Trygve Seim - Helsinki Songs

Label: ECM Records, 2018

Personnel - Trygve Seim: tenor and soprano saxophones; Kristjan Randalu: piano; Mats Eilertsen: double bass; Markku Ounaskari: drums.

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Norwegian reed player Trygve Seim puts a new quartet together with Kristian Randalu on piano, Mats Eilertsen on bass, and Markku Ounaskari on drums.  Most of the material on Helsinki Songs, his eighth album as a leader/co-leader for the ECM label, was written in the capital of Finland, conveying a lyrical sentiment that gravitates toward the contemplative. Throughout the 11 originals, autumnal and wintry tones are combined in gracious perfection.
 
The crystalline opener, “Sol’s Song”, emulates ravishing landscapes that take over our imagination thanks to the efficacious integration of relaxed melodies, simple pop-derived harmony, and a velvety rhythm, in a replication of Jan Garbarek’s space/time aesthetic.

Sweetly waltzing at its core, “Helsinki Song” is another idyllic trip to a forlorn, untouched piece of nature with no peaks nor valleys. Eilertsen never abandons completely the rhythmic figure of his bass ostinato, working together with the disciplined harmonic progressions of the piano to sustain the lethargic unison phrasing by Seim and Randalu. The Estonian pianist was emotionally catchy in his inventive improvisation.

Unfolding like Eastern laments, “New Beginning” and “Sorrow March” show deep spiritual intention. The former develops from a static course of action, created by low-toned pedal suspensions and effective mallet drumming technique, to an unclouded ballad; the latter, as the name suggests, is a melancholic meditation sparked off by Ounaskari’s amiable snare gnarls and cymbal colors. In turn, the pastoral reverie in “Katya’s Dream” took inspiration from Stravinsky.

You won’t find the quartet only creating feathery moments of pure reflection like on “Ciaconna Per Embrik” and “Birthday Song (For Mats Eilertsen)” - nostalgically penned for the bassist’s 40th anniversary, but also ensuring bolder adventures while stretching musical boundaries like on “Randalusian Folk Song”, a piece driven by beautiful drum attacks and depth of groove, and the surprising “Yes Please Both”, a short Ornette-inspired composition that boasts a malleable foundation through expressively plucked bass statements and responsive drumming. A glorious ascendant movement from Seim produces a great point of entrance while Randalu supplements through audacious swirls that burn with melodic engagement.

Stimulating in its quietness and hauntingly poignant in its textures, Helsinki Songs favors slow-drag tempos and embraces a memorably dusky lyricism, exposing an attractive anti-climax nature. It’s an endearing work by Trygve Seim, who definitely deserves wider attention.

       Grade  B+

       Grade B+

Favorite Tracks: 
03 - New Beginning ► 06 - Sorrow March ► 08 - Randalusian Folk Song


Tord Gustavsen Trio - The Other Side

Label: ECM Records, 2018

Personnel - Tord Gustavsen: piano; Sigurd Hole: acoustic bass; Jarle Vespestad: drums.

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Generating deeply moving sounds through a close interplay, the Tord Gustavsen Trio, inactive since 2007, takes us to The Other Side with staggering new originals and admirable renditions of traditional songs and classical pieces, including three by J.S. Bach. The Norwegian pianist and composer plays alongside his longtime drummer Jarle Vespestad and the new bassist Sigurd Hole, two excellent accompanists who provide him with all the rhythmic sustenance and enchanting texture he needs to make this one of the most gratifying releases of his career.

The opening title, “The Tunnel”, shows Gustavsen and his partners plunging into tranquil, limpid waters that reflect their ability to create beautiful, intimate moods with a ample musical spaciousness. The graceful pianism stresses the poignant primacy of the melody while the autonomous pulse emphasizes it even more.

The piece that follows, “Kirken, Den Er Et Gammelt Hus”, was penned by the 19th-century Norwegian composer Ludvig Mathias Lindeman and comes to life through a radiant bass intro. It maintains a haunting sophistication in sound as the folk intonations increase. The melodies, true poetic declamations, have a remarkably soothing effect, soaring on top of an undeviating pulse that never ceases to underline diligence, unity, and generosity.

If “Re-Melt” is a sensitive 3/4 composition with a few occasional Jarrett-esque rhythmic accents, then, I would call “Duality”, a pure, free, and minimalist improvised meditation where scattered tom-tom initiatives, gliding bow work, and profound melodic inspirations carve out abundant room for us to picture immeasurable, resplendent landscapes.

