astute and incredibly smart writing, not to mention the lightening fast delivery of the lines by Kristen Bell, who reminds me of one of those smart 1940s actresses who can deliver her pithy one liners so off the cuff that it feels as if she just made them up on the spot. In fact the whole show has a throwback feel to the era of the kind of screwball comedies that relied on smart, snappy dialogue. The pace is quick, the jokes come one on top of the other. Not everything works and there are a few missteps here and there, especially early on. But as the show finds its footing, the edgy writing consistently redeems itself.

The cast is strong. Two of the main members have never acted professionally, yet deliver their lines like seasoned professional comic actors. Ted Danson is a standout as well. This is a plum role for Danson and he’s obviously having a ball. His depiction of the architect of the world the humans inhabit is alternately absurd, endearing, hysterically funny and at times, genuinely touching.

Yet at the same time as being immensely entertaining, the Good Place has a deeper ulterior motive: it wants to combine this ridiculous depiction of the afterlife with a somewhat surprisingly serious consideration of moral philosophy. On top of that, the characters each represent various wounded aspects of the human psyche, but they are not mere two dimensional symbols: as the show develops, the individual characters grow in substance and the show succeeds in winning the viewer over to the point of developing a genuine affection for the 5 main characters.

The Good Place walks the edge of a sword: too many philosophical ruminations and it could become dull – too much silliness and it could easily devolve into a mindless, corny sitcom. But for the most part it hits its target dead on, time and again.

Perhaps best of all, on top of the surreal world building going on, the writers aren’t afraid to “blow the show up.” There are surprises and reveals along the way that keep it fresh and keep the audience guessing. To those who find it sophomoric, I would urge them to hang in and see where this show takes you. I promise you, it’s a wild ride, but a ride with a higher purpose than one might expect at first watch.

In such a dark age as this, it’s refreshing to find a comedy that isn’t afraid to flirt with moral philosophy while making us giggle. We binged watched it right through the end of Season 2.

Aaron Parks – Little Big

Moksha – Ivo Neame

Bay of Rainbows – Jacob Bro

Enamon – Wayne Shorter

Adam Holzman-Truth Decay

       

David Crosby-Here If You Listen

John Surman – Invisible Threads

Where the River Goes – Wolfgang Muthspiel

The Height of the Reeds – Arve Henricksen

Esperanza Spalding – 12 Little Spells

ECV- Sticks and Stones

Romaria- Andy Sheppard 

An Ancient Observer/for Gyumbri-(2 albums) Tigran Hamyasan 

Helsinki Songs – Trygve Seim 

Contra La Indecision – Bobo Stenson 

Perfectly Unhappy – Espen Ericksen 

The Dream Thief – Shai Maestro

Ravensburg- Mathias Eick

Absence – Kristjan Randalu 

Frisell – Music Is

Gogo Penguin- A Humdrum Star

Ambrose Akinimusire – Origami Harvest

Keith Jarrett – La Fenice

Kim Kashkashian – Bach: 6 suites for Viola Solo

 

 

Surround Mixes/reissues:

Beatles – The White Album (5.1 Blu-ray)

Both Directions at Once – John Coltrane – the Lost Album

Weather Report – Talespinnin’ (2018 Dutton Vocalion SACD -quad- finally!)

 

 

 
 
 

Jon Balke’s latest Batagraf album is a bit different from others I’ve heard from this loose knit musical collective, conceived some 15 years ago. The albums have always featured world music influences with an emphasis on percussion, and in that regard this one is no different, but whereas the ECM albums were looser compositionally and more texture oriented, this Jazzland recording focuses on tighter, shorter compositions, and even has a few songs with lyrics.

Jon Balke, Helge Andreas Norbakken and Snorre Bjerck are still the core members, but they have added a few remarkable guests here, which include Mathias Eick on trumpet and Trygve Seim on sax. 

The album is a very mixed bag. The opening track, Tanuka, reminded me of Weather Report, with its folky African roots, that is, if Eberhard Weber helped write it. There’s another song that is totally homage to Bobby McFerrin’s work, particularly Medicine Man. Then there are the gauzy vocals of Emilie Stoesen Christensen, Ingeborg Marie Mohn, and Julia Witek, who together with Balke’s chameleon-like writing, obliquely bring to mind tracks off of Eberhard Weber’s classic Fluid Rustle. On the other hand, there’s the surprisingly quirky indie vibe of “A Roof, a Floor”, that sweetly yet insistently implores a friend/partner to “Make some room for me, make some space so I can go to sleep. Don’t need much, just a place where I can dream.”  From the Nordic chorale-like creaminess of  the title track to the wild abandonment of Gleamer, there’s a broad palette of moods to explore.

But ultimately, besides the wonderfully fresh and playful writing, it’s the ambience and bold mix that are the real stars here. The percussion is daringly placed very upfront, and the panning is often quite extreme, making for a very wide stereo image, making it a lot of fun to listen to on headphones.

This is an album that intrigues and seduces- it’s total ear candy. The only downside is that at 38 minutes, it leaves you wanting more. So, in light of that, I just spin it again. It grows on you-quietly addicting stuff.

 

Jon Balke (percussion and keyboards)

Helge Andreas Norbakken and Snorre Bjerck (percussion)

Emilie Stoesen Christensen, Ingeborg Marie Mohn, and Julia Witek (voices)

Mathias Eick (trumpet)

Trygve Seim (saxophones).

