Music Reviews

Multiple Album Review of Songlines Recordings

HRAudio jazz music reviewer Mark Werlin offers us a multi-album review of recent albums from Songlines Recordings.

Mikkel Ploug: Alleviation

On “Alleviation”, Danish electric guitarist Mikkel Ploug unplugs, and undertakes a set of solo acoustic guitar compositions with influences ranging from folk fingerpicking to traditional Danish church hymns, post-War European classical to American minimalist styles. What makes the set especially notable is his choice of instrument: an 80 year-old vintage Gibson. At a glance, the project might seem like a mismatch of nationalities and idioms, but it’s one of the most intriguing and best-recorded acoustic guitar albums of recent years.

Mikkel Ploug acquired a circa 1942-1945 Gibson Banner LG-2 following a visit to New York. After practicing for several months, he noticed that the sound and feel of the instrument was, in a sense, guiding the direction of his compositions: “The guitar would push me around stylistically—sometimes ask me to include less notes in a voicing or more open strings, and just opened up new fields of inspiration… a melodic or harmonic concept like on ‘Couleurs d’Olivier,’ a composition based on Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. ‘Circle Wind’ is written with Steve Reich’s repetitive work in mind.”

The handsome PDF booklet that accompanies the download includes striking color and sepia tone images by photographer Frida Gregersen of the LG-2, a guitar whose history is written into its aged and mottled finish. Engineer Mads Brinch Nielsen carefully recorded Ploug with ribbon mics in a warm wooden room that provides a natural acoustic glow.

“Alleviation” is an album made for quiet reflection. Mute the smart phone, ignore incoming texts, turn down the lights. That the playing sounds so unhurriedly confident testifies to Mikkel Ploug’s gift for accommodating his compositional technique to the limitations—and strengths—of an unfamiliar instrument: the collision of time signature and subdivided beats on the title track “Alleviation”; a suggestion of half-remembered melodies in “Couleurs d’Olivier”; the subtle, but unnerving caesurae on “Gruntvig Reflections.”

“Alleviation” is a work of outstanding musicianship, and a gesture of respect for the unknown guitar makers at the Michigan factory who built an instrument that was good enough to bear the Gibson name 80 years ago, and that still speaks to us today.

Wayne Horvitz – Some Places Are Forever Afternoon

There is a romantic image of the mid-century American poet driving along lonesome highways, observing the shifting circumstances of post-War American farms, towns, and cities. In the writings of poet Richard Hugo ((1923-1982), Wayne Horvitz found inspiration for a musical travelogue, “Some Places Are Forever Afternoon.” The booklet that accompanies the album contains photographs by Nica Horvitz, the composer’s daughter, taken during a road trip in the northwestern state of Montana, where Hugo had lived. 

Poems, photographs, tone poems… there is a continuity of themes and images that crosses the artistic forms that comprise this remarkable album. For the project, Horvitz combined two groups of his colleagues. Cellist Peggy Lee, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, and cornetist Ron Miles, from Gravitas, add colors of jazz and new creative music to the rootsy, folk-drenched Sweeter Than The Day. 

Within the constraints of the composed music, there is room for succinct improvisation, and the instrumentalists rise to the occasion. Over the solid backing of Tim Young, Keith Lowe and Eric Eagle, Ron Miles’ muted cornet sings wordless blues in “those who remain are the worst”, evoking the music of Duke Ellington that poet Hugo loved to hear on his car radio.

Listeners to the album should take time to read Hugo’s poems (reprinted in the booklet) and look at Nica Horvitz’s photos while listening to the music. In the last stanza of the poem “West Marginal Way”, from which the title of the album was excerpted, the poet reflects that although something precious in the landscape has been lost, traces remain that can be recovered in memory. 

“Some Places Are Forever Afternoon” was recorded in 24/96 at Seattle’s Studio Litho. Like the preceding self-titled album “Sweeter Than The Day”, it has pristine sonics. Turn up the amp, display the poems and photos on your monitor, and take a road trip on Richard Hugo’s and Wayne Horvitz’ musical highway.

Patrick Zimmerli – Clockworks

You might not have heard of composer-saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli. He mostly works outside the jazz mainstream, and has relatively few releases in catalogue. Much of his writing is in the new classical field. His award-winning chamber music is widely performed. 

Over the past two decades, Songlines has issued six albums led by Zimmerli, across a range of styles and ensemble configurations. “Clockworks”, originally released in 2018, may be the apex of his jazz writing and is, without question, a modern masterwork. 

Alongside Zimmerli on tenor sax, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Christopher Tordini, and percussionist John Hollenbeck bring a distinctively contemporary feel to the set of Zimmerli’s originals. In Ethan Iverson, Patrick Zimmerli has the perfect foil for his carefully constructed compositions. Iverson paints swaths of tone color on Zimmerli’s canvases. If there were a more thriving popular jazz listenership today, “Waltz of the Polyrhythmic Palindrome” would be recognized as a new jazz standard. 

As a soloist, Zimmerli draws on jazz tradition but avoids clichés. He has a clean attack, and articulates his lines distinctly. Over Iverson’s Monk-ish comping, Zimmerli spins cool, lyrical lines of melodic invention. 

Clockworks is structured as movements of a larger composition, rather than an arrangement of pieces with their own individual strengths and characters. Like many new musical projects, it was funded in part by grants from arts agencies, and carries an expectation that there will be a small number of live performances of the final work. Without an institutional support structure, albums like Clockworks might not be created at all. 