The influence of classical music is unconcealed on tunes like the traditional “Ingen Vinner Frem Til Den Evige R”, a parade of deep-toned textures that make up a mournful love song; “Taste and See”, which I can imagine being sung by Sting with the same expressionism of “My One and Only Love”; and the soft-as-a-whisper “Jesu Meine Freude - Jesus, Det En”, where the interpretation of a chorale by Bach splices with a traditional song, falling in between the liturgical and the nocturnal. 

The downbeat yet fluent “O Traurigkeit” is another Bach’s hymn, which, despite taciturn in tone, is rich in emotion and solid in texture. It’s a good example on how the trio puts delicate fragility and tensile creativity in the same context.

Returning to a slow triple meter, they dig the sedate title track with the habitual curvy lines that characterize Gustavsen’s music, but it is on the introspective “Curves” that they get closer to perfection. This is a magnificent illustration of an extramundane world filled with bliss, tenderness, and sensitivity.

There are no extravagances but plenty of utterly beautiful moments that take you to another dimension. The record is soulful and inspired, and Gustavsen and his bandmates are all refined musical taste, originality, and perception.

        Grade  A

        Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 - The Tunnel ► 02 - Kirken, Den Er Et Gammelt Hus ► 12 – Curves


Bobo Stenson Trio - Contra La Indecision

Label: ECM, 2018

Lineup – Bobo Stenson: piano; Anders Jormin: acoustic bass; Jon Fält: drums.

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Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson’s musical aesthetics is all elegance and graciousness. He earned a sterling reputation while accompanying the brilliant saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Jan Garbarek, as well as trumpeter Tomasz Stanko.

As a leader, Stenson gained notoriety with his classic piano trio, which went through several changes along the way. Bassist Anders Jormin replaced Arild Andersen in 1993, right after the trio’s debut, and since 2008, Jon Fält earned the drummer’s chair, replacing Paul Motian, who had stopped by in 2005, also replacing the original member Jon Christensen.
 
Following a hiatus of six years, Stenson and his associates re-emerge with Contra La Indecision, another poetic work comprising ravishing originals (one by the bandleader, five by Jormin, and one by the collective) and world-class interpretations of compositions by Erik Satie, Bela Bartok, Silvio Rodriguez, and Frederic Mompou.

Just like it happened on Cantando (ECM, 2008), they open the album with a tune by the Cuban singer/songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, “Cancion Contra La Indecision”, which battles against the indecision with an enviable resoluteness of soft pianistic touch and tuneful melody throughout.

Jormin's tunes pervade a modernistic vagrancy that is quite absorbing - “Doubt Thou The Stars” starts delicately with Fält’s fully-integrated drumming, but turns into an awe-inspiring sort of dance played in six, revealing much of the trio’s spirit; “Oktoberhavet” is a richly harmonized song advancing at a simple triple tempo; “Stilla” boasts a magnanimous bass groove that, feeling like a rock riff, is grist to the mill for Stenson’s deft interventions; and “Three Shades of a House” turns to its advantage the independence of the three instrumentalists to compose a picturesque musical setting containing bright piano notes, occasional bass harmonics and fainted arco cries, metallic clanks and scratches, and plenty of conversational cymbal flair.
 
Whereas Stenson’s sole composition, “Alice”, was penned with relatively innocuous abstraction, featuring crying bowed bass and resolute brushwork, “Kalimba Impressions” is a short collective improvisation with a nice percussive flow.

Contrasting elements within a body of work can be extremely valuable and Stenson opted to deliver the Slovak folk song “Wedding Song From Poniky” by Bartok with an introductory rubato feel, subsequently throwing in some dramatic jolts on the lower register to shake the free-floating romanticism and dreamy classical intonations of the tune.

They render Satie’s “Élégie” with a blossoming vernal atmosphere and Mompou’s “Cancion Y Danza VI”, taken from Cançons I Danses collection, with intimate lyricism and ultimately groovy propulsion set off by Jormin.

Avoiding standards in his repertoire, Stenson displays the highly developed language that has been characterizing his cultivated playing throughout all these years. He also evinces a distinctive complicity with his trio mates, which obviously has positive repercussions in their sound. And how they seemed to have fun riding these sonic waves!

