Stephan Micus - White Night

Label: ECM Records, 2019

Personnel - Stephan Micus: kalimba, fourteen-string guitar, steel string guitar, duduk, bass duduk, Tibetan cymbals, sinding, dondon, nay, Indian cane whistles, vocals.

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Stephan Micus is a key reference in the world music scene. His thematic albums allow us to discover new places and sounds and White Night, the 23rd solo work for ECM, takes us into another journey full of musical idiosyncrasies. Operating several quirky instruments with deep focus, Micus starts this excursion in the East with the primitive, ancient, and eternal contemplation “The Eastern Gate”, which proposes atonality and deep hollow textures, and ends in the West with the well-delineated movements and robust rhythmic cadence of “The Western Gate”. Both tunes feature five 14-string guitars (a Micus trademark), one bass duduk (Armenian drone instrument taken to another level by Micus), and Tibetan cymbals, but while the former incorporates a more conventional steel string guitar, the latter employs one sinding (West African harp with five strings made of cotton).

The ten-stage route encompasses “The Bridge”, where vocalized chants echo on top of the vibes produced by four bronze kalimbas (they come from four different African countries) and sinding, “The River”, crossed with timely percussive rattles and lovely duduk melancholy, and a “Black Hill”, whose exotic groove feels like a song of praise for mother Earth. The latter number piles up eight Indian cane whistles and a nay (ancient Egyptian hollow reed flute) and make them dance harmoniously over the raw pulse established by a couple of dondon, the ‘talking-drum’ from Ghana.

This recording was inspired by the moonlight and its special magic. Hence, the sight of “Fireflies” and the presence of the “Moon” itself are intrinsic parts of the scenario, authentic anticlimactic balms for this busy, technological world we’re immersed in. The former composition emanates a warm African breeze created by 22 layers of sound that include pitch-clear vocals, kalimba, sinding, and Indian cane whistles. In contrast, “Moon” is told in only one voice with the lonely sounds of duduk arching over the silence. This piece, together with “All The Way”, a kalimba solo, was recorded in just one take.

Micus continues his spiritual celebration of cultural diversity through imaginative, humble music.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - The Eastern Gate ► 03 - The River ► 10 - The Western Gate


Jen Shyu - Song of Silver Geese

Label/Year: Pi Recordings, 2017

Lineup: Jen Shyu: voice, Taiwanese moon lute, Korean gayageum, piano; Chris Dingman: vibraphone; Mat Maneri: viola; Thomas Morgan: bass; Satoshi Takeishi: percussion; Anna Webber: flutes; Dan Weiss: drums + The Mivos Quartet 

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Acknowledged as original and creative, the experimental vocalist/composer/dancer, Jen Shyu, meritoriously earned the trust of groundbreaking jazz luminaries such as Steve Coleman and Anthony Braxton.

Born in Illinois to Taiwanese and East Timorese immigrant parents, the New-York based singer brings her musical heritage and other multi-cultural influences into nine original compositions, which she calls doors (to other worlds). Although heavily steeped in the world music genre, her work also includes gritty jazz layers piled up by her Jade Tongue band, as well as the unabashed, trenchant sounds occasionally dispensed by the Mivos Quartet.

Sung in seven languages, Song of Silver Geese is a never-heard fusion between East and West cultures, originally conceived as a performance piece in a straight collaboration with the Japanese dance artist Satoshi Haga. The music is an unusual compound of raw traditional folk (Korea, Indonesia, Timor, Taiwan, and Java), cinematic chamber drama, and encouraging contemporary jazz moods.

Prologue-Song of Lavan Pitinu" blossoms with an immaculate combination of voice and lute, leading to “World of Java”, a piece that highlights Shyu’s precise low timbres and where Anna Webber’s intervallic flute notes sound as audacious and cool as Eric Dolphy’s. The flutist culminates the piece with a contemplative solo improvisation, which guides us to the next mysterious door, “Dark Road, Silent Moon”, a decidedly cinematic and experimental journey reinforced by the purely dramatic chops of the strings.

