OK, a regular thing now, a sort of recap after the initial review is done and dusted to work out what albums are staying around that bit longer, the ones that just have got to be played again reaching for the shelf or computer to pore over for sheer enjoyment once the reviewing is all sorted out and after the initial buzz has gone. Hmmm, inexact art, it is all about gut feeling and experience, the timescale however pins this first effort down a bit as it stretches back to January.
Only three albums stand out as five stars this time. Trying to work out what makes a great album is to do with a basket of qualities: first and foremost if it is a band record, that band sound has to be punctuated by really special musicianship and personal understanding between the musicians that transcends the notes on the page. Great tunes and a spirit and passion to it all is also vital. Technique does not always mean great musicianship in fact it is only one aspect of it.
Then it is individuality and how original the work is sounding. Something does not always have to be original to win out as a first criterion to overtake the musicianship factor. Why? Well probe a bit deeper and you often find that originality is impossible. It is easy enough to pinpoint where an artist is getting their inspiration from or in some cases the sum of a number of inspirations and they can still say something extraordinary even if it is derivative up to a point depending on their individual playing personality beyond making a statement.
Maybe freshness is as vital as originality or more preferable because that is easier and more feasible to achieve, like somebody coming up with a new antidote, an invention, a solution, a short cut if you like to better communicate with audiences and that antidote may “only” amount to a tweak of an existing formula but if arrived at by a scientist might scoop a Nobel – or change the world.
Anyway the three albums are all wonderful records and are: Dayna Stephens’ Gratitude, Tomasz Stańko’s December Avenue and Bruno Heinen’s Changing of the Seasons. Stephens’ record wins for its warmth and fantastic tunes, Stanko’s for its humanity and mastery of nocturnal mood and Heinen’s for sheer virtuosity and expertise in imaginatively harnessing a string quartet and reimagining one of the great works of baroque music via the lens of impressionist jazz inspired partly also and making a giant leap by Bill Evans. More on each album:
Dayna Stephens Gratitude (Contagious Music)
An album that contains some unforced passion and ideas, Dayna Stephens who has been on jazz fans’ lips the word of mouth increasing year in year out since the 38-year-old was fast tracked by the Thelonious Monk Institute first emerging in the class of Lionel Loueke more than a decade ago, chooses a battery of saxes and even EWI here. But it is tenor that prevails, for sure he is keeping stellar company with not just Brad Mehldau but the pianist’s bassist Larry Grenadier, former child prodigy Julian Lage on guitar and the Charles Lloyd drummer Eric Harland on board but there is a community of musicians at work here and not a line-up by name check.
Stephens has a full sound, you can hear a huge amount of detail in his lead improvising notes and he has a persuasive improvising style that bypasses paraphrase and instead zones in on the jagged intervals and micro connections that he manages to make with the chordal instruments. Yes there is that Coltranian definition sometimes and there is also that confidence that goes beyond the sheer bravery in discovering the simplicity he needs to communicate his music: the tunes go somewhere.
Recorded in a studio in Rhinebeck, New York State it is not as if if Stephens has not paid his dues having released quite a few albums so far and he has had his own struggles beyond music in battling a rare kidney disease, the gratitude in the title you might say is deadly serious. The material here is interesting, tunes by new composers such as Aaron Parks and Rebecca Martin finding their place alongside Strayhorn and Pat Metheny numbers.
‘In a Garden’ by Aaron Parks has that mournful meditative sound you find on a John Coltrane record, but ‘Woodside Waltz’ by Lage shifts focus and manages to shed any over-earnestness that the album might otherwise indulge. Stephens manages to expand the best approaches in the area of big tenor statement in recent years usually undertaken by the likes of Kamasi Washington or JD Allen but his sound has more room to manoeuvre as he manages to bend the EWI in the right direction on the gorgeous Pat Metheny ballad ‘We Had A Sister’. Stephens keeps his own originals to a minimum with ‘The Timbre of Gratitude’ the only one from his own pen yet timbre is relevant and very important on this record where the character of his sound is best expressed and most deeply embedded. A wonderful record that ought to find wide appeal.
Tomasz Stańko December Avenue (ECM)
Listening to Tomasz Stańko has often been a spiritual experience. And this tops his best work once more. You just forget about everything. There is that elemental vision, a grand aestheticism grown from the wildness of the Polish avant garde and the inspiration of Komeda in what he does here that relishes simplicity, the moment, mood, time and silence. It is like looking at a painting by a great master, down to the ground or up to the sky and realising their fundamental perfection. Listening cleanses in all the fragility of breath into a brass instrument, human touch and group creativity. Give this music time and there is a filtering out of all the irrelevances and stupid distractions that detain us. This could not be further from amounting to a pretend lifestyle accessory that music somehow has been forced to become by the information age.
Stańko’s Kind of Blue. It is certainly a new high water mark in a long career of unique achievement and marks a sense of place in the titling in the enabling freedom of a tree lined public space, the haze of history, humanity, memory, freedom, that ache of trumpet, Miles deeply embedded in an interior vision, blueness, it is all there suspended in the modal air within the musical persona of the Pole. A literary theme is part of the overall concept following on from a 2013-released Szymborska-themed predecessor, the artist and writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), who was shot by the Gestapo during the second world war, has a ballad named for him and which appears half way through the album. The modernist Schulz short stories The Street of Crocodiles from December 1933, Kafka-like provincial miniatures of bizarre metamorphosis, also earn mention reflected in their respectfully referencing inclusion in another piece.
