Kit Downes, organ and composer; Tom Challenger, tenor saxophone
Prior to this recording, Kit Downes was primarily known as a pianist in jazz settings, notably leading his own trio and quintet. Obsidian is his debut CD as a leader for ECM Records; he previously appeared on the label as part of the Time is a Blind Guide release in 2015. However, Downes has a substantial background as an organist as well. The program on this recording consists primarily of his own works for organ, but there is also a noteworthy folk arrangement and engaging duet with tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger.
The organs employed on Obsidian are all in England, two in Suffolk at the Snape Church of John the Baptist and Bromeswell St Edmund Church, and Union Chapel Church in Islington, London. Instruments from different eras and in very different spaces, they inspire Downes to explore a host of imaginative timbres and approaches. Over an undulating ostinato, skittering solo passages impart a buoyant character to the album opener “Kings.” An evocative arrangement of the folk song “Black is the Colour” pits piccolo piping against ancient sounding harmonies in the flutes and bagpipe-flavored mixtures. “Rings of Saturn” is perhaps the most unorthodox of Downes’s pieces, filled with altissimo sustained notes and rife with airblown glissandos, an effect that is not found in conventional organ repertoire. The piece is well-titled, as it has an otherworldly ambience. Pitch bends populate “The Bone Gambler” as well, while vibrato and frolicsome filigrees animate “Flying Foxes.” “Seeing Things” is a joyous effusion of burbling arpeggios and the more usual fingered glissandos, demonstrating an almost bebop sensibility. Suitably titled, on “The Last Leviathan” Downes brings to bear considerable sonic power – with hints of whale song in some of the textures – and fluent musical grandeur.
Although some of the release seems inimitable, closely linked to Downes’s improvisatory and textural explorations, other pieces cry out for transcription; one could see other organists giving them a wider currency. “Modern Gods” is an exercise in modally tinged dissonant counterpoint, while “Ruth’s Song for the Sea” and the folk-inflected “The Gift” possess the stately quality of preludes.
The duet with Challenger is a tour de force, in which each adroitly anticipates and responds to the other’s gestures and even notes, as the fantastic simultaneities that occur at structural points in the piece attest. Once again, there is a supple jazz influence at work. While Downes provides room for Challenger’s solos, he also challenges him with formidable passages of his own. Obsidian contains much textural subtlety and fleet-footed music, but it is also gratifying to hear Downes and Challenger celebrating the power of their respective instruments. Heartily recommended.
Ayumi Tanaka, piano; Håkon Aase: violin; Lucy Railton, violoncello; Ole Morten Vågan, double bass; Thomas Strønen: drums, percussion
Composer/percussionist Thomas Strønen’s Time is a Blind Guide has shifted membership since its debut recording. Distilled to a quintet line-up on Lucus, its latest outing for the ECM label, it retains a cohesive way of interacting that highlights a fluent interplay of textures. The Mediterranean-inflected album opener “La Bella,” the sole composition on which Strønen shares credit with Aase and Vågan, is a case in point. Fills from Strønen’s kit activate repeated notes in the strings and piano in a subtle build that gradually includes ever widening whorls of melodic snippets.
Often Strønen wisely deploys the quintet as an interlocking set of two trios – string trio and jazz piano trio. This is done quite effectively on “Wednesday;” the jazz side of the ensemble plays in a smoky swinging groove while Aase and Railton perform a gentle rainstorm of pizzicatos. Vågan is an interloper, moving from walking lines to sultry arco playing. On the title track, also undergirded by a propulsive string ostinato, Tanaka supplies limpid impressionist cascades. The strings build up successive layers, creating countermelodies that arc around the piano and accentuate the undergirding material of the rhythm section. The double trio idea also prevails in the standout composition “Truth Grows Gradually,” in which the players revel in a complex yet catchy groove.
