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Jazzcamera CD Choice

John Surman : Invisible Threads (ECM)

Review by John Watson

This absorbing album is another valuable addition to the immensely rich catalogue of recordings going back 50 years, which the great reedman John Surman continues to develop. Here he is featured with pianist Nelson Ayres and vibes player Rob Waring in a distinctly folk-ish collection of compositions, all written by Surman except Summer Song by Ayres.

According to my recollection, it's the first small-group recording pairing Surman with a vibes player since the 1970 LP Where Fortune Smiles, under the leadership of John McLaughlin, and featuring vibes player Karl Berger. The new collaboration with Waring shows how well Surman's rich tone - on soprano and baritone saxophones, and bass clarinet - works excellently, with the leader taking advantage of the long sustained notes which the mallet instrument can provide, and creating extended tapestries of sound in his solos.

Waring and Ayres weave gorgeous patterns around Surman's lines, and though most of the pieces are gently atmospheric, there's also a lively spark in a tango track and in Ayres' Summer Song. A reflective, beautifully crafted album to treasure.



Joachim Kuhn New Trio : Love And Peace (ACT)

Review by John Watson

I first heard the piano mastery of German-born Joachim Kuhn on saxophone legend Joe Henderson's mavellous 1967 LP Black Narcissus (Milestone), and I've never failed to be impressed with his use of keyboard colours and his endless invention.

This latest album of relatively short, and mostly tranquil, pieces is another worthwhile addition to Kuhn's considerable catalogue of recordings. It opens with dark, quite sombre,  chords on the brief title track, composed by the pianist, before Kuhn - with bassist Chris Jennings and drummer Eric Shaefer -  explore the improvising possibilities of Mussorgsky's La Vielle Chateau. Other tracks include The Doors' The Crystal Ship, Ornette Coleman's Night Plans, and other original pieces by the pianist and his trio colleagues,  the mood livening considerably with Casbah Radio, by bassist Jennings.

Overall it's a beautiful, reflective album, and a worthwhile successor to the same trio's earlier ACT album Beauty And Truth. My own favourite Kuhn album for ACT remains the Birthday Edition, a two-disc release from 2014 featuring dynamic previously unreleased tracks, showcasing the pianist with his earlier trio - drummer Daniel Humair and bassist J F Jenny-Clark - in 1987 and 1995. The second disc comprises Europeana, Jazzphony No.1, a marvellous orchestral arrangement of folk songs by Michael Gibbs, with the pianist featured alongside such outstanding players as Albert Mangelsdorff, Klaus Doldinger, Richard Galliano, Christof Laur, Markus Stockhausen and Jon Christensen.



Julian Costello Quartet : Transitions (33 Jazz Records)

Review by John Watson

There's a sense of graceful lyricism, combined with an inner strength, in the playing of tenor and soprano saxophonist Julian Costello. This new release is much enhanced by the gorgeous fluidity of guitarist Maciek Pysz, and the quartet - completed by bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer Adam Teixeira - works sympathetically as a complete unit.

All the compositions are by Costello, and the thread running through them is a sense of playfulness - one senses the joy of the group in exploring the melodic expression and rhythmic twists of these pieces. The gentle theme 'Waves' opens the disc, with the notes barely breathed by Costello before taking on more solid form as the piece develops. The catchy 'Earworm' is well named, but I enjoyed 'Walking Through The Jungle' most - with Costello letting fly on tenor with just Teixeira's drums in support. It's an all-too-brief episode, but the sense of freedom is welcome.  For the most part, Costello's improvising is carefully crafted, beauifully structured, and mellow.  Beautiful performances, and highly recommended.



Bobo Stenson Trio: Contra la indecision (ECM)

Review by John Watson

There are some gorgeous musical colours on this latest album by Swedish pianist Stenson, which overall offers a brighter tapestry of sounds than his previous trio albums in my collection. With him are bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Jon Fait, and only one of the compositions, Alice, is by Stenson - the title track is by Silvio Rodriguez; Doubt Thou The Stars, Three Shades of A House, Alice, Stilla, Oktoberfest and Heminghway Intonations are all by by Jormin. Wedding Song From Poniky is by Bela Bartok, Elegie is by Erik Satie, and one apparently improvised track, Kalimba Impressions, is credited to the members of the trio.

