Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Joe Lovano ‘Arctic Riff’ 2LP/CD (ECM) 4/5

One thing I’ve noticed about Poland’s Marcin Wasilewski Trio is that the first track on their albums is always a stunner. “Trio Conversation/Hyperballad” from 2005’s “Trio”, “The First Touch” from 2008’s “January”, “An den kleinen Radioapparat” from 2011’s “Faithful”, “Austin” from 2014’s “Spark of Life” and “Spark of Life/Sudovian Dance” from their 2018 “Live” album. “Arctic Riff” is no different, the opening tune “Glimmer of Hope” being one of the most touching and emotive pieces of music I’ve heard this year.

Long established as one of ECM’s finest, most consistent piano-led trios, they rarely disappoint. Perhaps underrated for some years, they have quietly been producing wonderful music together since the early 90’s when pianist Wasilewski first established a musical partnership with bassist Sławomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michał Miśkiewicz. Tomasz Stanko first mentored the group before recruiting the trio as his working band in 2001. Since then the trio have gone from strength to strength, producing some incredible music along the way.

“Arctic Riff” sees the first-time creative teaming for the trio with US tenorist Joe Lovano. This isn’t the first time the trio has morphed into a quartet, with Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder joining the trio on their “Spark of Life” album. Milder was well suited to the trio’s style and the recording was at times breathtakingly beautiful. With Joe Lovano though, his presence and style takes the band into some welcome new directions. It’s clear to hear on this recording the influence Lovano has had, with a more adventurous path being explored than on the trio’s previous albums.

Wasilewski and Lovano share the writing credits here, and the whole album does, in fact, feel like a very collaborative effort. Tracks such as the opener “Glimmer of Hope” and “Fading Sorrow” have the trio’s lyrical stamp all over them, whilst “Cadenza”, “Stray Cat Walk” and “On The Other Side” are very clearly far more collaborative with Lovano’s own inimitable style shining through. Carla Bley’s “Vashkar” takes the quartet into more unfamiliar territory, with Lovano bearing down authoritatively on the melody before the Polish trio unravel some the tune’s finer implications.

Overall, “Arctic Riff” is yet another richly rewarding album from the trio. Lovano adds his presence in a very positive way, with some delightfully intuitive, melodic and lyrical music flowing freely throughout the entire session. Not since ECM released the Steve Kuhn Trio / Joe Lovano album “Mostly Coltrane” have I enjoyed Lovano’s input so much on an ECM recording. Splendid stuff indeed.

Mike Gates

Read also:
Marcin Wasilewski Trio ‘Live’ 2LP/CD (ECM) 4/5

Master Oogway ‘Earth and Other Worlds’ LP/CD (Rune Grammofon) 3/5

Master Oogway is a four-piece Norwegian band made up of young, adventurous musicians intent on making high energy music based on a jazz-rock improv ethos. Earth and Other Worlds is the quartet’s second release, following on from their debut on Clean Feed Records in 2018. Strong group interaction mixes with spontaneous solo sketches to create a mellay of juxtaposed sounds, from avant-garde jazz to heavy rock and back again.

There’s a bit of a false dawn to this album. The first three minutes are simply stunning, sounding like a Norwegian hybrid version of Kit Downes, Tom Challenger and Robert Stillman. A pastiche of atmospheric sound is created as a backdrop for some beautiful blowing from saxophonist Lauritz Skeldsvoll. And then it turns like a bruised monster baying for blood. Håvard Nordberg Funderud’s thunderous guitar leads the way, with locked and loaded back-up from drummer Martin Heggli Mellem and bassist Karl Erik Horndalsveen. And on this opening track, the contrast works really well. It’s the light and dark shades and opposing atmospheres that create tension and release, thus making for a powerfully potent combination.