Elsewhere, the ensemble activities vary. On “Baka,” the percussionist crosses over into the world of orchestral instruments, bringing out regular bass drum punctuations. “Friday” juxtaposes pizzicato solos with high string harmonics in a polyrhythmic duet enlivened by its textural contrasts. After an extended double bass introduction, “Tension” presents folk-tinged violin melodies and attenuated post-bop piano lines against a variety of jazz kit punctuations by Strønen. Gradually, Tanaka fills out the texture with rapid fire repeated notes against an expansive collection of string glissandos and harmonic minor pirouettes. The Eastern-tinged “Release” leads with a sweeping piano melody that alternates with oscillating strings and thrumming low register pedals. Oddly enough, “Release” is placed earlier on the disc than “Tension,” which would seem to be a corresponding antecedent. That said, the sequencing of these compositions flows organically with ample variety along the way. Whether performing again as a larger group or in the quintet that appears on Lucus, one hopes that Time is a Blind Guide are just getting started.
The Danish String Quartet is best known for their insightful interpretations of classical and contemporary repertoire. For instance, a 2016 CD for ECM Records presented early works by Ades, Norgard, and Abrahamsen to widespread acclaim. However, back in 2014, the quartet had a best seller on Da Capo, Wood Works, that consisted of arrangements by its members of Scandinavian folk tunes. In 2017 they released Last Leaf, another album of these arrangements and original compositions for ECM.
Last Leaf is in many ways even more successful than Wood Works. The arrangements by the Danish String Quartet’s various members are more sure-footed and varied in ensemble deployments. ECM’s sonics are, as usual, top notch, and the space chosen for the recording, a Danish museum, provides exemplary chamber acoustics. In addition, the group has combined classical and folk dances in adroit ways in several places. One of the most fetching and memorable of these is “Nadja’s Waltz” by cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin. Another is “Shine No More,” a reel-like tune by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. “Polska from Dorotea,” an arrangement by the full quartet is a wonderful blend of contrapuntal writing and boisterous dance music. Sumptuous sonorities populate the ballad-like “Now Found is the Forest of Roses,” a poignant album closer.
Often, string quartets rely on their creativity to provide impetus for interpretation. It is gratifying hear a group that is as interested in the acts of creating arrangements and compositions as it is in providing stalwart renditions of preexisting music. Recommended.
Sort of a hybrid in sound between harpsichord and fortepiano, the tangent piano had its heyday in the second half of the Eighteenth century; they are relatively few of them left in existence. While they are no match for the volume and intensity possible with a fortepiano or modern piano, the tangent piano often had a number of different devices with which to create dynamic nuance. Alexei Lubimov decided for his latest ECM recording to employ a modern replica of a tangent piano built by Belgian craftsman Chris Maene. He felt that it had the ideal variety of shadings and tone colors with which to interpret the work of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a composer whose works Lubimov has in recent years championed.
C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788), one of J.S. Bach’s sons, was one of the most famous composers of the latter half of the Eighteenth century. Eclipsed by his father’s revival in the Nineteenth century, C.P.E. Bach is currently experiencing something of a revival of his own. A recent issue of Gramophone was devoted to his music. The piano concertos and solo piano works are being programmed again with greater frequency (dare one hope that his vocal and chamber music are next?). With Lubimov’s Tangere, listeners are afforded the double delight of hearing a fine cross section of the composer’s work played on a beguiling and multifaceted instrument.
C.P.E. composed keyboard music in a plethora of styles and idioms. His most formidable pieces, two Fantasies in D#-minor and C-minor respectively, bookend the collection, replete with fluid tempo changes and florid runs. There are also a pair of sonatas, in three-movement versions of the form: fast-slow-fast, omitting the dance movement. The D-minor has a brilliant first movement that propels that the work forward, while the G major sonata relies on a three-chord pattern that Lubimov shapes with considerable delicacy. Pieces for left and right hand alone likewise are treated with sensitivity. Two rondos supply tunes of an angularity and variety that sometimes approaches C.P.E.’s father’s keyboard works. The disc is capped off by a number of shorter compositions, some less than half a minute long, titled Fantasies. One could see these wonderful miniatures serving as introductions to lengthier excursions or prompts for improvisation (Czerny’s book on improvisation is a commendable introduction to this method of learning impromptu playing).
Throughout, Lubimov makes the tangent piano the star, employing all of its various methods of expression to stirring effect. As such, it is one of my “Best Recordings of 2017” in the “solo instrument” category. One hopes that there will be additional outings in which he shares his art with us on this rare and fascinating instrument.
