Music Reviews

Songlines Recordings | Group Review #1

Music that transports the listener on a cross-genre jazz journey 

On “Train Song”, Aros, a multinational ensemble of Netherlands-based Austrian Marion von Tilzer (composer, piano), Canadians Rob Armus (composer, tenor sax) and John Korsrud (trumpet), Scots Anne Wood (violin) and Alan Purves (percussion), and German Sven Schuster (bass) performs a set of original compositions by Armus and Von Tilzer that blend jazz, 20th-century European classical music, American minimalism and Argentinean tango into compelling works of new music. The SACD was recorded direct to DSD in Hilversum, Holland, mixed to 5.0 and 2.0, and mastered at the Sony SACD Project in Boulder, Colorado. 

The opening track by Rob Armus, “Zimbabwe”, is a multipart composition that evokes the melodies popularized by South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and the rhythmic drive of Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti’s ensemble Egypt 80. As the piece transitions into its second part, Armus introduces a feature that recurs in many of his tunes, his use of minimalist arpeggios. The third section showcases Armus’ post-Coltrane jazz soloing. He is a technically skilled tenorist who plays with cool discipline even in free-blowing mode, as here. A rising melodic figure by the two horns over a brief percussion solo brings the piece to a strong climax. 

“Road Song” shifts the tone into European territory. A lilting 6/8 minor-key dance tune suggestive of French musette provides violinist Anne Wood the framework for a dramatic solo. Wood has performed and recorded in numerous pop, classical and world music projects. She digs into her solo with fearless inventiveness, displaying formidable technique and a warm string tone, ably supported by von Tilzer’s delicate piano accompaniment. 

Marion Von Tilzer’s “Four ‘n’ a Half” demonstrates the wide dynamic range offered by original DSD recording. It’s an exercise in bravura pianism, played up and down the keyboard from ppp to fff, presented with strikingly realistic impact. The lowest notes of the instrument are presented with clarity and punch. 

Argentinean composer/bandoneon virtuoso Astor Piazzola made a series of recordings and concert appearances in the late 1980s that carried his musical influence from the Americas into the heart of Europe. Rob Armus’ “Tango” recalls the melancholy strains of Piazzola’s melodies and features violinist Wood’s expressive soloing.

In the unaccompanied piano introduction to her piece “Fugatisme”, von Tilzer demonstrates a profound grasp of modern jazz piano idiom in the lineage of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. But jazz was not the main vehicle for her creative writing and performing. Her later projects, including “Secret Key Masters” on Challenge, “Ten Songs of Change” and “Into Eternity” on trptk, expand beyond genres into new music terrain. “Train Song” documents her skillful and lyrical jazz playing.

Jazz enthusiasts will find much to enjoy in this set of well-rehearsed, skillfully performed, emotionally engaging new music.

A groundbreaking encounter of West African improvisation and European chamber jazz

Soloing over chord changes is a hallmark of jazz, but there are equally demanding improvisational practices from other musical traditions. In this album of West African music, the players improvise over harmonically static patterns, weaving intricate musical textures and inventive melodic lines. 

The late French bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, whose credits include membership in Steve Lacy’s quintet and collaborations with Butch Morris and David Murray, formed a cross-cultural musical group, ‘Waraba’, with Malian and Gambian musicians Yakhouba Sissokho, Lansiné Kouyaté and Moriba Koïta. After years of studying the kora, a 21-string instrument, Avenel deepened his engagement with music of the Manding culture. The pieces on “Waraba” blend Avenel’s upright bass with kora, n’goni (a smaller stringed instrument), and bala, a kind of wooden xylophone. Flautist Michel Edelin joins the ensemble on several tunes. 

From the opening notes, an unaccompanied bass introduction to the first track, “Lamba”, an extraordinary listening experience unfolds. The percussive strokes of the bala, the gently strummed kora, transmit generations of musical lineage. 

Avenel’s intro to “N’Dondore” illustrates his deep appreciation and seamless integration into Manding music. His fingers seem to fly across the bass’s four strings, eliciting the melody with a lightness of touch he learned in his studies of the 21-string Kora. Lansiné Kouyaté, on the bala, blurs the distinction between rhythm and melodic instruments; he emphasizes the rhythms while adding density to the melodic texture.

The hypnotic rhythms of the bass and balafon under the harp-like sounds of the kora convey a joyous mood. Each of the African instruments demand the highest level of virtuosity. 

Other highlights include Avenel’s “Pi-Pande”, in which he overdubs bass and kora, the skillful solo trading in “Kaïra”, and the touchingly evocative “Tubaka”. The recorded sound in original DSD captures the unique and delicate timbres of the West African instruments in vivid detail.

Compositions on the brink of freedom that reveal the creative moment

Audiophiles like to show off their systems with demonstration records that extend to the deepest lows and the highest highs. On most jazz albums, the lowest notes are played on the upright bass and the highest notes on saxophones or trumpet. But “The Distance”, a trio recording by Chris Gestrin, piano, Ben Monder, electric guitar, and Dylan van der Schyff, percussion, demonstrates an audio system’s middle frequencies capability. 