As the album unfolds each track has its moments of brilliance, and there is just enough variation to keep me interested. After a while though, the spontaneous improvisation and prog-rock cliches become a little too tried and tested, a little stale perhaps, the same formula repeating itself. It’s as if the band are trying too hard maybe to push even more boundaries when all they need to do is relax a little bit.

Earth and Other Worlds shows a lot of promise from this young Norwegian quartet. With a little more finesse in their performance and a more focussed element to their writing style, this could be one hell of a band in the future. I look forward with great interest to hearing their development and new releases.

Mike Gates

Örjan Hultén Orion Featuring Ernie Bruce ‘Liberia Ballad’ CD (Artogrush) 4/5

Liberia Ballad is the fifth album from Örjan Hultén Orion. It sees the Swedish band collaborating with Liberian singer-composer Ernie Bruce. I for one was unaware of the long historic links between Sweden and Liberia. These are social and commercial links stretching over hundreds of years but here the currency is music. This does not mean that a group of Swedes and an African have come together to produce a worthy World Music blend. Liberia Ballad is as much about the American art form as the ethnicity of the musicians who are making the music. Each bring their own take on that art form channelled through their individual experience of the music from their location in its history and development. At the risk of this turning a little too serious, on to the music which at heart is joyous, positive and full of life.

The instrumental title track opens the album with its street sounds reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘Black Market’ before taking us into a loping piano-driven tune by Torbjörn Gulz who is responsible for many of the compositions on this collaborative album. He says of ‘Dreams’ the first of the vocal tracks on Liberia Ballad, “we started a collaboration, where Ernie provided some of the compositions with lyrics, and I wrote ‘Dreams’ in the Spring of 2019. I composed it with the image of Ernie, sitting next to me at the piano with an always present laugh”. Ernie Bruce says, “I had to be very careful in complementing Torbjörn’s incredible piano platform to dance on”. ‘Dream’ is urging us to reach inside ourselves to find and connect with our dreams. Bruce’s voice warm but with a hint of fragility. The only obvious jazz comparison I could bring to mind here was the Johnny Hartman / John Coltrane collaborations without reliance on the American Songbook.

Elsewhere ‘Sixto’ sees Bruce crafting a lyric about Sixto Rodrigues, the subject of the 2012 award-winning documentary directed by Malik Bendjelloul, to the original Hultén composition which closed their 2016 album Faltrapport. It basically retells that story and features some urging, preaching tenor saxophone from the composer and finishes with an appreciative laugh from the lyricist who has treated us to some Eddie Jefferson style vocalise along the way.

Of the instrumentals which appear on Liberia Ballad, ‘The Bird’ is a lovely jaunty soprano outing based on the call of a bird which Hultén heard outside the band’s hotel in Monrovia. It is delivered as a trio with Filip Augustson at the bass and Peter Danemo drums. Sounds of heavy rain introduce ‘Liberian Rain’, an evocative bucolic composition by Torbjörn Gulz about “water in its various forms”. It has a simple but beautiful melodic form with Augustson’s bowed bass interlude particularly appealing.

‘Liberia Waltz’, a delightfully light, optimistic-sounding number features some crisp cymbal work from Danemo and a lyrical bass solo from Augustson before composer Gulz treats us to another of his uplifting solos.

‘Treaty Suite’ is strangely at odds with the mood of the rest of the album. Though not I think in a negative way. Where to place it on the album must have led to some interesting conversations I imagine. It appears as the sixth of nine tracks and features what sound engineer Johan Berke describes as a “collage of sound depicting a surrealistic dream sequence”. It opens with scene-setting by Gulz and Hultén before Ernie Bruce enters, not singing this time but reading in declamatory fashion from the text of a treaty of 1864 between Liberia and The Sweden-Norway Union. This is treated electronically to echo and repeat certain keywords against a backdrop of electronically processed sounds which swirl around the spoken lines in psychedelic fashion. An interesting aural experience through headphones. The electronic soundscape carries us to the second half of the composition with a gradual underpinning by piano and saxophone as though commenting upon the spoken text to a bass statement from Filip Augustson which becomes a definite bass hook leading us into a wonderful Coltranesque section with the band in full flight and Hultén’s strong tenor saxophone at its standout best. The coda brings us back to bleeping electronics.
Credit must go to Johan Berke whose electronic soundscape lifts ‘Treaty Suite’ to another level. It’s a strange but interesting trip.