World of Hengchun” is a Taiwan-influenced piece whose dramatic orchestration feels propitious for serious puppet shows or operas, while “World of Ati Batik” is an interesting, quasi-robotic litany, beautifully put up by voice, piano, and flute. The vocalist also shows a remarkable ability for delineating stunning harmonies and incorruptible ostinatos on the piano.

The doors close with “Contemplation”, a solo poetic English-language narrative (words are by Taiwanese poet Edward Cheng), where Shyu accompanies herself with the Korean gayageum. Yet, before that, we are taken to an odd Korean dance with “World of Baridegi”, a showcase for supple percussive elements that collude with the competent instrumentation and distant foreign words uttered with a vehemence of a blazing prophet. Shyu’s flexible voice and improvisational skills are all energy, clarity, rhythm, and emotion. Expect something outside the conventional.

        Grade  B

        Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
07 - World of Ati Batik ► 08 - World of Baridegi ► 09 - Contemplation


Henrique Eisenmann - The Free Poetics of Henrique Eisenmann

Label/Year: Red Piano Records, 2017

Lineup - Henrique Eisenmann: piano; Gustavo D’Amico: soprano saxophone; Jorge Roeder: bass; Rogério Boccato: percussion.

New York-based Brazilian pianist Henrique Eisenmann gathers an attractively eclectic quartet - bassist Jorge Roeder, soprano saxophonist Gustavo D’Amico, and percussionist Rogério Boccato - to give wings to his free, erudite, and often blatantly rhythmic composures.

The Free Poetics of Henrique Eisenmann starts with “Niños Peruanos”, where the voice of a 6-year-old Peruvian child reciting a poem in Spanish becomes the inspiration and main motif for the pianist’s creative reactions, emancipated with the assistance of Roeder’s smothered bass and Boccato’s understated percussion. The elegant scenario is intensified during the stunning rendition of Hermeto Pascoal’s “Zurich”, a musical conclave where enlightening jazz, Brazilian folk, and modern classical are the preponderant elements. The pianist is peremptory in responding to D’Amico’s rhythmic provocations, a feature that characterizes his playing.

The classical influences are noticeable again on “Sarabande No. 2”, a velvety carpeting whose final workmanship weaves highly rhythmic ostinatos.
Stepping on avant-garde ground, “Dans un Fracas de Plumes” brings in an ecstatic, free-feel posture that grapples with smothering low-toned notes on the piano and a buzzing, folk-inflected final cadenza.

Eisenmann also employs this smothering technique to get a percussive effect on “Zumbi”, a lyrical, stylized, and slightly mystic chant that also exhibits strong Brazilian flavors in its groovy trance. It shows less Brazilian pronunciation than “Epilogue: Pifanos”, though, where we find samba rhythms, typical choro melodies, and collages of piano sweeps and whirls that run at different tempos.

One of the most pleasurable moments on the record comes with “Afro-Latidos”, supposedly inspired by animal sounds, according to its title. Recurrent expansions and contractions are motivated by brisk piano movements, breathable bass accompaniment, and a vibrant percussive flow that gains extra resonance during the individual statements by D’Amico and Eisenmann. After a bridge encompassing both wistful and sprightly melodies in its passages, Boccato communicates expressively, secured with an embellishing piano-bass pattern in the background.

Bringing into play their musical and cultural backgrounds, the band delivers sheer moments of musical tightness and stimulating ecstatic exploration, achieving the artistic freedom envisioned by the bandleader. It confirms how jazz can work beautifully with other influences, making its universe a better place.

        Grade  A-

        Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Zurich ► 05 - Afro-Latidos ► 08 – Zumbi


Stephan Micus - Inland Sea

Label/Year: ECM, 2017

Lineup – Stephan Micus: balanzykom, nyckelharpa, voice, zither, bass zither, shakuhachi, steel string guitar, genbri.

