Thomas Strønen / Ayumi Tanaka / Marthe Lea ‘Bayou’ LP/CD (ECM) 3/5

Thomas Strønen’s groups have each had clear and individual characteristics. Food, his collaboration with saxophonist Iain Ballamy, increasingly emphasized electronics over the course of its recordings, while Time Is A Blind Guide has developed as an acoustic chamber ensemble playing the drummer/percussionist’s compositions. The trio heard on Bayou is very different again, distinctive in its sense of borderless inquiry and musical interplay, and freely improvisational. The group first convened at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, where Strønen has an associate professorship and where pianist Tanaka and clarinettist/vocalist/percussionist Lea were studying, the players meeting regularly for exploratory music-making.

The music from this trio is reflective, delicate, and space-conscious, with the musicians relying on an intuitive, open approach to shape the pieces of music that develop. Openness is the watchword here. The album came into being after Thomas Strønen visited Munich to finalize aspects of his Lucus project with Time Is A Blind Guide. “I played Manfred Eicher part of the very first concert with Ayumi and Marthe which I happened to have on my laptop – just a rough document that I’d made with one microphone. He caught the special tension and stylistic freedom in this trio and said we should do a studio recording – which was a welcome surprise”.

The trio had been conceived primarily as an open-form rehearsal and sound research project, “drifting between elements of contemporary classical music, folk music, jazz, whatever we were inspired by. Sometimes the music was very quiet and minimalistic, and sometimes it was the opposite. Playing together generated some special experiences.” That spontaneous spirit is reflected in the trio’s debut recording. With the exception of the title piece, based on a traditional Norwegian tune, the music on Bayou was created collectively, in the moment, drawing upon the individual and shared histories of the musicians.

Most of the music presented on this intriguing album is minimalistic. And yet, within this minimalism, it’s clear that there’s certainly no lack of adventure and experimentation, it’s just that’s it’s largely performed in a very subtle and quiet way. Lea’s beautifully phrased vocal performances on the two versions of the title piece mark the first time that she had sung with the trio. Her voice is particularly well suited to the style of the music. The focus on clarinet on the present recording suggests lines of influence that stretch back to Jimmy Giuffre (an association underlined by Tanaka’s sometimes Bley-ish piano) as well as to contemporary freer players such as Fredrik Ljungkvist. An air of depth and sincerity permeates through the whole session, with Japanese pianist Tanaka adding an assured quality with her beautiful Zen-like playing. Strønen successfully steers this trio in between a naturally Nordic, gently flowing stream, and a bubbling river that builds in intensity as it nears its vergent destination. For me personally, the improvised journey is a rewarding one, even if at times I would have liked to have heard a more obvious point of reference for a final destination.

Mike Gates