‘When Delilah Smiles’ brings us back to earth. It’s the most classic jazz ballad on the album with a dancing solo from Gulz and lyrics from the vocalist which ask questions about Delilah which paint her as an enigmatic Mona Lisa figure.

The album’s closing track, ‘Sangay’, with music and lyrics by Ernie Bruce is in his words “about an imaginary African figure, who can be whomever the listener wishes it to be”. The repeated name of the songs central character leaves us with her shadow as an earworm.

Liberia Ballad is an interesting change of pace and experimentation for Örjan Hultén’s Orion. Their collaboration with singer Ernie Bruce is largely successful with everyone rising to the occasion. In the current times, we need to be reminded of the positive power of music and cross-continental friendship. Liberia Ballad reminds us of that. I look forward to hearing where we travel to next on our voyage.

Garry Corbett

Read also:
Örjan Hultén Orion ‘Minusgrader’ CD (Artogrush) 4/5

Błoto ‘Erozje’ LP/CD (Astigmatic) 4/5

Polish quartet, Błoto, are the hot muddy heart of the larger format EABS (Electro-Acoustic Beat Sessions); that sampling, loop-making, “reconstruction from deconstruction” jazz improv family from Wrocław. Marek Pędziwiatr (keys & synths), Olaf Węgier (tenor sax), Paweł Stachowiak (bass) and Marcin Rak (drums) are the plucky, handsome quadruplets who stepped out on their own for a single night session, back in 2018, that resulted in “Erozje”.

As I understand it, Błoto translates as ‘the mire’ and Erozje as “erosion”, so I wasn’t really expecting fun time, party time, all of the time, here. The opener, “Kałuże”, didn’t counter that expectation; it moves in a silent way – a sublimely empty, somewhat fretful space that segues into the Davis-fusion, beats-busy “Mady”; its fiery click energises Pędziwiatr’s rousing, space-jazz meanderings before resting on a solid hip-hop riff that Rock, Shadow, Dilla, Younge etc. would be chuffed with.

“Czarnoziemy” takes that energy and nails it to the floor. Rak’s hard-hitting; punctuating and fizzing but always smack dab solid. Pędziwiatr’s simple motif-of-four shifts into Węgier’s clamant spits and circles. More segue follows – sprinkling keys this time – as “Bagna” stiffens up under a bone-chilling breeze, stumbling into Rak’s stick-spinning patterns and collective percussive cracks and shivers.

“Czarne ziemie’ is a heavy, procrastinating hip-hop production with vintage 90s piano loop leading to a thrilling, syncopated, cacophonous breakdown. “Rędziny” is a west-side-story, back alley stand-off with plodding piano and cop strings that leads into the initially frenetic bassline-fuelled “Bielice”; slowing halfway into a delicious hip swing that Węgier lewdly makes out to.

“Ziemie zdegradowane przez człowieka” feels like space to breathe, a contemplative respite from the dark intensity that has preceded it. Limpid, liquid, ascendant piano dampens the insistent, metallic wash. It’s simple and bewitching, nostalgic, regretful. Momentary respite only though, as “Glina” disturbs the peace with gunshots and sirens and distress and anger. Intense and unrelenting, Its title is Polish slang for cop and its anti-police-violence message is vivid, felt and understood.

The hauntingly beautiful closer, “Gleby brunatne”, is another introspective piano-led soundscape. It still has the insistence that the rest of the album has but it feels more hopeful, more future-facing, more an imperative.

