Cyminology: Niyaayesh

Of the many hypocrisies associated with the record industry, the examples I find most dispiriting come when label execs brag about their devotion to finding talent that is "fresh and different" . . . and then continue to release wannabe CDs that jump on every passing fad. This "sheep pretending to be lions" attitude is almost de rigeur at certain echelons of "the business" these days. Fortunately we still have Manfred Eicher, who really does present music that breaks out of the mold, and has done so with commercial and artistic success for forty years.

Cyminology is a case in point. This band, led by Cymin Samawatie, a German vocalist of Iranian descent, defines its own sound. Benedikt Jahnel may be a jazz pianist, but his conception resists pigeonholing; his keyboard work unfolds like a musical cinema, with narrative force rather than standard jazz phraseology. Bass and drums provide flashes of color, and (unlike so many American jazz bands) don't push and prod the music—these players realize that they are the music. Their sound is constitutive not catalytic. And Cymin Samawatie situates herself so far from what passes as jazz singing that you could waste a month of your life trying to construct a genealogy that gets you from Ella and Sarah to her ritualistic immersion in Persian texts.

If you are looking for music that reinforces your current tastes and fits neatly into the jazz rotation on your iPod, you are advised to pass on this track (and the entire As Ney CD, for that matter). But if you believe that jazz is not a stockpile of phrases or a "historic style," but is a spirit and openness to the possibilities of sound, then this music is required listening.

June 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Julia Hülsmann: Kiss From A Rose

There are many ways to turn a pop song into a lush jazz tune. Here, without being academic or pompous, German pianist Julia Hülsmann teaches us one such way, carving a highly enjoyable piece that reveals its delicately swinging beauty second after second. Hülsmann knows this terrain: her first three records (on the German ACT label) saw her accompanying Norwegian Rebekka Bakken, Italian Anna Lauvergnac and German Roger Cicero, who all sing on the border between jazz and pop. Invited by ECM to record with her trio alone, Hülsmann tackles this hit by British pop star Seal.

Right from the start, the song's three basic chords are stated twice by the piano, with slight dissonance and much space between them. Even before the bass introduces the chorus, followed by the whole trio dealing with the melody, we're far from the overproduced original pop song, and deep into jazz playing. Each instrument, by the quality of its timbre and phrasing, is a true voice, and space is the keyword. The space between each player allows them to fully interact, and space between notes lets those resonate, suggesting the harmonic atmosphere rather than stuffing it with sounds. And the paradox is that, at a slower pace and with fewer instruments than the original, this cover more firmly grips the listener's attention, unfolding its harmonic, melodic and rhythmic surprises at a slow, majestically swinging pace. A beautiful lesson in transforming pop songs into jazz tunes, indeed!

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Jason Seizer: All the Things You Are

No need to ask who German tenor player Jason Seizer was influenced by: Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh are the obvious answers (probably through Mark Turner, by the way). Here Seizer not only tackles "All the Tings," a frequent warhorse of Tristano alumni, but does so without quoting the written melody until the last few seconds of the track – another a trademark of cool school musicians for whom paraphrasing standards and carving countermelodies to their themes was a daily exercise in creativity. How does that way of playing work with this basically unknown German musician? On the one hand, it is quite refreshing compared to all the post-bop addicts roaming the international jazz scene. On the other hand, Seizer's sound and phrasing are not distinctive enough yet, and his efforts might not sound quite as interesting without Marc Copland's challenging chordal support. So we have a personality worth taking account of but that needs competition and a stimulating surrounding on a regular basis to better develop its budding potential.

July 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Antonio Ciacca: Squazin

The 39-year-old Ciacca has an interesting résumé. German born, raised in Italy, and classically trained, he took up jazz at age 20 after hearing Wynton Marsalis. Ciacca has worked extensively with both Steve Lacy and Benny Golson, and was the pianist, arranger and producer for the Detroit Gospel Singers. After moving to New York in 2007, he became the Director of Concert and Programming Administration for Jazz at Lincoln Center. "Rush Life" is his fourth CD as leader.

