Music Reviews

Songlines Recordings | Group Review #3

Group review of five albums from Songlines Recordings covering a unique jazz quartet, intimate solo piano works, modern jazz improvisation that evokes African percussion, and more! Dive on in and explore more sounds of Songlines.

Tony Malaby – Apparitions
Recorded in DSD 64

An artistic milestone of New York ‘downtown’ creative jazz with an avant-garde edge, recorded in crystal-clear DSD.

Saxophonist-composer Tony Malaby called an unusually configured quartet of saxophone, standup bass, and two drummers into Systems Two Studio in Brooklyn on October 8, 2002. By that time, the Arizona-born player had earned a reputation as a dynamic and emotive sideman, through his work with Marty Ehrlich’s and Mario Pavone’s groups. He went on to participate in the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and numerous other projects, and continued to lead many of his own sessions, but on that day in 2002, Malaby, bassist Drew Gress, and drummers Tom Rainey and Michael Sarin created a remarkable recording of a compelling musical conception.

The first three tracks comprise Malaby’s composition “The Mestizo Suite” (a reference to his Latino heritage). As the piece flows seamlessly from one movement into the next, Malaby’s tenor leaps and soars through fiery hard bop, post-bop and “New Thing” inspired phrases. The 20 minutes’ length of the suite flies past, and comes to rest in a mood of quiet introspection.

Tony Malaby

In “Talpa”, Malaby opens with a long-line, lyrical head melody that sounds composed while retaining the spontaneity of improvisation. It’s a characteristic of much of the album; opening themes sound prepared and fully arranged, but then the tunes evolve without obvious repetition or conformity to the conventional head/chorus/bridge form. The flow is more organic. Listen for this quality in Malaby’s dialogue with bassist Drew Gress on the piece “Voladores”. There is a shape to the piece, but it doesn’t have to follow traditional form in order to sound like jazz. 

Throughout the set, drummers Michael Sarin, positioned left and Tom Rainy, positioned right (except on the tunes “Fast Tip” and “Tula”) share rhythmic conversation in complementary idioms. On the title track, “Apparitions“, delicate washes of cymbals and subtle stick work on the drums opens room for the bass and saxophone to engage in a call-and-response dialogue that rises to joyous cries.

In its original SACD release, “Apparitions” received widespread critical accolades from the jazz press. This new reissue, especially in NativeDSD’s Higher Rates remastering, conveys all the brilliance and energy of this remarkable session.

Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz – Solos
Recorded in DSD 64

Partners in life and music perform an intimate concert of solo piano works that explore Holcomb’s and Horvitz’ Americana and Impressionist influences, recorded live to DSD.

Solo improvisation in jazz is often described as playing ‘without a net’. For pianists, playing without the rhythmic support of a drummer, the harmonic foundation of a bassist, and the contrasting voices of trumpets and saxophones, places the full weight on their two hands. 

Composer-pianists and partners in life Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz bring to their performances shared musical values, and individually distinct but complementary keyboard styles. Careful listening to Holcomb’s playing reveals traces of early influences, from the full-keyboard palette of Cecil Taylor to the pointillism of Messiaen. In Horvitz, the jazz tradition is always present, and in both players’ performances, hymns and folk melodies weave into the fabric of free improvisation. 

Wayne Horvitz & Robin Holcomb

Holcomb’s opening track “Reno” evokes a mood of displacement and melancholy, a strain of which runs through many of her pieces. The hesitant waltz rhythm of Horvitz’ “Tired” transports the listener to a dancehall long past its glory. Programming the two composers back-to-back, rather than grouped together, allows their distinctive voices to be heard in a dialogue of equals. 

For an intimate musical experience, turn down the lights in your listening room, and picture yourself in the hall of the UBC School of Music, Vancouver, where this rare duo performance took place. 

Benoît Delbecq – Nu-Turn
Recorded in DSD 64

On a uniquely prepared grand piano, Delbecq spins lyrical, modernist jazz improvisations over the polyrhythms of African percussion 

The development of prepared piano is often attributed to American avant-garde composer and theorist John Cage. For his 1940 dance piece ‘Bacchanal’, Cage inserted small objects in between piano strings to create an exotic percussion sound effect. Musical scholarship traces the use of strummed piano strings, damping certain keys while sounding others, and inserting paper between the string, to even earlier composers. 

Its use in new jazz is notable in the work of French pianist Benoît Delbecq. He has long been committed to performing on a prepared piano; by inserting hand-carved wood twigs between the strings of the piano, he produces sounds that evoke the character of African hand percussion and Balinese Gamelan instruments. In a 2022 interview in Jazz Speaks, Delbecq succinctly summarized the sources of his artistic inspiration:  “New ideas come through when artists dig into new forms and practices from all parts of the world.”

