Music Reviews

Songlines Recordings | Group Review #2

Peter Epstein Group – Lingua Franca
Analog to DSD 64 transfer

A hybrid of jazz improvisation and Balkan rhythms where communication forges a collective sound that is consistent and personal

From the opening bars of the album, a quiet invocation stated by the alto sax, sustained guitar and gentle touches of percussion, the trio of Peter Epstein, Brad Shepik and Matt Kilmer invite the listener to accompany them in an encounter between North American jazz and Middle Eastern and European music. 

The hybrid style of world music and jazz works best when the players have a strong grasp of the different idioms and a clear artistic goal. As saxophonist Peter Epstein explained to Songlines label head Tony Reif: “This project involves multiple musical languages in the sense that it is neither a world music album nor a jazz album exclusively. It’s one thing to make a hybrid of different styles or genres, it’s yet another to create a whole album where even different forms of hybrids can coexist.”

Rarely has the coexistence of jazz improvisation and world music influences sounded as purposeful and fluent as on “Lingua Franca”. The band plays with a lightness of touch that allows the music to breathe, and the use of different idioms never sounds forced or contrived. After the Middle-Eastern flavored “Two Door” and the fast 7/4 soul-jazz riffing of “Miro”, the band sets down in Ireland for the folk-dirge “Emerald”. Matt Kilmer’s rhythmic mastery, and his subtle use of hand percussion opens space for Brad Shepik’s inventive guitar solo on “Temoin”. 

A close artistic collaboration

Shepik has recorded on many Songlines albums, dating back to the label’s first releases. He’s equally comfortable in a cranked-up jazz-rock setting as in these dreamy, atmospheric textural pieces. There was a close artistic collaboration with Peter Epstein on this project; Shepik composed five of the nine pieces that appear on the album. 

Epstein switches to soprano sax on the hypnotic “Monsaraz”, ably supported by hand percussion and droning guitar. The lengthy, introspective piece “Kumanovo”, a blend of Central European motifs and jazz chords, is reminiscent of the 1970s world music-jazz pioneering group Oregon.  As the album draws to a close on “Meditation”, gently-plucked acoustic guitar notes and a repeated rising saxophone phrase convey hope, and respect for the many cultures that inspired these musicians to create music of distinctive beauty.

The original analogue recording, engineered by Aya Takemura at Brooklyn Recording Company in August 2003 and January 2004 and mixed to 2.0 and 5.0 DSD, presents the players fairly close up, as if the listener’s position was in the first rows of a small performance space. You’ll hear in high resolution detail the touch of fingers plucking guitar strings, the resonance of the hand percussion, and the plaintive voice-like phrases of the saxophone. 

Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet – Sweeter Than The Day (Pure DSD)
Analog to DSD 64 transfer

A luminous recording of eclectic and distinctive chamber jazz from a master of the genre

Wayne Horvitz’ releases on the Songlines label span more than 20 years and a wide range of ensembles, from his duo with bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck to the 14-piece Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble. The quartet on “Sweeter Than The Day” is unique in his catalogue: piano, 6- and 12-string electric guitar, acoustic bass, and drums. 

What makes this music eclectic is the scope of Horvitz’ influences. The compositions swing, groove to the blues, settle into cool, and channel French impressionism. What makes the album compelling is the skillful confidence with which he draws those influences together into a distinctive and recognizable group sound. The tunes don’t so much shift from one idiom to another as weave the different sounds into a holistic presentation. 

In the opening track, “in One Time and another” echoes of Ravel in the solo piano intro bounce off the walls of Horvitz’ imagination and turn a corner into atmospheric post-bop jazz. The chiming tones of the electric 12-string color the melancholy “Julian’s Ballad”. Guitarist Timothy Young’s solo begins with an evocation of the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn then shifts into a bluesy vein. “LTMBBQ”, a cool-shaded outing, gives Horvitz space to open out into freer territory, grounded by bassist Keith Lowe’s steady, harmonically inventive 4/4 lines and drummer Andy Roth’s subtle timekeeping and brushwork. 

The introspective tone of the album was a step outside the band’s original direction. For several years, Horvitz, Young, Lowe and Roth had been performing and recording as an electric band called Zony Mash. Alongside the funkier, rocking pieces on their 1999 release “Upper Egypt” is a quiet one called “The End of Time” and a rootsy American tune, “Forever”. The more inward-looking pieces by the electric band point to its acoustic incarnation on “Sweeter Than The Day”. The band has enjoyed great longevity, and continues to perform in Horvitz’ home state of Washington.

Beyond the musical virtues, the recording of is notable for its technical accomplishment. Engineered and mixed by Tucker Martine at Litho, Seattle, Washington in January 2001, and mastered by Dawn Frank at Sony and David Glasser at Airshow, Boulder, Colorado, it was the first multichannel SACD release by Songlines, a farsighted choice by label chief and audiophile Tony Reif. The elegant simplicity of the mix, with guitar placed mid-left, piano mid-right, bass center, drums center and naturally spread, and the drum kit set back in the soundstage, recreates a live performance with transparent realism.

