The musical collaboration between Austrian alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer and New York drummer Drori Mondlak first began in New York City in the year 2000. “Of Mystery and Beauty” is their seventh recording together, and together with pianist Rainer Bohm and bassist John Goldsby, the KLARO! quartet perform a set of eleven tunes, all original compositions. Individually each band member has their own excellent credentials. Strassmayer has performed with McCoy Tyner, Joe Zawinul, Joe Lovano, Chris Potter and John Scofield to name just a few jazz giants. Mondlak has worked with Lee Konitz, David Friedman, Joe Williams and Frank Foster to name but a few. Pianist Bohm was nominated for the Echo Jazz Prize in 2015, for instrumentalist of the year, and bassist Goldsby worked for many years with the Grammy Award winning WDR big band Cologne. Yet it is not so much the individual talents that are most striking about this album, it is the collective unity and togetherness that gives the resulting music a warm and intimately personal sound. “Beauty means different things to different people.” says Strassmayer. “But there is a universal truth about it, regardless of taste and aesthetic; beauty has the power to move the heart. I feel that it is my responsibility as an artist to search for those little melodic twists and harmonic turns that make my heart leap – in the hope that they will touch the heart of another”. And indeed, there is a gentle romanticism to the recording, one that brings together European jazz, classical and folk music, with the American jazz tradition and contemporary music.
The quartet explore Strassmayer’s tunes with an ethereal spirit, at times thoughtful and contemplative, whilst still reaching out and expressing the fire that burns within. It is a beautiful fire, its flames darting and flickering, creating light and shade in the music they are making. Throughout the album there is an almost reserved reverence that the whole band employ, one that allows the listener time to enjoy the subtle nuances and interplay between the performers. Strassmayer’s searching alto sax opens the album, with the opening track “From Her Pale Blue Home” setting the tone for the rest of the session. One of the strengths of the recording is the writing, Strassmayer’s tunes being very accomplished and beautifully composed. Perhaps the perfect example of this is the title track, “Of Mystery and Beauty”. Listening to this wonderful piece of music, one could be discovering a long-lost track from Keith Jarrett’s classic album “My Song”. A beautiful hook is employed within its melody, one that is so reminiscent of Jan Garbarek when he was making music alongside Jarrett in the 70’s. It’s also important not to underestimate the value of the pianist and bassist; the skill and warmth that they contribute to this quartet appears to be as equally impressive as the two band leaders themselves. It’s quite obvious that musically the foursome enjoy an excellent rapor. Much of the music is soft and gentle, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for some sparkling soloing and improvisation. Strassmayer is a consummate performer, technically gifted and somehow she manages to provide some startling moments, whilst still keeping hold enough for the music to remain very accessible. Whilst this works very well for the most part, keeping the album consistent and with a lovely flow to it, on the more upbeat and bluesy “Side To Side”, I found myself willing her to let go and explode… but it didn’t happen. The lid remained on. That’s a minor quibble though. “Four Us All” has a lovely mystic feel to it, haunting yet oddly gripping all in the same breath. And that is a recurring theme whilst listening to this album, with “Postcard From A Quiet Place”, “Still In Her Ears” and “Wandering” all standing out as wonderfully written and expertly performed pieces of music. I also particularly enjoyed “Fanfare From Another World”, free-flowing in its jazz-folkiness and reminiscent of Michael Brecker’s “Itsbynne Reel”, and the enticingly tuneful percussion of Drori Monlak’s “Cascades”.
There is an overall charm and inventiveness to “Of mystery and beauty”, one which grows deeper with every listen. Quality music performed by a quality quartet.