Photo by Svenn Sivertssen

In the opening pieces on Nu-Turn, “in rainbows” and “in lilac”, echoes of post-war 20th century classical music flow through unfolding improvisation. The spacious and percussive “in lilac”, an etude for the wood-dampened piano strings, displays a range of timbres that is simply astonishing. On many of the pieces, the piano is played either without, or with sparing use of preparation, which allows the first-time listener to Delbecq’s music to hear his mastery of contemporary jazz idiom as well as his distinctive percussive sound palette. 

It was my good fortune to be in Paris on an evening when Benoît Delbecq was performing in the intimate hall of the concert venue 19 rue Paul Fort. His exquisite, trans-cultural improvisations held the audience in thrall. Unlike some improvisers I’ve seen in concert, he openly expresses and shares his enthusiasm and the joy of music-making. 

Session engineer David Simpson and mastering engineer Graemme Brown capture Delbecq’s unique piano sound with striking fidelity in this original DSD recording.

Misha Mengelbeg – Four In One [Pure DSD]
Pure DSD album recorded in DSD 64

Veteran Dutch pianist-composer Misha Mengelberg and his longtime colleague, percussionist Han Bennink, made this date with Americans Dave Douglas and Brad Jones in Avatar Studios, NYC in 2000, at the dawn of the SACD era.

From the opening track, Mengelberg’s “Hypochristmutreefuzz”, which he and Bennink recorded with Eric Dolphy in 1964 just weeks prior to Dolphy’s untimely death, through a set of post-bop originals and Thelonious Monk tunes, this live-to-DSD recording captures the group’s sure-footed interactions — listen to the players turn on a dime from free blowing to a walking beat and swinging melodies in “Kneebus” – and the wide dynamics of Bennink’s huge percussion kit, a challenge for any recording engineer.

Standouts include an 8-minute reinterpretation of “Monk’s Mood” introduced by Brad Jones’ lyrical unaccompanied bass, and Mengelberg’s splendidly Monkish solo on his own “Blues after Piet”. Mengelberg, who died in 2017, was a champion of the works of Thelonious Monk and the unjustly neglected pianist-composer Herbie Nichols, and a co-founder of the Instant Composers Pool (ICP), a collective of European composer-improvisors. “Four in One” captures in the vivid sonics of DSD the energy of purposefulness and whimsical humor that Mengelberg and Bennink brought to their performances.

Dylan van der Schyff – The Definition Of A Toy [Pure DSD]
Pure DSD album recorded in DSD 64

A stellar ensemble of players from Vancouver, New York, the Netherlands and Germany are on this captivating set of creative post-bop jazz, recorded in DSD

One of the most challenging tasks for jazz composers is to assemble players who do not all live in the same region for concerts and recording sessions. Musicians based in Europe, the West Coast and East Coast of North America may only have a few days to meet, rehearse, perform and record brand-new compositions. 

For the album “The Definition Of A Toy”, composer-drummer Dylan van der Schyff summoned players from his home base of Vancouver, New York, the Netherlands and Germany. Some had performed together in prior projects, others had not. Planning the session was a big risk to undertake, and that level of risk-taking is evident in the structuring of the album. The opening track, “Trio No. 1”, is as far from a typical jazz album opening as can be imagined. Michael Moore’s clarinet flights, Mark Helias’ intuitive, shifting bass harmonies, and Dylan van der Schyff’s textural percussion accents set an adventurous tone for the entire album.

Dylan van der Schyff

In the title track, a chromatic rising phrase played in unison by the two horns prompts an abstract flurry of notes from pianist Kaufman. Van der Schyff maintains a loping beat under Moore’s serpentine alto solo, and for a moment, you feel you’re listening to a chart in the postpop tradition. Bassist Mark Helias’ harmonically advanced phrases counterpoint van der Schyff’s terse drum fills. 

In the final track on the album, “Broken”, the skillful chart juxtaposes tight ensemble passages with open-space solos and duos, keeping the listener’s attention focused not only on the moment-to-moment details, but the developing logic of the piece as a whole.

Placing trumpeter Brad Turner, saxophonist–clarinetist Michael Moore, and pianist Achim Kaufman in the same room was a winning musical strategy. Though each musician works out of a different idiom, the guidance offered by van der Schyff and Helias sends them on a course of inspired improvisation.

Check out all the reviewed albums, as well as other albums from Songlines Recordings.

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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