Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wordless Thoughts

Mountains - Choral (Thrill Jockey, 2009)
Lars Horntveth - Kaleidoscopic (Smalltown Supersound, 2009)
Joshua Redman - Compass (Nonesuch, 2009)
Enrico Rava - New York Days (ECM, 2009)

Maybe it's a result of being slightly frustrated by some of the song-based music released so far this year but I find myself absorbed by a fine selection of instrumental music at the moment. With new albums from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Alasdair Roberts and Bill Callahan imminent, this may not however last very long, so I'll revel in it while I can.

If you should never judge a book by its cover, then you certainly shouldn’t judge the contents of an album from its title. ‘Choral’ is the third album from electronic duo Mountains but, aside from the odd buried whisper or moan, it contains no human voices whatsoever. Instead, it’s one of those deceptively minimal, thoroughly engrossing tapestries of sound akin to those constructed by Christian Fennesz.

For the most part, it’s a good deal less abrasive and disturbing than much of this music can be. Its embracing, hazy fuzz distances Mountains from the more terrifying work of artists such as Xela or Elegi. Instead, it comes with a warmth and open-heartedness that might broaden its appeal, without compromising the ethos or power of the music. By mostly rejecting confrontation and noise for its own sake, Mountains nimbly escape cliché, and make their comparably rare burst of more aggressive sound at the album’s conclusion more brutally effective.

‘Choral’ is more in keeping with other contemporary electronic music by rejecting demands for conventional harmonic movement, rhythmic impetus or melodic hooks. Two tracks stretch over the twelve minute mark mostly built on layering drones upon each other. The emphasis is therefore more on sound, timbre, mood and atmosphere. The frequent interjection of acoustic guitars or modest percussion instruments imbues the somnambulant textures with benevolent, human presence. The gently rolling ‘Map Table’ is particularly impressive in this regard.

‘Choral’ is a haunting and distinctive individual contribution to a still-burgeoning genre. Its music slowly and gently unravels in a beatific and engaging way. There is a strong sense that, with ‘Choral’, Mountains have crafted a form of avant-garde folk music where tradition allies comfortably with innovation.

Jaga Jazzist multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth describes ‘Kaleidoscopic’, a single 37-minute composition, as an attempt to reflect what he enjoys listening to, without consciously striving to copy anything specific. Eleni Karandiru, Gil Evans, Bernard Hermann, Jean-Claude Vannier, Robert Wyatt, Jim O'Rourke, John Fahey, Astor Piazzolla, Colin Blunstone, Dr. John, Steve Reich, Van Dyke Parks, David Lynch and Yma Zumac all appear on his list of admired artists. Even limited to just these artists, Horntveth has clearly absorbed an inspired cross section of contemporary music. Unsurprisingly as a result of all this digestion, ‘Kaleidoscopic’ is an absorbing listen.

It’s arguable that perhaps it dives too swiftly across the musical map. Textures and sounds are rarely given enough time to settle, and fairly conventional melodic themes disappear as quickly as they’ve emerged. The music is most effective when Horntveth focuses on simple ideas – an insistent ostinato, for example – and threads other motifs around it. It’s this combination of minimalism and adventure that would appear to provide the most fertile ground for his musical imagination.

Horntveth’s writing is also confident and assured in its catering for quirky ensembles of instruments within the wider orchestra. ‘Kaleidoscopic’ effortlessly merges electronic and acoustic textures, incorporating harp, guitar, vibraphone and saxophone. None of this sounds in any way awkward or self-conscious, although the overall mood of the piece is peaceful and serene, rather than dissonant or aggressive.

I have no qualms whatsoever, even at this very early stage, in hailing ‘Compass’, the latest album from saxophone virtuoso Joshua Redman, as one of the albums of the year. Redman has openly acknowledged the influence of Sonny Rollins’ classic trio date ‘Way Out West’ (going as far as to call his previous album ‘Back East’ in tribute) but his use, on five tracks here, of a quintet with two bassists (Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers) and two drummers (Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson) also perhaps owes a debt to Ornette Coleman. Whilst Redman has always had the chops and language to stand beside such lofty influences, his music has at times perhaps been too taut and controlled. ‘Compass’ sounds loose and liberated, in the best possible way.