The title track opens the album on a bright note, and the improvising flows beautifully throughout the subsequent tracks. There's a particulaly fine bass solo on Three Shades Of A House, but it is the consistently intriguing interplay between the three musicians that catches the ear.


Cuong Vu 4-Tet : Ballet, The Music of Michael Gibbs (Rare Noise Records)

Review by John Watson

The gorgeous playing on this release is both strongly individual, and immensely respectful, in the musicians' interpretations of five works by composer Michael Gibbs. Trumpeter Cuong Vu's group features guitarist Bill Frisell - who has been a close collaborator with Gibbs on many projects - with bassist Luke Bergman and drummer Ted Poor.  It's a live recording from a 2016 concert at the University of Washington, and its release comes as Gibbs is about to undertake a UK tour Germany and with his orchestra (plus dates in Germany and the USA). See the Jazzcamera "News & Features" page for tour details.

There's plenty of space in the group's use of interplay, with the opening title track capturing the mood of Gibbs' swirling composition, a variation on the blues structure. "Feelings And Things" is simply gorgeous - moody open horn from Vu, gentle guitar strokes from Frisell, and subtle support from Bergman and Poor. This is ballad mastery. "Blue Comedy" has some lively interchange between trumpet and guitar, though the edit which ends the track is rather sudden, as though something quickly followed which had to be lost. "And On The Third Day" - long one of my favourite Gibbs works - floats gracefully, with Frisell shadowing the main theme, before increasing electronic fuzz adds a savage edge to the tonal landscape.

The album concludes with another Gibbs classic, "Sweet Rain" (a ballad famously recorded by Stan Getz on his magnificent quartet album of the same name), with Frisell introducing the theme, before Vu's mellow open horn enters majestically to take up the lead. Absolutely beautiful.



Youn Sun Nah: She Moves On (ACT)

Review by John Watson

I love the voice of Korean-born Youn Sun - her technique is absolutely extraordinary, and she brings tremendous indivuality and expression to all the songs she sings. There's a great deal to enjoy on this new release: her version of Joni Mitchell's The Dawntreader is a real highlight, and there are strong versions of Jimi Hendrix's Drifting, the folk song Black Is The Colour Of My True Love's Hair, and her own creations (usually with other writers) Traveller and Evening Star. The instrumental line-up is a strong one, including guitarist Marc Ribot. 

However, this CD doesn't come close to matching my own favourite work of Youn Sun's: the album Lento, a stupdenous collaboration with the excellent Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius. The duo also gave an unforgettably joyful performance that year at the Skopje Jazz Festival in Macedonia, one that will stay in my mind for ever.  She Moves On was produced and arranged by keyboardist Jamie Saft, and I think that the production has been rather over-cooked. It's a very good album, but I'm quite confident that even greater works are to come from Youn Sun Nah.


Richie Beirach and Gregor Huebner, with Randy Brecker, George Mraz and Billy Hart: Live At Birdland, New York (ACT)

Review by John Watson

If you like exciting, small-group jazz, played by absolute masters at the peak of their art, and if you are planning to buy only one CD this year, then make it this one.  For this disc - issued to mark the 70th birthday of pianist Beirach and the 50th of violinist Huebner - is the most engaging small group recording I've heard in recent times.

The music, recorded at Birdland in 2012, blazes like crazy from the opening bars of the standard song You Don't Know What Love Is, taken at a snappy tempo and with Brecker's trumpet and Huebner's violin soaring and swooping like birds over the raging wave of the rhythm section. As well as excitement, there's plenty of eloquence throughout the album, particularly in the Beirach-Huebner composition Around Bartok Bagatelle No.4 and Siciliana, the pianist and violinist's vibrant evocation of a Bach creation. These two tracks reflect the trilogy of discs recorded by the two musicians for ACT: "Round About Bartok" (2000),  'Round about Federico Mompou" (2001) and "Round About Monteverdi" (2001).

It's almost impossible to pick out highlights, as all the tracks are so strong: Beirach's own beautiful tune Elm, one of his earliest successes as a composer, Huebner's splendid African Heartbeat, and the concluding John Coltrane work Transition. A drawback in recording live at a club, even one with a distinguished history in its various New York locations, is that audience applause from a relatively small group of people can sound half-hearted.  The music, though, is all heart - and that's what counts.