Label: ECM Records, 2019
Personnel - Uli Kempendorff: tenor saxophone; Julia Hülsmann: piano; Marc Muellbauer: acoustic bass; Heinrich Köbberling: drums.
German pianist Julia Hülsmann releases her third quartet album on the ECM label with a significant alteration in the ensemble’s lineup. Saxophonist Uli Kempendorff replaces trumpeter Tom Arthurs, leaving a strong impression through consistent thematic developments uttered with pacifying timbres and noir escapes, or getting the shape of fluid phrases that ramp up the flux of emotions. Remaining undivided for 17 years, the rhythm includes bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling.
The 13-track album includes five compositions by Hülsmann and two disparate versions of David Bowie’s 1985 hit “This is Not America”. Kempendorff, Muellbauer and Köbberlingand contribute two compositions each to an album that will put the pianist on the map again.
The set opens with "The Art of Failing", a cautious sax/piano duet and one of the examples where the musical empathy between the two musicians in question is underlined. They embark on parallel lines on Muellbauer’s “Le Mistral”, a strong effort smoothly introduced by solo piano before segueing into a dissimulated odd pulse that results from the combination of a bass groove and brushed drums. Hülsmann's radiating comping is pretty effective during Kempendorff’s intense statement.
The spacey rendition of Bowie’s “This is Not America” is still permeated with some tension with bass and saxophone sharing responsibilities in the melodic articulation of the theme. The shorter solo piano version of this same tune closes out the album with more desolation than aspiration.
Other two pieces that achieve a wider emotional spectrum are Kempendorff’s “Einschub”, a soaring anthem brimming with rich rhythmic connectivity, and the bandleader’s “No Game”, where the band delves into post-bop sophistication with both explorative and swinging postures. The rich harmonic progression assists in bringing textural freshness without detaching from tradition, in the sense that the group delivers something new yet familiar. Like the latter tune, “Weit Weg” and “Streiflich” are expansions of originally solo piano pieces. Yet, they differ drastically in the mood. While the former is imbued in an introspective stillness, the latter advances assertively with wide steps and some classical cultivation, benefitting from gorgeous saxophone hooks.
Hülsmann composed the title track, “Not Far From Here”, specifically for this quartet and the melody stands out on top of an elegant rhythm that carries a breezy bossa vibe. In the track’s denouement, Kempendorff focuses on timbre at the same time that explores extended techniques.
These four egoless artists are here for the music and to make it sound cohesive as a whole rather than take individual praise for their actions. It’s great to realize that from one track to another, the group shifts mood without losing any of its musical identity.
02 - Le Mistral ► 07 - No Game ► 08 - Einschub