Redman had deployed this unconventional quintet in a musically satisfying way, avoiding the temptation simply to gain more momentum and power from the extra rhythmic impetus. Instead, the musicians engage in intelligent conversation with each other, and the ideas germinate as much from leaving space as from making statements. Helpfully, when two drummers are used, considered stereo panning helps us distinguish the individual contributions. As a result, ‘Compass’ is particularly well suited to listening on headphones.

When the full quintet is not being used, Redman assembles a variety of trio configurations, all exploring that fascinating world where harmony is implied rather than stated. What is perhaps most impressive about the music on ‘Compass’ is its strong sense of harmonic progression, in spite of the absence of a chordal instrument. This is immediately apparent on the beautiful opening ballad ‘Uncharted’, brief at just two minutes, but speaking volumes in that time.

Redman’s themes on ‘Compass’ are mostly conventional and striking in their simplicity. It may well be precisely this that has created the sense of freedom and space in the rest of the music and which has resulted in such thrilling interaction within the various ensembles. Often, as on ‘Insomnomaniac’ and ‘Un Peu Feu’, the themes are driven by rhythmic syncopation, but Redman also proves himself capable of real emotion too, as on ‘Moonlight’, which places Beethoven in an entirely different context, where the feeling seems to come from a restraint rather than from an outward expression. It’s remarkable in its austere sadness.

Redman’s playing is consistently superb – with its clear, crisp tone and confident extemporising. Nevertheless, ‘Compass’ could hardly work as well as it does without the sheer artistry of the ensemble players. Blade and Hutchinson particularly are magical, coming as close as possible to making the drums sing. ‘Compass’ is a rare gem – a cerebral jazz album with spontaneous chemistry that also has an immediate emotional impact.

Larry Grenadier, as in demand as ever, makes another appearance on ‘New York Days’, the latest set from Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, a record very different in tone and spirit from Redman’s. In keeping with the grand tradition of the ECM label, this is a record more preoccupied with lyricism and atmosphere. Having said that, the kind of sublime subtle musical conversations evident on albums such as Bobo Stenson’s outstanding ‘Cantando’ is also evident here, particularly on the two meditative free improvisations.

These largely gentle, contemplative performances do not necessarily leap from the page and are slow to unravel. Instead, they require (and reward) close attention. The most transparent quality here lies in Rava’s trumpet melding effortlessly with the contributions of saxophonist Mark Turner – they seem to both contemplate and embolden each other’s playing. Much of the supporting playing is characteristic of the individual preoccupations of the musicians involved. Stefano Bollani remains an impressionistic and ruminative pianist, sometimes even opaque, although the peculiar intricacies of his accompaniments are often highly original. Paul Motian’s superlative drumming remains unique in its deployment of texture and colour. It is never purely about rhythm, but as much about phrasing, both directing the other musicians and responding to them.

If this music might on the surface seem bereft of the creation and release of tension that characterises the most exciting jazz, closer listening reveals hidden fruits. The two improvisations work as the group gradually convenes, bringing order from an initial wash of calm thoughts. Even with curiously introspective titles such as ‘Outside’ or ‘Interiors’, much of the music still has a warm and romantic quality which rescues it from seeming aloof and detached, a pitfall that ECM’s less successful releases sometimes fall into. As ever, Manfred Eicher’s production has an audiophile’s sensitivity, and every sound and stroke is precisely rendered.

For those that recognise some kind of dichotomy between European and American schools of jazz, Rava might just be the connecting point between the two, having spent much of his career playing and studying in the US. Miles Davis is an obvious influence on his playing, and he also cites Duke Ellington as a major influence here. Yet the music does not swing in the exaggerated, American style – it has the fluidity and languid grace of European music.

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