Recorded in June 2016 at the Provençal ‘Saturday morning’ studio in La Buissonne, Pernes les Fontaines, a familiar recording space already in earlier album Lontano for Stańko, the album produced by a huge fan of his in Manfred Eicher, who in the 1990s brought the trumpeter back to the label following a long break after Balladyna and with him has moved to the greatest sustained period of his career which began after Bluish on the Polish Power Bros label, moved through his group fired up by Tony Oxley and then the quartet with Marcin Wasilewski that achieved so much in terms of natural simplicity and on to the New York quartet. The great trumpeter composer has changed this relatively recent Quartet a bit in the bass department for December Avenue. With him here are the returning David Virelles on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums, with Charles Lloyd bassist Reuben Rogers replacing Thomas Morgan from the Wisława band. The new bassist and Virelles are namechecked admiringly on the sixth of the 12 tracks and all four of the quartet are credited in the composing of a third of the tunes which speaks so much of band unity and empathy as these compositions match the trumpeter’s own conceptions so well.
While there is a continuum in the modal concision and phrasing lit up sometimes by his latinate flourishes and bold matador breaks, the song of Stańko sings ever more deeply and rewardingly as the years go by in their evolving monastic repose. Stańko reclaims sadness and melancholy to make it somehow empowering and above all human. The beauty is in the quiet dignified reflection, the power he unleashes sometimes out of nowhere say on ‘Blue Cloud’ the third track where the planets best align overall. There is a collective will at work here that embraces individual vision. Everyone believes in what Stańko is playing it is pretty clear and runs with it by entering his world seemingly unwilling to leave as any listener will be, hearing December Avenue.
Bruno Heinen Changing of the Seasons (Babel)
It is the serenity that struck me listening to this wholescale momentous re-envisaging of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Hint: this is not paraphrase or musical surgery, time travelling or wishful thinking, and is resolutely unswung. The music here is completely an original creation in the primary sense that it banishes the baroque entirely (in places it owes more to post second world war modernistic experimentation) and there is no sense of forced deconstructing. It also avoids falling between the two stools of jazz and classical music, usually a trap that many well intentioned players descend into, their fate sadly to be mauled like the most helpless lion baited by tormentors.
What star pianist Heinen and the strings have accomplished I imagine is a bit like their looking at a painting and then struck by inspiration managing to ignite something fertile in their imaginations and create something new drawn from their virtuosic skill to let their own creativity run free. The British jazz scene is blessed with many great young jazz pianists and I would place Heinen already up there with the very best of his and the generation a step above him, eg Gwilym Simcock, Liam Noble, Robert Mitchell, Zoe Rahman, Matthew Bourne, Alexander Hawkins and Ivo Neame, each very different improvisers but all at the top of the tree creatively as they follow a few decades on from the first emergence in the arboretum of the heavyweight champion still, Django Bates.
In Changing of the Seasons there is an economy in the writing, a simplifying of the complicated and a studio performance zen-like discipline, more repose, that captures the mood without smothering it. Again that sense of lightly chilled calm surrounds and cocoons. If this were a painting it would be a Monet perhaps in its differences every time, meditations on the same raw materials, the nuance of small differentials where the detail is everything, no exact match or matter how much it might on the surface be the same. (Water Lilies, above).
Heinen’s major statement is in the extended solo on ‘Summer’ that has a magnitude to it that in context dwarfs everything on the record, the plangent strings conjuring a dramatic apocalyptic sense in all its alarm like a dangerous breeze and yet wonderfully abstract simply open for interpretation when they respond. ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’ are also very dark and you get the sense that this is interior music, a journey into night that somehow banishes fear. Seeing the ensemble live last year not long after the studio session was a stimulating occasion and beyond the distraction of the concert hall with all its niceties there’s even more of a private wonderful depth here and yet a sense of occasion every time you hit replay to unspool that delicious moment that somehow crept in and curled up satisfied inside.
Perusing Blackie’s Dictionary of Quotations, the occasional insomniac’s favourite bedside reading matter, I seemed to land involuntarily on these words of wisdom from enthusiastic painter of high ceilings, one Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, to wit “Genius is eternal patience”. What on earth did the master mean, I whispered to the countless but untalkative sheep not at all intent on slumbering, not that they were supposed to say much back to be fair.
In all probability even with a time travelling helicopter he may or may not have had time to invent in his lunchbreak it is fairly unlikely, granted, that Michelangelo had Of Tides (new on Babel records on 24 March, listen above) in mind. ‘Moss Grew in the Cracks’ does however take forever to unfold but therein likes the flaw, the London bassist Olie Brice and Aachen-born pianist Achim Kaufmann finding far too much time to establish the parameters of their improvising together instead of simply cracking on with it.
Once they have established the mood the humongously long ‘The Rumble of Constant Adjustment’ trowels on plenty of new layers and the pair rummage enthusiastically around, a few oily rags possibly and a bit of paint stripper in hand, as they scythe out a pile of buried dissonances among the thistly patches of tiny silences through all their busy burrowing deep into this particular sonic canvas. There is certainly plenty on offer but it does get a bit samey, Kaufmann, deeply, forebodingly, serious, the mood darkening the longer you listen until ‘To Heap' brightens the outlook every so slightly. But what an exasperating listen. I am still waiting for it all to resolve itself somehow. Can it ever?