Recording a grand piano in a real acoustic space can be a challenge for engineers, and to reproduce the particular piano sound that serves a composer’s intentions is even more difficult to achieve. In “The Distance”, Gestrin’s piano is recorded in an unusually well-balanced mix with Monder’s electric guitar played in its middle range with the treble knob turned down. The result is a sonic fabric woven out of mid-frequency colors; the sparkle is provided by Dylan van der Schyff’s cymbals. The subtle interplay among the musicians brings out the best qualities of the compositions. 

A “Decentered” Trio

The album opener, “Ferns”, a tentative dialogue between the piano and guitar, gives way to the full trio in “Treacle”, featuring an Ornette Coleman-like head melody played in off-the-beat unison. While the traditional piano/bass/drums trio spotlighted the pianist as the lead soloist (until the Bill Evans Trio with bassist Scott LaFaro broke the mold), here, the trio is fully ‘decentered’. Each member of the ensemble has an equal voice. Close listening and support of each other’s solos follows jazz rather than free improvisation conventions. During Ben Monder’s solo, Gestrin pounds out chords low on the keyboard. The return to the head firmly establishes the jazz character of the piece. 

Chris Gestrin’s title track, “The Distance”, with its ambiguous harmonic center, resonates to the sound of mid-1960s post-bop. The thoughtful dialogue between Gestrin and Monder, and the subtle support from van der Schyff make this a standout on the album. It rises to the top of my post-2000s jazz playlist, and deserves to become a new jazz standard.   

If you’ve never heard of Chris Gestrin, check out the discography on his website. The stylistic range of his musical activities as a performer and mastering engineer is astonishing – he’s a “most valuable player” in the Vancouver music scene. 

Songlines’ original DSD recording, engineered and mixed to 2.0 and 5.0 by Graemme Brown, captures the details of guitar bathed in reverb, and accurately represents a grand piano set in a resonant acoustic. Since the drum kit is set back from the piano and guitar amp, as it would be in a live performance, you’ll want to turn up the volume to appreciate the fullness and warmth of the sound textures. 

Dazzling music from contemporary chamber ensemble that happens to improvise

The music on “Way Out East”, performed by the Gravitas Quartet of Wayne Horvitz, piano, Peggy Lee, cello, Ron Miles, cornet, and Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon, can be considered jazz-inspired chamber music or contemporary classical-inspired jazz. If you’re coming from a classical music background, you’ll notice the Gravitas Quartet’s chamber music character, especially in their use of the orchestral instruments cello and bassoon. If your ear is attuned to jazz improvisation, the trumpet and piano solos will draw you more in that direction. As a listener with one foot in the classical camp and the other in jazz, I find myself hearing the music from both perspectives at once. 

This band is essentially a contemporary chamber ensemble that happens to improvise.

Wayne Horvits, from the liner notes

Composer-pianist Wayne Horvitz has written for his own groups, participated in John Zorn’s Naked City ensemble, recorded with guitar luminary Bill Frisell, collaborated with his wife, pianist-vocalist Robin Holcomb, and is currently leading a regular big-band gig in his home of Seattle, Washington. His albums for Songlines span a wide range of ensemble formats, but share a similar line of intention. In the opening track of “Way Out East”, “LB”, Horvitz blurs the line between composer and soloist in service of the total group sound. The original DSD recording captures the subtlety and thoughtfulness in his playing. 

An Sound Innovator

Through a long presence in the Colorado jazz scene and his special interest in developments in trumpet design, Ron Miles was both an inspiration to his musical collaborators and a sound innovator on his instruments. In his later years, Miles played a custom-built prototype large cornet in the key of G made by Dave Monette in Portland, Oregon. On “Way Out East”, based on the recollections of bandleader-composer Horvitz, Ron Miles was most likely playing a Bb cornet. He brought to his playing a high degree of attentiveness that comes across in this recording; a thorough grasp of Horvitz’ musical style, and a selfless presence. His solos rise up with a voice-like quality that’s difficult to characterize in words but immediately apparent to the listener. With a relatively small recorded output, any album with Ron Miles is worth hearing, and “Way Out East” captures his unique sound in a sympathetic quartet of gifted players. Standouts are Miles’ solos in the title track, and in the melancholy “Berlin 1914”.  

L to R: Sara Schoenbeck, Wayne Horvitz, Ron Miles (cornet), Peggy Lee

Cellist Peggy Lee, a composer and bandleader of small and large ensembles in Vancouver, BC, paints with a wide palette of tones. Her improvisations draw on a background of contemporary art music, and like Ron Miles, she has a deep affection for the Western American influences that flow through Wayne Horvitz’ writing. Effortlessly switching between bowed and plucked lines, Lee covers the supportive role of a bassist when she is not soloing. Bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck has been performing with Horvitz on many projects over the years. Schoenbeck’s supple, plaintive lines in the duet piece “Our Brief Duet” maps the ground the two musicians would explore years later, in the superb recording for Songlines, “Cell Walk”. 

In the longest piece on the album, “Berlin 1914”, Horvitz’ skillful writing and arrangement, Sara Schoenbeck’s seamless blend of her bassoon with Peggy Lee’s cello, Lee’s dark-hued solo bowed passages, and Ron Miles’ emotion-laden closing solo encapsulate the mutuality and individuality of these four gifted musicians.

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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