Ciacca's original "Squazin" is dedicated to his associate at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis. (Squazin is apparently one of Wynton's nicknames.) This track comes across like a Horace Silver tune as played by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. A loping waltz-like rhythm sets up the engaging theme, taken in unison by Dillard's tenor and Magnarelli's trumpet. Dillard solos first with a swaggering, gruff tone and enticing fluid lines, ending on an audaciously swooping run that triggers Magnarelli's entrance. The trumpeter displays a richly glowing tone and submits an expertly paced and enjoyably varied solo. Ciacca's improv shows off his glistening touch and soulfully melodic and lucid phrasing. Drummer Green contributes Blakey-flavored support throughout, with forceful stick work, an insistent cymbal ride, and appropriately placed drum rolls. "Squazin" should get a lot of jazz radio airplay.

July 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Wolfgang Haffner: Star

This trio is not well known outside of Europe, but certainly deserves a wider hearing. Everything clicks on the track. The interaction between the band members is exemplary. The swing is infectious. Everyone plays well, but especially drummer Haffner, who has a clean sound that is both light and aggressive at the same time -- he reminds me a bit of Brian Blade. The song is little more than a repeated groove, but the trio put so much heart and soul into it, it might as well be the Haffner Serenade, and not just Haffner's simple jam tune.

May 26, 2008 · 1 comment


[em]: Another Mr. Lizard

This German cooperative trio is definitely becoming one of the most interesting European piano trios. On its second record it displays an impressive ease with original compositions by its three members, and the present track by pianist Wollny is a good case in point. Tight interaction, as in the opening melodic unison between piano and drums over a bowed bass drone, twisted melody that never fails to swing, attention to the sound quality of each instrument that attracts your ear by playing in the chords, out of them and around them with a taste for surprise that never sounds conceited. These three young musicians are a delight to listen to.

March 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Michael Schiefel: My Animals

There is something of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" in this multitrack vocal recording by young German singer Michael Schiefel. Of course, some will argue it's not really jazz; yet who else but a jazz singer could coin such rhythmic sounds with his mouth, cross them in an impressive maze, and overdub a melody over the whole thing? Besides, just like this bold solo effort, today's creative Berlin jazz scene doesn't care about walls between styles. Here, Schiefel sings in English, and it swings like mad. Sometimes he does it in German and, believe it or not, that swings too.

February 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Carlos Bica: D.D. from B.

"Delicious Donuts from the Balkans" is the full title of this tune, opened by Carlos Bica's bowed bass before his partners join in to provide a distinctive Balkan beat and melody. Though they are from three different countries, these musicians all have a link with the downtown Manhattan/Brooklyn scene (they lived or live there), its humor, its trashy sonic approach and, in the '90s, its appetite for Balkan music. They also remind us of the influence this scene had on Berlin musicians (Bica and Möbus still live in the German capital) at the time. Played with the energy and taste that these three instrumentalists show here, this music is still fun and doesn't sound outdated, although ten years later it's not much played anymore.

February 26, 2008 · 0 comments


Simon Nabatov: Simple Simon

It could be a Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) song, with its South African-like dancing feel and melody that alludes to Protestant hymns. But Nabatov's piano, though earthy, is more sophisticated than that of the South African musician. Still, it's an interesting foray by the Russian-born pianist into a type of music that is best played with the adopted feeling. Nabatov and his partners don't mimic South African jazz. They just play this music with their soul, and manage to be very convincing.

February 26, 2008 · 0 comments


John McLaughlin: Belo Horizonte

"Belo Horizonte" is a composition that goes back to McLaughlin's 1982 album Belo Horizonte. At that time it was played with the Translators, a quintet McLaughlin had put together comprised of three European jazz players and a classical pianist who doubled on organ/synthesizer. It was a fine European-sounding band that played this composition beautifully. In the hands of this trio, however, the same tune was quite different.