Among Wayne Horvitz’ many accomplishments as a composer, bandleader, collaborator with new music luminaries John Zorn, Bill Frissell and Butch Morris, his Songlines albums stand out as milestones on a long and artistically successful musical journey. 

Hilmar Jensson – Ditty Blei (Pure DSD)
Recorded in DSD 64

This DSD release revisits a short-lived but innovative ensemble

Do you remember the first time you heard electric guitar in a setting that was totally different from anything you’d heard before? For me, it was the moment when the stylus hit Side One of the Miles Davis LP “A Tribute to Jack Johnson”. As I listened to John McLaughlin’s chordal intro to “Right Off”, my mind flipped. What was this? Not the subdued melodic lines that filled the spaces between keyboards on “In A Silent Way”, not the assertive bop of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell… This was something else. The electric guitar in jazz was moving into new directions. 

Flash forward 30 years:

In the early 2000s, Icelandic guitarist-composer Hilmar Jensson formed a new jazz ensemble in New York City with percussionist Jim Black and reeds player Andrew D’Angelo. Jensson and Black had originally met in 1990 when they were attending Berklee School of Music, and later shared a flat with D’Angelo and saxophonist Chris Speed. The music on “Ditty Blei”, in Hilmar’s words “revisited this period, taking the musical ideas that initially brought us together and expanding them.”

Joined by bassist Trevor Dunn and trumpeter Herb Robertson, Jensson, Black and D’Angelo performed the compositions on “Ditty Blei” at Joe Marciano’s Systems Two studio in 2004. Marciano recorded the band live to multichannel DSD. The tracks were mixed to 2 and 5.0 channels in the analogue domain, and output to DSD for the original SACD release.

In the album’s liner notes, Hilmar writes that the song-like pieces were transformed by the band into more complex structures. Composed segments interspersed with improvisation can be heard in the opening tune, “Letta”. The front line of guitar, trumpet and bass clarinet state a recognizable theme that flows into a solo by Robertson, returns to the full ensemble for further development, and concludes with a brief solo by D’Angelo. D’Angelo’s use of overblowing echoes the cries of free jazz icon Pharaoh Sanders and the roars of Peter Brötzmann. The subsequent tracks follow a similar pattern of defined heads, ensemble restatements, and space for soloing. 

The attentive listening that Hilmar, D’Angelo and Black developed over years of living and playing together is evident in “Mayla maybe”, where the multiple voices retain their distinctive sounds in free-blowing sections and in tightly-arranged written ensemble passages.  A quiet, unaccompanied acoustic guitar intro sets the introspective tone of “Correct me if I’m right”. In response to the wistful opening theme, Robertson blows a solo in legato lines that convey poignant longing. 

On “Grinning”, a folk-like lament, Hilmar goes against the grain by turning up his guitar distortion, which unleashes Jim Black’s formidable polyrhythmic drumming. A coda for muted trumpet, acoustic guitar, bass clarinet and brushes on the drums returns to the quiet solemnity of the opening. It’s a piece of skillful writing that reveals the emotional depth of Hilmar’s compositions. In “larf” D’Angelo’s anguished alto moans contrast with Hilmar’s cleanly articulated, angular lines. The plaintive “davu” further explores Hilmar’s part-writing, while the final piece “everything is temporary” sets the musicians adrift on retreating waves of half-spoken melodies and broken rhythm.

Describing Hilmar’s sound in a few words is a daunting task. Performances on Hilmar’s own 1995 recording “Dofinn”, the 2014 chamber jazz album “Flock”, a collaboration with Belgian musicians Ruben Machtelincx and Joachim Badenhorst, and the 2016 release “Saumur” led by innovative trumpetist Arve Henrikson finds Hilmar ranging over many different idioms, from thrash to free jazz to meditative ambient grooves. 

So I’ll pick one word  – ‘protean’ – that describes Hilmar Jensson’s ability to adopt the right sound for the setting. On “Ditty Blei”, he summed up the experiences of his time in the U.S., and set himself on a course of musical discovery that is still in progress. 

Bill Frisell – Richter 858 (Pure DSD)
Recorded in DSD 64

Restlessly creative guitarist Bill Frisell leads a hybrid string ensemble with noted improvisers Hank Roberts, Jenny Scheinman, and Eyvind Kang, in pieces inspired by the paintings of Gerhard Richter.

In the early 2000s, several jazz player-composers wrote and recorded new works that traced thematic links between the realms of improvising music and nonrepresentational visual art. Among these ambitious projects were saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom’s “Chasing Paint” (inspired by Jackson Pollock), drummer-composer Bobby Previte’s “The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró”, and guitarist Bill Frisell’s “Richter 858”. It’s not surprising that musicians based in or near New York City, one of the world’s great art meccas, would find inspiration in the works of American abstract expressionists and European modernist painters.