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Avant-world music continues to thrive in the person of Stephan Micus, a solitary German multi-instrumentalist, traveler, and inveterate sound explorer whose idiosyncratic new album, Inland Sea, brings us wintry tones and lyrical practices from afar.

This eclectic composer has been recording almost exclusively for the ECM (this one is his 22nd) and each of his opuses tells a quirky musical journey pretty much unlooked-for and deeply heartfelt.

Micus, alone, plays six distinguished instruments from different regions of the globe and also sings, layering the sounds with acuity and building entrancing textures that draw beauty, sadness, and mystery alike.

On the opening tune, “Haze”, he strums the balanzykom, a rare Tajik seven nylon string lute used in Sufi ceremonies, with melancholic affinity, while the laments of the nyckelharpa, a Swedish bowed instrument, take us to bucolic landscapes where ostentation is nothing and life is everything.

The crepuscular “Sowing Wind” sounds like a cry coming from secluded mountains, where the wind carries tearful words through the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, which can be heard again on the transcendental “Reaping Storm”. The latter is introduced by bass zither whose bent strings produce a long, profound, and reverberating drone, simultaneously astonishing and arcane.

While “Dawn” and “Dusk” are exclusively shaped by three nyckelharpas each, acquiring a neo-classical chamber feel, “Dancing Clouds” is meticulously arranged through the juxtaposition of several instruments whose folk melodies, even if still dramatic, show signs of optimism and perseverance.

There are three vocalized pieces that probably will make your hair stand on end. They are “Flor Del Sur”, a ceremonial nomadic-style chant, “Virgen de La Mar”, composed of three genbri and sixteen polyphonic voices, and “Nuria”, the most enchanting piece on the recording, an idyllic ancient call that floats with acceptance and abandonment. Even not understanding the lyrics, I had the prayerful instinct of thanking for my life. It’s an outstanding conclusion of another remarkable body of work whose emotional emphasis suggests us to acknowledge the world as one.

Extremely scenic in its rustic descriptions, Inland Sea comes overflowing with sonic pleasures. It comprises ten hymns whose simplicity of expression hits you with the force of nature at the same time that offers you dollops of erudition. 
I wish you a pleasant spiritual meditation!

        Grade  A-

        Grade A-

Favorite Tracks: 
02 – Sowing Wind ► 05 – Reaping Storm ► 10 – Nuria


Ralph Towner - My Foolish Heart

Label/Year: ECM, 2017

Lineup - Ralph Towner: guitars

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Resourceful acoustic guitarist Ralph Towner has been an exemplary case of productivity and dedication since his first appearances in the early 70s. 
His virtuosity is patented in a variety of recordings whose listenings will disclose the incomparable sound and accurate technique that make him unique.

Towner was a co-founder of Oregon, a world-fusion chamber jazz group that also included the versatile experimentalists Collin Walcott, Paul McCandless, and Glen Moore. In this particular band, his instrument was not only the guitar but also the keyboards. He was also a crucial member of the new age ensemble led by the American saxophonist Paul Winter, during its early phase.

In 1973, he started a collaborative association with the record label ECM and that fruitful liaison was extended until the present time. In truth, My Foolish Heart is his 23rd album as a leader/co-leader on the cited label and is now out to prove him in top form.
On this new record, Towner returns to the solo format 11 years after Time Line (ECM, 2006). Since then, he has recorded with guitarists Slava Grigoryan and Wolfgang Muthspiel, as well as with the Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu.

Charged with Third Stream improvisation, “Pilgrim” opens the recording with strong folk influences that are definitely not American but rather Eastern.
Through the passionate melodies of “I’ll Sing to You”, the guitarist exhibits his technical splendor translated into stylish fingerpicking, shivering trills, and modern classical lyricism. The enormous facility in combining melody and harmony in a smooth, seamless manner comes to our attention again in “Saultier”, which feels less folk and more postbop.

The title track, a bright rendition of a widely-known jazz standard, is delivered with sentimental melancholy, naturally contrasting with the stunning “Clarion Call” where the rich sounds of a 12-string guitar infuse a transcendental beauty. My soul was filled with these hypnotic, often percussive reverberations modulated with delay effect, and decisive guitar slides and harmonics. Connotations with world music and progressive jazz are easily identifiable and can be heard again in the shorter “Binding Time”. 

Different moods are those of “Dolomiti Dance”, steeply folk in its most traditional current, and “Rewind”, another compound of jazz and classical with splashes of Brazil fragrances, in the same line of Toquinho.

Another eclectic paragon is “Blue as in Bley”, a piece composed for the late pianist Paul Bley that overflows with enigmatic multi-colored tones resultant from postbop, classical, folk, and blues.

Ralph Towner has enough inventive qualities to never step on clichés. Whether extemporizing his own originals, working as a sideman, or digging selected jazz standards with circumstantial vision, Towner is always immensely vibrant in his musical approach.

         Grade  A-

         Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 – I’ll Sing to You ► 06 – Clarion Call ► 11 – Blue as in Bley


Tigran Hamasyan - Atmospheres

Tigran Hamasyan: piano; Arve Henriksen: trumpet; Eivind Aarset: guitar; Jan Bang: sampling.

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Tigran Hamasyan is an Armenian pianist and composer whose unparalleled music is strongly built with elements of folk music from his country of origin.
The double-disc Atmosphéres, his ninth album and the second for the ECM label, has a trio of Norwegians in its lineup: Arve Henriksen on trumpet, Eivind Aarset on guitar, and Jan Bang on sampling.

Just by considering the instruments involved in this recording, one may expect to find accessible or even conventional music. But that’s not the case since Hamasyan’s compositions go beyond the expected. Moreover, Henriksen and Aarsen use their instruments in peculiar ways. The trumpeter, whose career has been highly influenced by minimal Japanese music, often sounds like a flutist. The guitarist, a manipulator of sound in the true sense of the word, opts to draw soft textural layers at every stroke.

The 15 pieces that populate this artistic work are divided into two subsets. The first comprises 10 originals from the quartet entitled “Traces”. The remaining five are compositions by Komitas, an Armenian priest, musicologist, and composer who is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music.

The original compositions vary considerably in tone and structure. “Traces I” and “Traces III” are both gently textured. The first part maintains a dreamy atmosphere along the way while the third is a weeping song. 
Traces II” is far more provocative in its conception, moving straight ahead through stirring sequences of piano notes and floating trumpet melodies. It contrasts with “Traces IV”, which asks for a meditation with the sunset on the horizon, and “Traces X”, a darker song that arrives from somber realms. 

Traces VI” and “Traces VII” are great avant-garde compositions. The former brings some madness and the right amount of ambiguity to an instrumental conversation; the latter, is oddly percussive, strategically layered, and becomes minimalist as it moves forward.
The airy “Tsirani Tsar” and the meticulous “Shushiki”, both by Komitas, are inevitably strong highlights.

Through the erudite interpretations of the quartet, we are able to experience a different culture and apprehend its sounds. It’s almost as if we were physically visiting another world. Once there, we can’t escape the dazzle caused by exotic scents and the sight of stunning landscapes. 
Atmosphéres will reward those who don’t give up at the first listening.

         Grade  B+

         Grade B+

Label: ECM, 2016
Favorite Tracks:
02 (cd1) – Tsirani Tsar ► 07 (cd1) – Traces VI ► 01 (cd2) – Traces VII


Klaus Gesing / Bjorn Meyer / Samuel Rohrer - Amiira

Klaus Gesing: bass clarinet, soprano saxophone; Bjorn Meyer: bass guitar; Samuel Rohrer: drums, percussion.