Trilok Gurtu is a master Indian percussionist who was quite familiar with the Western musical idiom. This made him the perfect drummer for John McLaughlin. Gurtu supplied much of this trio's identity. He would pound away on a trap kit and constantly add sound shadings through the use of a boatload of percussive tools including nothing less than pots of water and rubber duckies. Gurtu's playful personality brought a new level of fun to McLaughlin's music. In concert, Gurtu and McLaughlin would often provide moments of comic relief with their efforts to throw each other off the rhythm. The laughter back and forth was contagious.

In this version, "Belo Horizonte" retained much more of its Brazilian inspiration. McLaughlin's pensive arpeggios introduce the delicate theme played at rapid pace by him and the bassist. Gurtu adds the rainforest. McLaughlin's fleet-fingered solo, interspersed with quick-strummed chords, features some of the finest improvised playing of his career. Di Piazza, a wondrous bassist, plays counterpoint and call and response before soloing. What a player! The next Jaco! The uplifting theme returns as this joyful jungle trek comes to an end.

Alas, Dominique Di Piazza would not become the next Jaco. Shortly after this recording, he gave up music and spent several years in a monastery! In the last few years, he has reappeared on the scene. His amazing playing is still something to be admired. But his career momentum is now gone. That is, if a jazz bassist these days can have career momentum.

February 26, 2008 · 0 comments


Uri Caine: Blackbird

Uri Caine belongs to the generation of jazz musicians whose ears have been bathed at least as much in rock and pop as in jazz and classical. No wonder, then, that in this solo record the only tunes he didn't write are a standard and a Beatles song. "Blackbird" has been covered by many jazz musicians, of course, but Caine's rendition is highly influenced by his classical background. He uses his impressive mastery of the keyboard in an utterly playful way, transforming the well-known melody into ever-changing rhythmic and harmonic shapes in front of our stunned ears.

February 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Christof Lauer: Sweet and Sentimental

At the end of the '80s, as here on his debut recording, Christof Lauer was still deeply influenced by Michael Brecker. It is felt both in his tone and his phrasing throughout the 2-minute unaccompanied intro that begins this tune. But he is supported by a trio of seasoned musicians who help bring out Lauer's more personal qualities as an improviser, and contribute to the high level of the performance. Taking a path common to many European tenor virtuosos – one that involved digging into his personal feelings that were by then already budding – Lauer has since blazed his own trail to become one of Europe's major voices on the instrument.

February 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Dave Holland: You I Love

On "You I Love," Holland uses the time-tested compositional technique of writing a new melody to an existing set of chord changes. In this case, the progression is taken from Cole Porter's "I Love You," and Holland's take on it sounds as far from the original as "Groovin' High" does from "Whispering." This early incarnation of the DHQ does more group improvising here than on some later CDs, and it is particularly welcome on this track. The soloists eat this one up with obvious abandon – they seem to enjoy deconstructing an old standard and making it their own.

February 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Michael Wollny: Initiation

This young German pianist has been known mostly for his Berlin-based trio strangely called [em], and for accompanying tenor veteran Heinz Sauer. On his first solo record, he shows another side of his rich personality: a romantic feeling that has its roots in the melodies of Schubert and in typically German mythologies, like the Walpurgis Night (“Hexentanz” means “dance of the witches”). With that type of inspiration and the stunning mastery of the piano that Wollny displays, who knows where this most promising musician will take German jazz? He is obviously one of the leading figures in its renewal.

January 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Joachim Kühn: Youmala

Whether you want to view it from the German + Moroccan + Spaniard, or Jew + Moslem + Christian angle, this trio and its music are about mixing genres and influences. During the last few decades, Europe has been more and more a place where jazz has opened up to ethnic music from the South and the East. And that’s exactly what Kühn, Bekkas and Lopez do: find a common ground where the North-African and Western traditions can blend without falling into the traps of commercial world music. These three musicians have deep roots and open ears. Their forays on this new path are so fruitful that they’re bound to be more than a mere fad.

January 10, 2008 · 0 comments


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