David Breskin, who produced “Richter 858” and “The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró”, describes the analogies between Frisell’s guitar playing and Richter’s painting:

“What Richter does with paint in these abstractions Frisell does with sound: he shapes it, he torques it, he inverts it — he reverses it in time… He uses all these signal-processing devices to take his original sound and transform it.”

A string quartet in classical music generally consists of two violins, viola and cello. Frisell, playing electric guitar with effects and processing, occupies the chair normally held by a second violinist, but he doesn’t use the string quartet in a conventional way. Cellist Hank Roberts, who has collaborated with Frisell on many of his albums, violinist Jenny Scheinman, and violist Eyvind Kang are all active in circles of free improvisation. In the eight pieces on “Richter 858” there are composed passages and spaces for improvisation. The sounds that Frisell produces on his electric guitar within a bowed strings configuration offers a musical counterpart to the gestures of Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings, with their bold horizontal swathes of color. 

On Track 2, “858-3” (all of the tracks are titled as numbered references to the paintings), the bowed string trio introduces a slow, tentative waltz-time melody; Frisell adds chiming, plucked guitar phrases that gradually mutates into a distortion-laden overlay, in contrast to the gentle tones of the bowed instruments. In “858-4”, the longest track on the album, a mysterious, time-suspended melody is played by the trio over Frisell’s haunting, effects-laden guitar soundscapes. “858-5”, by contrast, has a bouncy, circus march-like quality. The music shifts the ground under the listener, just as the paintings challenge the viewer to consider their meaning. Producer Breskin writes in the album liner notes:

“What is background in these paintings? What is foreground? How do these ideas work in the invisible world of music?”

“Richter 858” was recorded live in the studio to two-track, 1” 30 ips analogue tape by Joe Ferla, and mastered for DSD by Joe Gastwirt. Sound quality of the album is vivid and the perspective is similar to what an audience would hear in a mid-sized concert space. 

The slideshow of Gerhard Richter paintings that was included with the Songlines SACD can be viewed on YouTube in 720p while listening to the NativeDSD download: 

Chris Gestrin – after the city has gone : quiet 
Recorded in DSD 64

In an expansive sequence of instrumental solos, duos and trios, pianist-composer Chris Gestrin inspires a community of musicians to improvise meditative soundscapes.

Investigation is the driver of creative chamber jazz. In the 28 tracks of “after the city has gone : quiet”, pianist-composer Chris Gestrin engages in thoughtful, penetrating dialogues and trialogues with 12 of his Vancouver-based new music colleagues. It’s a bravura concept, realized through elegant performances in superb sonics. 

Even in a musical community as talented and diverse as Vancouver’s, Chris Gestrin stands out; he composes, performs, arranges, and produces music in a wide range of ensembles and genres. In recent years, he’s been the post-production mastering engineer for most Songlines releases. The aspect of his work documented on “after the city as gone : quiet” and on the related Songlines release “The Distance” reveals a sure command of his instrument and a searching quality to his compositions. Gestrin doesn’t presume to have all the answers: he and his colleagues are looking with open minds at the questions that new music asks. 

This album, which was originally released as a two-SACD set, has a two-hour total running time that might preclude playing in its entirety. Tracks 1-15 in NativeDSD’s download comprises the first of the two original SACDs; tracks 16-28, the second. There is an arc that traces the movement from the opening to the closing of those sequences of tracks. In two sessions of around one hour each, the album can be appreciated as a type of musical meditation. The interspersing of Chris Gestrin’s piano solos with duos and trios invites commitment to longer stretches of listening.

The first four tracks move through an airy encounter of piano with Peggy Lee’s cello; an essay for piano and two trumpets; a modern jazz composition for piano, saxophone and drums that wouldn’t be out of place on an ECM album; and finally, a piano and percussion duo. Track 5, the piano solo entitled “Prelude in D”, seems like a natural break between the preceding pieces and the next group of tunes. 

Most of the musicians who collaborated with Gestrin on this album can he heard in other recordings on Songlines. Cellist Peggy Lee and saxophonist Jon Bentley are the co-founders of the trio Waxwing; Lee, Bentley, drummer Dylan van der Schyff, guitarist Ron Samworth and trombonist Jeremy Berkman all participated in The Peggy Lee Band’s 2023 Songlines release “A Giving Way”. Gestrin’s insight into the sounds and capabilities of each of the players gives each grouping a different focus: with Lee, he explores pure sound, with Bentley, the lyricism of melodic invention. Gestrin’s duo with Dylan van der Schyff (“Many Skies”) is a standout demonstration-quality track for audio systems. The drum kit is set back and slightly right, in a highly realistic representation, one of the strengths of original DSD recording.

The support of Canada Council for the Arts, Songlines’ Tony Reif, and the many musicians who collaborated with him made it possible for Chris Gestrin to realize his spacious, open-ended vision.

Written by

Mark Werlin

Mark is a videomaker and music reviewer who writes about jazz and new creative music, in DSD, for NativeDSD, and All About Jazz. He has a special interest in new music produced by independent audiophile labels. His videos of solo musical performances were featured in a U.S. Library of Congress program.


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