“Erozje” is arresting, riveting, vital jazz hip-hop for 2020. It has a mixtape feel which although having its roots firmly in the halcyon period of real hip-hop, it’s very much a voice of now. It has a damp, tacit, simmering anger and low-level anxiety not alien to most of us today. It’s not a downer though – more frustrated, I’d say; irritated by those blind to the truth and the change that’s needed. It gets in your head, yes. Does it erode? Maybe, but it hasn’t left me feeling mired at all. It’s left me feeling heard and it’s left me thinking “Yeah, I fucking know how you feel, mate”.

Ian Ward

AuB ‘AuB’ CD (Edition) 4/5

AuB (pronounced ORB) is the eponymous debut album from the London based quartet masterminded by saxophonists Tom Barford and Alex Hitchcock. United by a fiery desire to make music together, their debut is expressive and intoxicating, ambitiously bringing together individual ideas around which they improvise, developing new lines of thought and opening up fresh avenues of creativity. It’s a record that defines them as exciting, young and progressive musicians.

The band name and album title allude to their collaboration as the driving force. It originates from the points on a Venn diagram, the unity of A and B, at which the combined forces are greater than the sum of their parts. AuB represents the synergies created through the development of the collective voice and sound: when two minds come together with a common purpose to create something collectively greater. Ultimately, the music on the album would not have materialised without this deep collaborative ethos. Propelled by the driving rhythm section of Ferg Ireland and James Maddren, the music interweaves cross-rhythms with deft melodies and catchy hooks, playfully delighting and surprising in equal turns.

There’s a deft skill and radiance from this quartet that reminds me somewhat of Michael Brecker’s recordings through the 1990s and 2000s. It’s sharp, witty and inventive, with both saxophonists rising to the challenge and providing some startling virtuosic moments. The writing and collaborative effort works exceptionally well here, with Hitchcock and Barford sharing so many imaginative ideas, obviously on the same wavelength, with a sharp intensity and youthful boldness.

The stylistic approach and killer groove on “Not Jazz”, could be a tune penned by Chris Bowden in his prime. The band’s use of synths is also a fascinating feature, often heralding a change of pace or clever bridge to a tune, all making for a very engaging listening experience. The saxes combine so well on “Valencia” you’d have thought they’d been playing this piece together for decades. A natural combination of intuition and musical intelligence. The driving bass line on “Calvadoss” is mirrored by the swinging drums as the two saxophonists combine and intertwine in a classic way, each one bringing something new and inspiring out of the other. This is an audacious piece of music, one of my favourites on the album, sounding like a post-Bowie era Donny McCaslin in its originality. “Ruflo” pairs the two saxes together in a more traditional jazz style, the bass laying the foundation for some excellent soloing. “Ice Man” has a more jazz/pop feel to it, with some gorgeous ideas blazing a fresh trail. I particularly love the way the saxes take a back seat at times, in this case allowing the bass to take a wonderful solo. “Dual Reality” pairs the saxes together, sounding like a small sax chamber orchestra, reminiscent of similar pieces in years gone by from the likes of Tim Garland and Andy Shepard. The captivating “Doggerland” and “Groundhog Tuesday” both have an edgy Chris Potter feel to them, with a cool, uncompromising virtuosity.

This album just gets better and better the more I listen to it. Invigorating stuff from an exciting quartet. One can only surmise there be great things ahead for AuB.

Mike Gates

Sanja Marković ‘Ascension’ LP (A.MA) 4/5

This debut album from Sanja Marković, and first on vinyl from the A.MA label out of Italy, is instantly European in delivery. As the title track enters, there is the fragrance of Miles’ Tutu before the passage opens, and Marković’s vocals join Milena Jančurić – flute, Max Kochetov – soprano saxophone, Ivan Radivojević – trumpet, Mina Đekić – violin, Julijana Marković – cello, Aleksandar Grujić – electric piano, Miroslav Tovirac – electric bass and Igor Malesević – drums, providing support for the first of seven songs, six of which composed by Sanja Marković, while arranging all seven. Recorded in Serbia and Italy in 2017 with Marković’s ingratiating skills here including programming, soprano and tenor saxophone plus meticulous production, one might have to be respectful of the talent unfolding. Then on discovering several noteworthy renditions on-line of Upa Neguinho and Águas De Março with Belgrade’s Brazilian Jazz Collective, we also witness Marković playing acoustic guitar, not featured here. English lyrics throughout the longest piece here and somewhat of a rollercoaster with the band giving their all. A great way to open the album.

Before moving to the East Coast of the United States, Serbia born Sanja Marković gained her Master’s degree at the Faculty of Music in Belgrade. Her vocal delivery is very much, to these ears, one of American influence. On the second piece, ‘It Has Always Been’, there are hints of Ferrell, Freelon and Reeves of the ‘90s floating round my space. Perhaps it’s that ever-so-slight connection that has drawn interests from Tony Minvielle’s Foldedspace on JazzFM, Patrick Forge on NTS and Dr Bob Jones’ Surgery of late. Drums here provided instead by Predrag Milutinović (Milan Stanisavljević Quintet), supporting the piece as it soars to a vocal/saxophone crescendo. A powerful piece of music and the go-to track for airplay.

South African overtones to ’N’anya’ next, another fine addition with both Marković and Rastko Obradovic on tenor saxophones and spellbinding acoustic piano work from Grujić, double bass from Milan Nikolić and drumming from Milutinović. This is the only non-vocal piece here and a warm outstanding composition – one of my favourites, and proof enough why she is indeed an award-winning composer.

There’s spirituality next in the ballad, ‘The Mystery of Man’, with that all-important harp, played here by Gorana Ćurgus (Belgrad National Theatre Orchestra). This may very well attract the vinyl buying audience as its richness has the desired credentials. This has been the most visited number through this writer’s pre-listening period.

‘Sovereign State of Mind’ with melodica (Aleksandar Buzadzic) and electric piano, is the furthest left field the album takes us. Enjoying the experimentation here gives that diversity to her writing that will assist with her forward journey. This is an illuminating piece, keys alone conjure ‘70s aesthetics and reminiscent of jazz-fusion classics.

‘Zhega’ (or Heat) takes on new layers with embellishment from French horn (Igor Lazić), trombone (Mihajlo Bogosavljevic), cello (Ivana Grahovac) and violin from Manja Ristić, a piece I suspect was recorded live at Kolarac Concert Hall rather than the Orvel and Barba studios employed elsewhere for this release.

We conclude with ‘Sun’, a song inspired by a traditional Serbian “epic” XVI Century poem. There’s less in the way of musicians on this final number, but more engagement from Marković, in both vocals and her soprano playing. It conveys itself as being perhaps more about where Marković is with her heritage and her individual sound and a piece where the contemporary piece is held up by drumming from Petar Radmilović and Jančurić’s flute.

Had Marković’s only instrument have been her voice, this path would be the expected one, but having heard how comfortable she is with saxophone and (external reference) guitar, I feel perhaps any follow-on projects should balance the vocal and non-vocal evenly, broadening her audience and marketing reach. What one takes away from this first release is the power and enthusiasm from the large Serbian talent pool, endowed with all the right qualities, and the strings. The strings liberate this into the ‘special’ place and what an achievement for a debut album. It’s hats off, applause and repeated cries of “encore”.

Steve Williams

Waaju ‘Grown’ LP/CD (Olindo) 4/5

Grown is the latest from London-based quintet, Waaju, and sees the group expanding on their West African influenced world jazz template established on their impressive self-titled debut from 2018. Led by drummer Ben Brown, the group features Sam Rapley on saxophone, guitarist Tal Janes, Joe Downard on bass guitar and percussionist Ernesto Marichales.

The first track, “Moleman” immediately locks into a West African groove until there’s a splash of guitar power chords. This is the cue for the percussion to go into overdrive bringing a hint of Latin rhythms and includes neat sax licks with Edge-like delayed guitar barbs. Guitar and cymbal introduce the sunny laid-back afro-beat of the first single and standout, “Listening Glasses”, which builds into a bustling urban funk, the backdrop for the exuberant sax solo. For “Rollando”, the trademark Waaju groove is slowed a little and passed through a dub filter with much reverberation and spacey effects.

“Time’s Got A Hold” crosses over into pop-soul territory featuring the precise but soulful voice of guest vocalist Will Heard. Another top tune, “Wassoulou” blandly triggers a reggae-ish groove but soon warms up into a gooey psychedelic dub with wah-wah guitar and breathy hypnotic sax. Congos and abstract sax lines bring form to the epic “Grown”. The strident driving energy of the title track has notes of hard rock even prog with distorted growls from guitar and the soaring sax while retaining the core African rhythm.

Not so much a group for individual pyrotechnics, Waaju is all about finding and working the groove. Their tracks here, whilst sometimes complex, still retain the exciting and instinctive feel of jam sessions. I still get the feeling that this project is a work in progress but I see this album as a big step forward for the band. Since their debut, they have incorporated more diverse styles and influences. However, this is not a compromise on the essence of their sound. In fact, there is now more focus and the album is more coherent as a body of work. The performance is tighter too! This is an enjoyable and promising release and I look forward to hearing more in the future.

Kevin Ward

Viktor Skokic Sextett ‘Basement Music’ LP/CD (Jazzland Recordings) 4/5

As we enter another week of lockdown, the question ‘where was this album recorded?’, always an interesting one, takes on greater resonance. At the best of times music is made in the gaps between other, often more pressing, lives: family, gigs, hustling. It’s often the location that defines the music. House music, Garage music, Loft music, the Basement tapes. And particularly at the moment, when location is defined and qualified by an invisible pathogen, place has taken on unpredictable and unfamiliar layers of meaning. Viktor Skokic’s first album for the Norwegian imprint Jazzland Recordings is another basement tape, recorded downstairs in Hornstull, Stockholm. And despite having been recorded before the current situation it has, like much good music, something to say to us about where we are now.

“The music demanded that I put myself in a kind of receptive calm in the space between life with a baby daughter and late jazz gigs. It was a challenge requiring focus and reflection” he says. Well, that’s one compromise I imagine Viktor currently doesn’t have to ponder, but the point remains that place defines music.

At the risk of stretching this analogy to breaking point, the abstracted cover art of Viktor’s first album as a leader, Basement Music, is compartmentalised, like the floorplan of a house, or the acoustic panels dividing a studio. The piano seems to inhabit the centre of the image, and the fine group playing on the album revolves around Rasmus Borg’s probing keys. Bass player/composer Viktor’s music is investigative, tip-toeing carefully from room to room, until it finds its proper place, only then allowing the individual musicians ‘room’ to express their talent. The mood is low key and claustrophobic, with a nod to the post-bop recordings of Eric Dolphy and Booker Ervin that defined the growing uncertainties of the early 60s: appropriate to these times.

The playing is of a consistently high standard on the demanding charts. Listen to the ever-excellent Emil Strandberg’s trumpet on the sinuous Hoppla, or the excellent bass clarinet playing by Thomas Backman and Alberto Pinton on Tre (two bass clarinets!). Skokic’s bass meshes with Christopher Cantillo’s clean stickwork, propelling the album onward. But the overall impression is of the group dynamic and the tension and drama of the performance which only finds release in the final piece, Jazz, a jaunty, off-kilter dance in the spirit of Dick Twardzik.

There’s much to love on Viktor Skokic’s own name debut. Not least that it eschews modern trends and goes it’s own way, following the personality of its author. Let’s hope he continues in this vein, and even gets to come out of the basement…

Mike Gavin