A must for anyone interested in probing ever more deeply into the mystery of the contemporary piano trio: a gentle wash of an opening to pianist Sebastian Sternal’s highest profile album to date, the coup for the German the presence of bassist Larry Grenadier who to my mind is a Dave Holland of his generation and illuminates any record he happens to appear on, with Brad Mehldau or as here not. Does he gel with the Germans? That’s a big fat yes. ‘I Am the Ocean’ with its splashy scene setting does what it says on the tin. Drummer Jonas Burgwinkel has more of a role on the next track ‘Go’ and the trio show more of what they can do after the fluffy beginning. Sternal, Brad Mehldau might well be looking over his shoulder at just what the German can do so very differently but just as compellingly, likes to rummage away to shake a sense of movement from raw materials and let the jagged intervals he prefers collide into the response of his playing partners. The album takes a while to settle into its rhapsodic heart but the sense of anarchy before the whole picture reveals itself is never far away and lifts the music from possibly snoozing blamelessly to blare into life having prepared your ears for some unique insights. 

 

Sternal has won the respect of the German jazz industry over the years winning ECHO awards along the way but beyond his native land is hardly known at all, an not uncommon occurrence in jazz from continental Europe where country borders often seal in an artist’s appeal even with our means of listening more widely than ever released from the shackles of physical product.

Maybe Home paradoxically bearing the title in mind will export a bit more and certainly deserves to although it is hard to pinpoint just why Sternal is unique. The Cologne player certainly does not go for the riffy beefiness of a pianist such as Neil Cowley or the maddeningly neat precision of Rusconi and there is more life here than archetypal chamber jazz, the borrowing from classical music lightly sketched in.

Sternal knows how to take the tune apart. On ‘Sand’ for instance it is more like free improv in the execution and there is a fragmentary sense of exploration that is appealing and shows how far out the trio are willing to take their ideas. Burgwinkel factors in a Paul Motian sense of abandon and there is a free, open flavour to the direction of the album, the harshnesses of bebop recede but the method still applies.

The title track has a folky glow to it and has more clarity than some of the other tracks, an appealing simplicity that is expanded on by Sternal who is able to set up the tune using a very small number of building blocks and leaves it to Burgwinkel to add colour and motion. This the drummer does well. There is a sense of character here.

‘Gravity’ is more filler but ‘Winter’ has bottomless depth and seriousness while ‘Alias’ opens the trio up to let Grenadier take up the reins, slapping his strings hard as the rhythms pile down and Sternal moves into Chick Corea territory, little latinate touches and swaggering runs flying up and down the octaves just one indication of how at ease he is with the big statement as well as the masterly miniatures he by contrast can elsewhere serve up. A gem of an album. Sternal somehow manages to reclaim the melodic imperative without making the results trite or allow a lukewarm compromise to prevail.

Burgwinkel, top left, Sternal and Grenadier