The downside of funded projects – and of the current jazz economy more generally – is that there are fewer opportunities for audiences to hear new works live, until the piece is fully realized and ready for one or a small number of finished performances. It is a credit to the four musicians on “Clockworks” that they project liveliness and a sense of spontaneity to these diligently-rehearsed performances.

The album was recorded in excellent sound quality by Ryan Streber live to two-track 24/96, a throwback to the way jazz was captured in the classic era. This is the sound of a well-rehearsed modern jazz band playing without a net. 

Michael Blake Amor de Cosmos

Michael Blake was DownBeat’s Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year in 2002. A long-time contributor to New York’s downtown scene (he played for years with the Lounge Lizards), Blake grew up in Vancouver, and retained strong ties to his Canadian heritage. Inspired by the life of 19th-century British Columbia newspaperman and politician William Alexander Smith, who renamed himself Amor de Cosmos, Blake wrote a set of original tunes for Vancouver’s first-drawer players: trumpet player Brad Turner with Chris Gestrin’s working trio of Gestrin, piano, André Lachance, bass, and Dylan van der Schyff, percussion, and marimba/percussionist Sal Ferreras

The album ranges from funky jazz to open-horizon new music, sometimes within a single piece. The title track “Amor de Cosmos” opens with a solid groove, Gestrin’s electric piano keeping a steady pulse under Blake’s and Turner’s lyrical solos. The ‘air’ around Dylan van der Schyff’s cymbals floats over the music like a mist, and his energetic workout with Gestrin and Lachance towards the end of the tune is one of the highlights of the set.

Though there’s a lot of contrast in tone, a thread of musical narrative runs from the African-jazz groove of “The Wash Away” to the late-night melancholy of “Infirmary”, from the emotionally wrenching “The Hunt”, to the contrapuntal bounce of “Paddy Pie Face”. It’s a bravura work that’s overdue for renewed recognition. 

The longtime commitment of Songlines to document Vancouver’s musical artists made it possible for Michael Blake to realize a project of such daring scope. Recorded at Vancouver’s The Factory, the album was originally released on SACD, and is now available in 2.0 and 5.0 in multiple formats.  

Gordon Grdina Think Like The Waves

Vancouver-based guitarist, oud player, composer and bandleader Gordon Grdina was mentored by bassist Gary Peacock, the calm center of the Keith Jarrett “Standards” trio, over a period of five years. Working with a musician who had played alongside pianists Jarrett, Bill Evans, and Paul Bley, connected Grdina to the lineage of an earlier generation of musical modernists. 

“Think Like the Waves”, released in 2006, was the culmination of Grdina’s studies with Peacock. Joined in the studio by the great Paul Motian, the group performed an entire set of Grdina’s original compositions, ten with electric guitar, four with oud. There’s a gradual movement from the chamber jazz of the first three guitar tunes towards the Middle-Eastern scales of the oud piece “Renunciation”. 

The subtle interplay of West and East runs through subsequent years of Gordon Grdina’s musical output. His distinctive writing, and the effortless mastery of Peacock and Motian, marks this session as an early milestone in his career. 

“Think Like The Waves” was recorded in 24/88, mixed in 2.0 and 5.0, and originally released on SACD. NativeDSD’s high rate DSD versions expand the sonic vista of this well-recorded album. 

Brad Shepik – Human Activity Suite

Versatile guitarist-composer Brad Shepik conveys his response to global climate change in pieces that encompass influences from Turkish music to post-bop, in the company of top-flight New York players Ralph Alessi, Gary Versace, Drew Gress and Tom Rainey.

The challenge that Brad Shepik set for himself in the composition of this album was to evoke the musical cultures of all the world’s continents – no small task – while acknowledging that the varied influences would all be “filtered through [his] own address in Brooklyn.” It’s worth noting that New York is truly the world’s cultural nexus; more languages are spoken in the Borough of Queens in one small geographical area than anywhere else on the planet.

The commitment of the musicians to venture beyond cultural tourism and integrate the diverse musical directions yields a coherent and compelling set of new jazz. From the opening tune “Lima”, with its colorful threads of Peruvian folk melodies, to the Chinese orchestral textures of the closing “Waves”, the composition paints a picture of a world at a threshold. 

Throughout, guitarist Shepik brings his instrument in and out of the foreground to allow the other musicians plenty of space to explore. On “Not So Far”, trumpetist Alessi, whose work on ECM has drawn widespread critical praise, solos energetically, the perfect foil to Shepik’s thoughtful electric guitar flights. Interacting with virtuoso bassist Drew Gress and veteran new-jazz drummer Tom Rainey, pianist Gary Versace draws on the palette of post-bop idiom. Versace is equally conversant on the accordion, an instrument that crosses all cultures; his playing on the introspective “Current” sets a yearning, nostalgic mood.

If “human activity” in one sense of the term is clearly leading the world towards an uncertain future, the activity of artists like Brad Shepik, who engage with the world’s different cultures, offers hope that the universality of musical language can transcend those divisions.

From an audiophile perspective, the album can be enjoyed as a pure listening experience. The 24/88 recording is vivid and transparent, while retaining the warmth of the acoustic instruments. Originally on SACD, now in 2.0 and 5.0 DSD and PCM formats.

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.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply