Julia Hülsmann Quartet ‘Not Far From Here’ CD (ECM) 4/5

German pianist and composer Julia Hülsmann, together with bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling have been producing some exquisite albums as a trio for well over a decade now. This latest offering from ECM brings the threesome together with tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff, expanding the group dynamic to a quartet. “I had the growing feeling that Uli was the right player for us now”, Hülsmann says. “The four of us did a lot of rehearsing together, which was interesting in itself: the trio had never been much of a rehearsing group. It’s not so easy as a player from the outside, to come into the music of this close circle of friends. But it was soon clear that Uli, by observing and listening carefully, had got the idea of the way our group functions and brought something of his own to it, in a thoughtful and sensitive way.” And this is most certainly the impression I get listening to the wonderful interaction between all four members of this group. There is a timeless, intuitive subtlety to much of the playing that makes this album very enjoyable and fulfilling.

I like the fact that each member of the quartet brings in original compositions. The only cover on the session is an inspired reworking of the Bowie/Metheny/Mays song “This is not America”. No stranger to diverse musical interpretations, Hülsmann has always been open to expanding her music beyond expected jazz sources, previously having drawn on music from Kurt Weill to Kyrgyzstan folk song to pop and rock music of Seal and Radiohead. It is though, the exceptionally crafted originals from all members of this quartet that form the major body of this work. The interesting thing is that it’s difficult to define which person composed which tune, without reading the liner notes, and this is a testament to the togetherness of the quartet, the overall feel and style of each piece being a clearly defined sound of the four-piece rather than focusing on any one individual.

Hülsmann contributes five pieces to the album. “Weit Weg”, “Streflicht” and “No Game” began their life as solo piano tunes, adapted and expanded for the quartet. The title track was written specifically for the quartet and it shows, Kempendorff’s eloquent sax playing bringing everything together with style. Drummer Köbberling offers a pair of strikingly different pieces, both very engaging in their own way. Bassist Muellbauer is the author of the album’s two longest tunes, with different rhythms and timings allowing the quartet to explore many musical possibilities together. Saxophonist Klempendorff’s tunes are deceptively simple yet enigmatic, mirroring the skill with which he plays.

“Not Far From Here” is a typically masterful recording from Hülsmann. The playing is often inspired, sensitive and wholly engaging. Saxophonist Kempendorff has a deep, alluring tone that blends perfectly with the trio, making for an engaging and rewarding listen.

Julia Hülsmann Quartet are on tour throughout March and April. Go to ecmrecords.com for detailed gig listings.

Mike Gates