Steve Lehman, Alto Saxophone; Graham Haynes, Cornet, Flugelhorn, Electronics; Stephen Crump, Double Bass; Tyshawn Sorey, Drums; Vijay Iyer, Piano, Electric Piano; Mark Shim, Tenor Saxophone
After successful outings for ECM in groupings ranging from duets (with Wadada Leo Smith) to a string quartet plus piano/electronics quintet, Vijay Iyer returns for his fifth recording for the label with a jazz sextet date, Far From Over. This time out, he dispenses with synthetic manipulations in favor of an old school resource: an electric piano. This plus concert grand are prominently featured, but by no means dominate the proceedings. Iyer affords his collaborators considerable latitude. Given the level of artists with whom he is partnering, this is a wise choice indeed.
Graham Haynes, in particular, is new to me and makes a forceful impression. His clarion parts on unison tutti, derby calls on the title track, and crackling electronics on “End of the Tunnel” impress both melodically and texturally. Altoist Steven Lehman supplies a formidably funky solo on album opener “Poles.” Recent MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Tyshawn Sorey gives a forceful master class in polyrhythmic drumming on the title track (and elsewhere). He and bassist Stephen Crump make an admirable rhythm section duo, in frequent dialogue yet also able to sustain simultaneous alternative pathways. The sextet may be the only jazz ensemble with two MacArthur grant holders – Iyer was previously awarded one as well. “Down to the Wire” features energetic soloing both from the pianist and tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, whose round tone and extensive range are put to good use.
The group as a whole tackles unison sections with enviably well-coordinated yet energetic performances. Far From Over is one of the most impressive jazz outings this year, from the standpoint of solos, collective offerings, and engaging compositions. Recommended.
Now, and Then
Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
Pablo Márquez, guitar
November 17 sees the release of Now, and Then, an ECM recording of transcriptions by composers Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio. In addition to his creative pursuits and new music advocacy, Maderna (1920-1973) was in demand as a conductor of classical repertoire. Rather than performing the instrumental music of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras with its original, reduced, forces, he made transcriptions of figures such as Frescobaldi, Legrenzi, Gabrieli, Viadana, and Wassenaer (all included on this CD) for the modern orchestra. They are successful arrangements, spotlighting the sonorous brass choirs that epitomize the antiphonal music of this era while deftly incorporating idiomatic passages for the other sections of the orchestra.Russell Davies leads sumptuous yet finely detailed performances of these pieces.
Berio (1925-2003) recreated his Sequenza XI for solo guitar as the ensemble work Chemins V (1992). It is a delirious, sensuous trope on the original, allowing the guitarist – in this case the estimable Pablo Márquez – plenty of virtuosic solo work, while responding to it with imaginative orchestral textures. Some of these serve to augment the percussive quality of the guitar, while others lengthen and sustain the pitch material, creating a haloing effect. Partway through, a thunderous climax in the percussion precedes the longest of the solo cadenzas, underscoring that this is no mere arrangement but a profound reshaping of the original.
In the United States, Russell Davies may be best known for his championing of minimalists. However, like Maderna, his catalog and duties have been widespread both in terms of repertoire and geography. Witnessing him, years ago, tackle formidably complex premieres with American Composers Orchestra, it is gratifying to hear him return to similarly intricate fare in the Berio. Now, and Then is an imaginative and finely wrought recording: recommended.
The extraordinary jazz guitarist John Abercrombie, has died at the age of 72. A player equally comfortable in acoustic and electric settings and in the roles of leader and accompanist, Abercrombie played in a variety of styles, encompassing free jazz, fusion, and standards. He was a consummately versatile, tasteful, and imaginative musician.
A large body of his work was recorded, from 1974, by ECM Records. His last release, Up and Coming, playing in his regular quartet with Marc Copland, Joey Baron, Drew Gress, was released earlier this year by the label. Other prominent collaborations include his Gateway trio recordings with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, duo recordings with fellow guitarist Ralph Towner, and his appearance on Charles Lloyd’s recording “The Water is Wide.”