Question: how many harpists can you think of in jazz? err… Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby (obviously), Rachael Gladwin (Matthew Halsall), Tori Handsley (everywhere it’s ‘happening’ in London), Alina Bzhezhinska (Ubuntu), oh dear, my mind has gone blank. It is a little like that, in reality there are others that have brought the wonderful sound of harp to recorded jazz, the likes of Brandee Younger (Marcus Strickland/Ravi Coltrane/John Legend), and the prolific Zeena Parkins (30 albums to her name) are points of reference. And so to the harp we move in to Quartetto Minimo territory courtesy of newcomer Norma Mugnier, currently studying in Versailles, France, where she has regularly performed at festivals and whom in 2018 joined Quartetto Minimo. It is the overwhelming beauty of the instrument that catapults this latest of four albums further forward from the previous releases, giving it a distinctly alternative edge, one this writer feels enhances the band’s sound from say their collaboration with Doro Offermann in 2012, where her saxophone and Nicolas Arzimanoglou Mas’ guitar work sits centre-stage. Both albums, and that of their ‘Elmer’ release of the same year will delight in different ways. The overwhelming feeling one gets from all of their albums is that of richness, listening to Parisian, Nicolas Arzimanoglou Mas, fuels my passion for music like a Egberto Gismonti or Baden Powell number might do, but I also hear elements of Flamenco – that absorbing sound of passion. Passion, which is very likely to be overused in this review. So there is history to this group, there are changes to the lineup, and we like that diversity. One needs to explore the discography, revel in ‘El Macabro’ from 2012 and kick yourself for overlooking such a quartet’s output. I am drawn to the latin/Brazilian jazz feel to it all, the acoustic guitar controlling the passages, a sound I can not recall embracing me since Clarice & Sérgio Assad released ‘Relíquia’ back in 2016.
The quartet is made up by Ilan Hercelin on drums and Eliaz Hercelin playing double bass (and doing a sterling job on painting the artwork for each release), both originating from Paris, but like Mas, with their feet now in Madrid. Hercelin walking the same ‘Baroque’ corridors Mugnier treads, and perhaps where the idea of introducing harp was formed? Eliaz’s playing is open and melodic, Ilan’s drumming is energetic but controlled and never overpowering. There is no mistaking the quality of Nicolas’ guitar style, he is what makes this quartet shine bright. ‘Alejandria’ from 2012 is such a joyous piece of guitar playing and somehow I feel in listening to the new ‘Atlantico’ album I need the others too, the changing pace of each are essential to full enjoyment of any – like the concert where a band picks from their repertoire, I am bouncing from album to album. The title track skips from harp strings to guitar strings, gently supported by drums in what seems the distance where as ‘Pharos’ is a little moody number with quickening flamenco-esk touches, whilst ‘Queequeg’ spiritual like harp use summarises the ethos of the band’s sound – passionate playing. Finally ‘Samarcande’ has more of a european jazz quirkiness found on the German labels of notoriety.
If there is anything disappointing about this record, and the previous releases, it is the unavailability of physical issues. We are not at all fond of the digital only era and would wholeheartedly welcome these albums in physical form to sit beside our Nascimento and our Deodato albums. ‘Atlantico’ has been on repeat play for some while now, yes it is on the short side at only 25min in total, but every minute of their tale is a gripping one. Quartetto Minimo has enriched my life ten-fold and there is always going to be a place for music born of passion with an abundance of harmony. Please Sir, can we have some more, but on vinyl next time, so we can enjoy the artwork and the music side by side?
The quartet will be playing live at Sunset-Sunside Jazz Club, Paris, on 27th February.