 

 

 
 
 

Arve Henriksen’s new release, The Height of the Reeds is a soundtrack for the mind and heart, cinematic in scope and like much of his work, evocative of dramatic natural landscapes, although the mental images of frozen tundras spreading out to the horizon, or endless dunes fading away into infinity, seem to originate in another dimension.

I took the journey while exploring the new Jenner Headlands on the Sonoma Coast coast. Jenner, a small, charming village with a population of 135, sits right on the mouth of the Russian River, and is one of the most beautiful spots on the California Coast. Stopping off for a coffee at the local Cafe Aquatica, I sat and watched for seals while I fueled up on the poor man’s Prozac, then made my way north to the just opened 6300 acre preserve. Slipping on my trusty Audeze isine 20s and chewing on a microdose of a gummy infused with THC, (oh the joys of legalized cannabis,) I went up the Sea to Sky trail, which soars high above the coast.  With its dramatic rocks and ocean views, it turned out to be the perfect place to experience this music. 

The Heights of the Reeds is a work of great mystery. Conceived around the idea of combining the recordings of found sounds on a bridge with improvisation and composed orchestral passages, the project is open and evocative, which ultimately transcends a specific locale and time.  At times, its brooding aural edifices bring to mind the score for a yet to made sci fi film. With Henriksen‘s plangent trumpet, Eivind Aarset’s atmospheric guitar, Jan Bang’s deep sound design and Jez Riley French’s eerie field recordings (which have been known to include the crackling recorded sounds of  electronic devices,) the listener is immersed in a sonic landscape that is at times ecstatic, transcendent even – at other times so inhuman and otherworldly as to feel bleak, dangerous and yes, vaguely threatening – programmatic music from an alien world. 

As on other recordings, most notably A Place of Worship,  live symphonic orchestra is integrated into the music to create expansive, neoclassical textures. Still at other times there are simple bass clarinet-like drones or French horn sections mixed with foreboding rumbling that made me look around for a hidden nemesis. Then suddenly, out of the dark, malignant mist emerges a triumphant choir of angels – perhaps all will be well after all – perhaps better than well – we are once again swept up in the quiet ecstasy of Communion with the Holy (Or was that the cannabis kicking in?) Then out of a fog of angels, that signature fragile solo Henriksen choirboy voice enters, now with the full orchestra accenting the spaces between phrases. But what are those guttural, gurgling, earthy sounds creeping into my consciousness? Perhaps even the ecstatic can be a dangerous place. Unexpectedly, it morphs into exquisitely ambient music for Debussy lovers, a boys choir rocking back and forth over a pedal point. But it only lasts for a moment, and once again, we’re back in the land of abstract guitars, ambiguous harmonies and always, space and silence. 

I have been exploring Henriksen’s work for some time now, and this new album looks to become one my very favorites. He keeps on expanding his musical palette, refining and growing. On this album it all comes together in a coherent whole. The Height of the Reeds is a mature work in a logical artistic progression of one of the finest artists in a genre which is hard to define. Is it ambient, ambient jazz, electronica, neoclassical? It is all of the above and none of them. Henriksen incorporates elements of all of these to build gossamer castles of ice, sand and clouds that slowly appear and then melt away before your ears.  

 

 

 
 
 

The new Trygve Seim album, Songs from Helsinki, is an exquisite gem and a standout in what has been a banner year for the ECM label.

While listening to this album, comprised entirely of ballads,  Seim’s smoky tone almost reminded me of a European Stan Getz. However, Seim possesses a tonal range that gives him the ability to add a lot more colors, sounding at times like a Bulgarian duduk, at other times deploying passionate screeches and squeals in the upper registers, (although except for the last tune, he reins in his wilder musical instincts in this predominantly restrained session.)

Seim’s sense of melody is virtually unerring in both his writing and his soloing. Understated, sensitive, even when skirting the edges of unabashed sentimentality – a lesser player might regress to the saccharine – somehow Seim has an unflagging intuitive discipline that avoids the obvious cliches. 

Since the very beginning as a leader, Seim has been a risk taking artist who approaches every project with a beginner’s mind, constantly reinventing himself, coming up with unique concepts and approaches for each new recording. Thus far, I haven’t heard an album from him as traditional sounding as this one is, in terms of a straight ahead quartet setting, and it succeeds brilliantly.

One more thing: After listening to this recording several times, I’m  utterly convinced that Kristjan Randalu is one of the best “new” pianists around (I’ve had his solo piano album for several years, so he’s not really new to me, but new to the world stage perhaps.) I love his brilliant first ECM record, Absence, as well as his amazing duo album Equilibrium with Ben Monder on guitar. His playing here is the perfect embodiment of support and taste in the role of sideman. His phrasing reminds me a bit of Jarrett at times, but make no mistake, he’s definitely his own man. I would be hard pressed to name a jazz pianist today with the degree of classical technique he possesses, and he puts his prodigious technical skills to good use – always in the service of the music. Randalu’s touch is for this listener at least, absolute perfection, like a mixture of butter and honey. His solos here are worthy of study – an improvisational touchstone, a how to manual for playing through changes in a contemporary European jazz setting.

In many ways, this is the Seim album I’ve been waiting for. I listened to it 3x yesterday, something I almost never do. Like a snifter of good cognac, it goes down easily, smooth yet complex. Pure listening pleasure, to be savored again and again.

 


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