Of Old Songs and New Beginnings: three terrific new jazz albums

I’ve been listening a lot recently to three terrific new jazz albums which illustrate just how widely varied the musics covered by that term may be. I’m not using the word in the almost ludicrously catch-all way deployed these days by the London Jazz Festival, where virtually anything that isn’t classical music might get a look in. Rather, I’m referring to the way jazz, like so much else, is now wholly international: what began as American – or, more accurately, African American – is now global. Consequently, it’s now often mixed up to some degree with other traditional musical forms. At least, that’s the case with the three albums discussed below. 

The most obvious example of that hybridisation is Near East Quartet (ECM), which takes traditional Korean folk music – and particularly some passages from a pansori (traditional folk narrative) entitled Chunhyangga – and transforms them with western instrumentation. Leader Sungjae Son (tenor sax and bass clarinet) – who also composed a number of original tracks – and guitarist Suwuk Chang first met while studying music in Boston, but only started playing together some years later, back in Korea; in 2015 they were joined by two women with similar ideas about finding new ways to play Korean music, drummer Soojin Suh and singer Yulhee Kim. The results, as recorded on the album are impressive: distinctly Eastern, yet quite different as a sound world from pansori and folk songs as they’re usually heard. The guitar and sax are often spacey, distorted – one is sometimes put in mind of the likes of Terje Rypdal or even the Bill Frisell of Power Tools, though the music here is generally sparser, more minimalist. It works best, for me, on the songs where Kim’s plaintively fragile but agile voice and Suh’s deft, expressive drumwork enrich the textures and rhythms no end. The moods range from poignant to thunderous, ethereal to majestic, brooding to fiery, but the album holds together very nicely indeed, even if it’s a little on the short side. You may be able to get some idea of the music from the all-too-brief excerpts on the ECM website. But it’s probably better to listen to Galggabuda (see below) and Mot complete.

Closer to home, and musically very different, is 8 Songs (PRS, cover image at top) by  Liran Donin’s band 1000 Boats. London-based Donin is probably best known as the virtuoso bassist of the acclaimed Led Bib, but this new album is his first with his own line-up: Chris Williams (of Led Bib) and Josh Arcaleo on, respectively, alto and tenor sax, Maria Chiara Argirò on piano and Ben Brown on drums. Donin’s imaginative, for the most part pleasingly tuneful compositions are less spikily angular than Led Bib’s music; though they allow for some powerhouse riffing and ferocious soloing, there is an overriding lyricism at work, which may well have its roots in the Israeli-born leader’s interest in the music of the Mediterranean and the Near East (by which I don’t mean Korea). From the start, on the opening track I Can See Tarifa, Donin’s bass – rounded and percussive all at the same time (apart from anything else, he’s a big Charlie Haden fan) – is to the fore, singing away over a rippling piano before leading the horns into a jauntily joyous riff and a pleasingly constructed sax solo. As a writer he knows how to build a composition in terms of pace and intensity, but at the same time he understands the value of variety and surprise: tracks often change direction unexpectedly. Tel Aviv to Ramallah kicks off with a wailing sax prelude before slinking into a rhythmically restless but subtle groove. And Alma Sophia (see below) rises slowly from a meditative bass, piano and percussion trio into a simple repeated motif which then shape-shifts into a dance-like refrain that gambols along, led by the piano soloing in summery mood. It’s an album that wears its sophistication lightly: a brief centrepiece, the punningly titled Paws, allows one to gather one’s breath with a piano solo penned by Argirò, almost Satie-esque in its deceptive simplicity; while the conjoined New Beginnings and FREE provide a rousing finale: the former has bass, prepared piano and drums prancing delicately together until some ominous chords lead us toward the latter, where the saxes suddenly take us into a new, silkier sound world, circling and circling around until, surprise of surprises, voices enter to sing wordlessly along with the ensemble in a coda that is at once harmonious, hymnal and hopeful. It’s a fittingly uplifting close to a fine release. 

Finally, and very different again, is Trygve Seim’s Helsinki Songs (ECM); regular readers of this site will probably know that I rate the Norwegian saxophonist and composer very highly indeed in both capacities. Besides his characteristically superb work as a sideman for a great many other musicians, Seim has led and written for everything from large bands through medium-sized outfits to instrumental duos. But while his last album, the exquisite Rumi Songs, did feature four musicians (voice, saxes, cello and accordion), the last time he recorded as part of a traditional jazz quartet was on Airamero (Odin), back in 1993. So has it been worth the wait for this return to the conventional format, this time as both leader and composer? Without a doubt, yes. Though, as with the two albums discussed above, there is some geographical/cultural cross fertilisation going on – Seim has long been interested in the music of North Africa and the East – the music here, at least on the surface, is far more closely related to conventional jazz: a theme will be introduced, variations and solos follow, and the piece comes to an end. Yet to describe this music that way is entirely to ignore its special qualities. For one thing, the playing – Seim on tenor and soprano sax, Kristjan Randalu on piano, Mats Eilertsen on bass, and Markku Ounaskari on drums – is uniformly excellent throughout (and beautifully presented, of course, by ECM’s famously immaculate engineering and production). But the writing, too, is far subtler than it might appear. If the melodies are quite singably straightforward, they do sometimes veer off into unexpected detours; for example, Helsinki Song (see below), though based on a sparse, simple, repetitive four-note bass motif, suddenly drifts off here and there into surprising chords. (According to some notes for the album, there are allusions in the tunes to other musicians – Ornette, Jim Webb, Stravinsky – but one certainly doesn’t need to know that to enjoy them.) 

Mostly but not exclusively slow or measured in tempo (Randalusian Folk Song and Yes Please Both are more upbeat), the 11 tracks have repeatedly left me enthralled by the sheer clarity of tone, timing, purpose and thinking – not to say entranced by the effortless perfection of Seim’s own quietly brilliant musicianship. (In New Beginning – another choice of words, alongside ‘songs’, shared with Donin’s album – he plays in his Eastern, duduk-influenced style, and listening to the plaintive but sensuous bent notes, I kept wondering whether there was anyone else on earth who could play a sax so slinkily.) Again, you can try out the website excerpts here, but again I’d recommend trying something a little longer. Like the whole album.

8 Songs can be bought via Bandcamp or, from 21 September, on CD or vinyl. See here for details. Helsinki Songs and Near East Quartet are available thorough the normal outlets.

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