Lucid Culture


Poignant, Darkly Thoughtful Jazz and Classical Themes From Nikolaj Hess

Pianist Nikolaj Hess‘s latest release Spacelab & Strings – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is the rare album that’s closer to classical music with jazz piano, than piano jazz with classical influences. It’s also poignant, and picturesque, and one of the most individualistically interesting albums of recent months.

It begins with ECM Country, a brooding, expansive, windswept waltz, Hess playing suspiciously blithe, light-fingered, bluesy lounge phrases over the mournful swells of the strings. You want Lynchian?

Likewise, the simply titled Piece begins with bassist Anders Christensen rustling amid a white haze from the strings. Then Hess introduces a bittersweetly symphonic, Ellingtonian theme, drummer Mikkel Hess keeping his distance while his brother shifts into persistently uneasy ripples.

The string quartet – violinists Cæcilie Balling and Christian Ellegård, violist Jakup Lützen and cellist Josefine Opsahl – are more incisively plaintive in Indigo Meadow as Christensen climbs sparely and Hess chooses his spots to color in rivulets behind them. Ravel Reflections, drawing on the second movement from the composer’s String Quartet, is much more labyrinthine, beginning with ragtime flourishes from the piano and shivers from the strings. There’s an interlude that could be the Doors with strings, then an opaque refraction of the original theme before Hess returns with reflecting-pool gleam. Dissociative overlays pack a quiet wallop at this strange epic rustles toward the end.

The Adagio here is a tersely loopy, Philip Glass-ine canon spiced with low-key glimmer from Hess. Christensen shadows Hess as the drums hold the center and the strings lay out for Trio2. Seven Ate Nine has allusively Monkish modalities and tricky polyrhythms, a vivid portrait of persistent disquiet, the piano adding a considerably creepier edge as the band stalk along.

Danish Accents Lost in the Bush (In a Broke Down Yellow Volkswagen in Nigeria)” references the moment when Hess found himself stuck way out in the sticks with Fela and Femi Kuti. One can think of a worse fate, although there’s an increasing sense of terror and dissociation as the rhythm loosens – what spirits, or what hyena ambush, did this unlikely trio encounter?

There’s a devious cello metal starkness and contrasting deadpan humor throughout Kontra Punk. Tinir (meaning “your” or “yours”) is a similarly spare, ruggedly rustic but also balletesque adaptation of a much more lavish Hess choral setting of a Faroese myth.

Christensen’s darkly emphatic accents against Hess’ lingering iciness as his brother’s drums scan the perimeter in the Arvo Pärt-inspired Trio1 combine to create one of the album’s most haunting interludes. Celeste, a minimalist waltz with equal amounts Satie and Brubeck, is even more so, and arguably the high point of the record.

Black & White makes a good segue, a troubled, echoey reflection on Nordic gloom. Hess concludes this often riveting album solo with a fleetingly dark chromatic theme.

November 18, 2021 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | | Leave a comment

A Sizzling Live Set of Free Jazz in Williamsburg Before the Lockdown

The glut of live albums recorded before the lockdown doesn’t seem like it’s going to abate anytime soon. And that’s just as well: this blog has been agitating for years for more artists to get wise to the value of live recordings. For one, they’re infinitely more economical than studio projects. And for musicians who aren’t located in free parts of the world, what better way to energize the fan base than a sizzling live record? Guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, bassist Simon Jermyn, violist Mat Maneri and drummer Gerald Cleaver had the presence of mind to record their February 24, 2019 Williamsburg show and release it as at Untamed: Live at Scholes, which hasn’t hit the web yet.

This is free jazz for people who like thoughtful interplay, edge and groove. Throughout the set, the acidic interweave between Goldberger and Maneri is such that it’s often hard to tell who’s playing what. Case in point: the hammering, hypnotic interlude about midway through their first number, presented here as an uninterrupted thirty-six minute track.

After the quartet coalesce gingerly to introduce it with spare bits of allusive Middle Eastern melody, then a hint of qawwali emerging, Jermyn hits a steady swing pulse and the race is on. Maneri takes centerstage to fire off a deliciously enigmatic, tersely microtonal solo. Goldberger throws shards and knotty postbop runs into the fray, Jermyn clustering and Maneri returning with an anxious intensity. Cleaver, running a colorful floating swing on his hardware, is back in the mix as you might expect at Scholes Street Studios, where everybody else in the band is using an amp.

There’s hazy volume-knob resonance from Goldberger in tandem with the viola as Jermyn runs a loopy riff. Cleaver gets some welcome time to himself, getting the boom or an approximation thereof going with his toms, the rest of the band building a devious swordfight with their swipes and slashes. Jermyn subtly hints at stoner boogie; winding tensile lines from guitar and viola over a cleverly altered Diddleybeat from Jermyn and Cleaver grow more aggressively skronky.

Everybody diverges down to echoes and more menacingly sustained wafts. Cleaver’s refusal to lose the groove, no matter how quiet he gets, is the key to the record. The rainy-day soundscape when he finally drops to a cymbal mist, Jermyn playing voice of reason to Goldberger’s knotty, restless lines while Maneri adds psychedelic harmonics, is just as much fun as when the band is really cooking. Likewise, the brooding viola solo, hypnotically pulsing drive and devious echo effects on the way out.

They fade up a much shorter number, presumably an encore, on the brink of a bracingly assertive Maneri solo as Jermyn shifts between a folksy dance and a gallop, Goldberger in jaggedly lingering mode. The Grateful Dead during their late 60s fascination with Indian music come to mind. Won’t it be even more fun when these guys can make another live album like this – or maybe they have, and they’re just not telling us yet. In the meantime, Cleaver is scheduled to play a series of live concert recording dates with saxophonist Darius Jones‘ trio on June 6 through 8 at 1 PM in Central Park, as part of Giant Step Arts’ incredible lineup of free jazz shows. Take the 81st St. entrance on the west side, go north and up the hill about a block, follow the sound and you’re there.

May 2, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | | Leave a comment