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks: 
02 - Doubt Thou The Stars ► 06 - Cancion Y Danza VI ► 10 - Stilla


John Abercrombie Quartet - Up and Coming

John Abercrombie: guitar; Marc Copland: piano; Drew Gress: bass; Joey Baron: drums.

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It's always pleasurable listening to John Abercrombie for the simple fact that he has this strange approach to songs, which he delivers with an appealing sound while avoiding standardized lines.

Abercrombie was responsible for unforgettable albums, true masterpieces that should be mandatory for any jazz lover. As a leader, I can point the progressive Timeless and Gateway as quintessence choices, but also Open Land, Class Trip, and Abercrombie/Johnson/Erskine as wonderful listenings. As a sideman, he was highly in demand for almost half-century, endorsing his unique musical impressions to musicians like Charles Lloyd, Enrico Rava, Kenny Wheeler, and John Surman.

Lately, he has been joined by a categorical quartet that comprises the pianist Marc Copland, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron, and three years ago, they recorded 39 Steps on ECM. Besides originals (also with Copland's contribution), the guitarist picked “My Melancholy Baby”, a jazz standard to give it a bit more color. 
Now, on the new Up and Coming, released on the same label, the story repeats itself. This time it was Miles Davis’ “Nardis”, the outside song, which shines as one of the recording’s highlights. Its mood is perfect for the style of the guitarist who allows Baron to untie himself and embark on a temperate dialogue with Gress.

The opening tune may be called “Joy”, but it rather sticks to a wintry melancholy. This introspective mood appears again in Copland’s “Tears”, a more fitting title for Abercrombie's intimate confessions, here well sustained by the pianist’s achingly emotional chords. This tune is arranged with exactly the same structure of “Sunday School”, which despite brought by Copland’s ad-lib intro, obeys to the sequence theme-solos(guitar/bass/piano)-theme. 

Flipside” feels quite familiar, affiliating Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and Shorter’s “Yes or No” in its melody.
A tune we don’t easily forget is “Silver Circle”. Composed by Copland, this polished modal exercise, earnestly marked by Baron’s hi-hat, is prone to wider exploration and is where Abercrombie cooks his best solo.

Built in a smooth crescendo, Up and Coming exceeded my expectations, surpassing 39 Steps. I’m glad to realize that one of my favorite post-bop guitarists is still around, in good shape, and promises to come back soon with more. 

         Grade  A-

         Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 – Flipside ► 06 – Silver Circle ► 07 – Nardis


Jakob Bro - Streams

Jakob Bro: guitar; Thomas Morgan: double bass; Joey Baron: drums.

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Jakob Bro is a Danish jazz guitarist with a highly identifiable sound and deep intimacy inherent to his poetic approach and pallid textures. Streams, his second album on ECM, is a more-than-competent follow-up to Gefion, released one year ago on the same label.
In this transcendent body of work, Bro kept the outstanding bassist Thomas Morgan on his side, giving the drummer’s chair to Joey Baron, who replaced Jon Christensen.

Opal” starts with a comprehensive circumspection. The trio embarks on a touching quietude that envelops us profoundly, instigating us to fly, open our hearts and souls, and gaze the infinite light beams that can traverse the scattered clouds up in the sky.
Heroines” assumes a song format, shinning with Bro’s blissful melodies, Morgan’s dedicated bass notes, and Baron’s frequent gentile ruffs. It conveys a glowing harmony that I refuse to let go, even when the following track arrives.

The relentlessly atmospheric “PM Dream”, dedicated to Paul Motian, expands horizons after developing delicate layers of guitar-synth that fall on top of bass free moves and pertinent percussion. Baron almost feels geometric in its strokes, eagerly trying to give the last retouches on a flawless canvas.
Cerebrally designed, “Full Moon Europa”, precedes the surprisingly groovy “Shell Pink”, which gracefully flows amidst the floating sounds created by Bro’s guitar fingerings. The rhythm section boasts an enviable tightness, fundamental to attain this level of quality.
The indelible classical undertones of “Heroines” echoes again, this time in an enchanting solo version.

Jakob Bro relies heavily on his peers to create an elegant album, free of individual exhibitionism, which is an assured itinerary for his compositional concepts. The collective does miracles as it distinctively shapes idle, hypnotizing, nocturnal, and intellectual streams of pacific nature.

          Grade  A

          Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 – Opal ► 02 – Heroines ► 05 – Shell Pink