Scopes ‘Scopes’ LP/CD (Whirlwind Recordings) 5/5

Scopes is the self titled debut recording from a pretty distinguished group of European jazzers. Austrian drummer Mathias Ruppnig and German bassist Tom Berkmann founded the quartet in 2018 and this album was recorded that year in Poland, they are joined by French pianist Tony Tixier and Dutch saxophonist Ben van Gelder. The tunes on this record are original compositions, five from Berkmann and four from Ruppnig.

My music player sorted the album tracks alphabetically, so the first track I happened upon was ‘Alter Ego’ which offers us just a glimpse of what’s in store in other parts of the recording.The title perhaps involves some wordplay as the tune prominently features the alto sax of Ben van Gelder. We get underway with the drums of Ruppnig who is also the writer here. Berkmann’s driving bass and Ruppnig’s drum precision underpin this track allowing the up close and personal sax of van Gelder to offer counterweight to pianist Tixier’s solid groove. I could almost feel van Gelder’s breath in my ear such is the intimacy of the sound, especially as his tones fall away towards the end of the song. After a quick consultation with the sleeve notes I began listening to the tracks in the intended sequence and this is where the real joy begins.

So back to the beginning of the album and a piece entitled ‘Echo of Their Own Prejudices’ which I thought sounds politically ominous especially when considered with the track that follows it, ‘Chamberlain’. ‘Echo of Their Own Prejudices’ is written by drummer Ruppnig who is the first musician we hear on the record, the rest of the band follow with a light and breezy sound building gradually before shifting towards something far more involved allowing van Gelder to really work out on the sax. Then here’s the treat, we get some electronic texture with a keyboard solo melding something reminiscent of Rick Wakeman with a change in time signature adding a distinctive prog feel to this sequence. All the while Ruppnig is giving us something much more 21st century with a low key drum and bass looping kind of sound. It all makes for subtly satisfying repeat listening. Tixier meanwhile runs the full gamut of his keyboard, mischievously exploring a rapidly changing mood board of light and dark tones. We close with further synth texture in the shape of a rather spacey electronic doodle.

‘Chamberlain’, track 2 refers to American sculptor John Chamberlain the transformer of rusting hulks of ageing automobiles not Neville Chamberlain appeaser of the Nazis. So it’s all less politically ominous than I had first imagined. We begin with Tixier on piano but with the inclusion of a barely audible series of underlying electronic textural bleepings. I don’t know if this is a joke about how we listen to music now with pure listening almost impossible without a device of some description always adding to the soundscape somewhere within earshot. The title reflects bassist and composer Berkmann’s interest in the American sculptor, and it is Berkmann’s sound that is prominent here driving the track along.

My personal favourite, ‘Aquaponies’ is apparently based on a story by German author Michael Ende. A Berkmann composition, it is set in motion with a mellow bass and piano combo in the manner of Horace Silver’s ‘Song for My Father’, it would glide along smoothly but for the addition of a kooky sax melody which gives the whole piece an intriguingly surreal edge.

Towards the close of the album we get ‘Nostalgia’, another Ruppnig composition which sets out on a quiet and contemplative path with Tixier’s piano accompanied by Berkmann’s almost conversational bass. The piano evolves a flowing liquidity as it picks up pace and aims for that elusive place within the imagination no longer within grasp.

The band explain the name Scopes was chosen as a kind of concept to allow individual members to channel their creativity in an unbound way and to create a type of musical playground. Berkmann also describes how he is interested in the personal associations that we, the listeners experience through the music and is keen to allow us the time and space to zone out and savour these. The album certainly offers a rich source of musical influences and new directions which make for rewarding and top-notch listening and our ‘Album Of The Month’ for March.

James Read