The European trio co-led by German saxophonist and clarinetist Klaus Gesing, Swedish bassist Bjorn Meyer, and Swiss drummer Samuel Rohrer, releases their sophomore album, Amiira, on the drummer’s label Arjuna Music.

The trio appeared for the first time in 2013 with Open Source Music. Before committing to this project, Gesing released two solo albums and recorded with Anouar Brahem, whose quartet also integrates Meyer. In turn, Rohrer has recorded with the Ambik project and Daniel Erdmann, and is currently working with the Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim and Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje.
  
Amiira opens with “Shine On Me”, a celestial ode that illuminates as Gesing’s soprano spreads engaging melodies over the fluffy layer created by the composite of bass and drums. Meyer opts for a disjointed approach before sticking to cyclic pop-rock lines.

Minne” feels simultaneously beautiful and sad, evoking the elegy of Jobim’s “Retrato em Branco e Preto” and the nostalgia of Pieranunzi’s Fellini Jazz.
Fulminate” moves in a different direction, incurring in a lucid experimentalism that encompasses hip-hop beats, funky bass lines, and an accordion-like effect on the saxophone.

Percussive noises unfold "After You’ve Left”, an atmospheric downtempo divagation where Gesing's dulcet phrasing finds solace in the underlying layer brought up by the rhythm section. Meyer almost transforms his bass into a sitar.

A vital, electrifying percussion sets “Source One” in motion and waits for Gesing’s bass clarinet to lead the way toward a fulgurant ecstasy of color. 
The very suggestive “Clouds Below” is a levitating piece à-la John Surman. It diverges in rhythm but not in posture from “Sirènes Sacrées”, a silky and perfectly synchronized spin of pacific enchantment.

I see Amiira as a compendium of sheer prayers arranged with freedom but also discipline. The trio, showing maturity and an excellent understanding, transports us to diverse sonorous landscapes where an audacious avant-garde jazz intertwines with soulful world music.

          Grade  A

          Grade A

Favorite tracks:
01 – Shine On Me ► 06 – Source One ► 09 – Sirènes Sacrées


Brian Shankar Adler - Mysteries of the Deep

Matt Moran: vibraphone; Santiago Leibson: piano; Jonathan Goldberger: guitar; Rob Jost: bass; Brian Shankar Adler - drum set, ghatam.

Brian Shankar Adler - Mysteries of the Deep

The open-minded drummer and composer, Brian Shankar Adler, opts to release “Mysteries of the Deep” on EP format.

Highly influenced by Indian music, Adler and his peers open with “Mantra”, a gripping and solidly crafted exercise that lets us in a state of delightful ecstasy. Layered by multiple melodic threads that include lachrymose guitar phrases and resolute vibes, the tune flows at the sound of a danceable rhythm defined by Rob Jost’s buoyant bass groove and Adler’s aerodynamic pulse.
An ethereal tranquility envelops us during “Windy Path”, an affectionate musical cadence that finishes in style with Adler playing gatham, one of the most ancient percussion instruments of South India. 

The light atmosphere changes completely in “Pulses”, whose relentless pulsation, dark guitar sounds, and vibraphone counterpoints create a wandering sense of unease. A sudden calmness invades when Jost starts bowing his acoustic bass, allowing us to get lost in the immensity of the outer space.
“Rudram”, a special prayer chanted to Lord Rudra (Shiva), is delivered with both festive and liberating tones after a ruminative intro. A couple of momentary meditative disruptions, highlighting beautiful piano chords and soaring vibes, don’t refrain the quintet of embarking on a jubilant spin that harmoniously combines elements of jazz, funk, Indian music, and rock. 

“Mysteries of the Deep” boasts an impactful sonorous aesthetic and its only sin is being short on tracks and duration. 
Adler’s work probes assorted sounds, cultures, and genres in an effective way.

Favorite Tracks:
01 – Mantra ► 04 – Rudram