Jazz's Focus on Ethnicity

Jazz's Focus on Ethnicity

Patrick Groenland listens to five recent releases by Tigran Hamasyan, The Unusual History of Ether, Sinikka Langeland, Keith Jarrett and Graham Reynolds.

Tigran Hamasyan — A Fable (Emarcy, USA)

Bringing your ethnicity to the table is pretty flavoursome in jazz at the moment, and we are better off for it too, particularly when the integration seems so genuinely a part of a musician’s character – as is the case with Tigran. A prodigious talent as a soloist, these compositions and arrangements of medieval hymns, poetry and folk songs from his native Armenian exhibit a maturity both in terms of orchestration and solo piano performance, so much so that it’s easy to take his brilliant right–hand improvisations for granted. The beauty of this album (already the recipient of a French Grammy award) is that Tigran’s technique and jazz training never feel like they are being served by the composition, quite the opposite in fact.

Each piece exudes a different character, from the rhythmic fervor of ‘What the Waves Brought’ and ‘Carnical’ to the lush and distinctive Armenian modal harmony of ‘Samsara’ and simply melodies of ‘Longing’ (to which Tigran contributes overdubbed vocalisations). There is even space for a jazz standard, ‘Someday my Prince Will Come’, popularized by Miles Davis, here reharmonised almost beyond recognition as a dark brooding waltz. The influence of piano greats Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau occasionally peek through, although it’s not hard to envisage Tigran himself joining this level of company in years to come. Be sure to catch him in Dublin on January 24, in the National Concert Hall.


The Unusual History of Ether — Part One EP

Irish Vocalist Rebecca Collins and Danish guitarist Mikkel Ploug provide the core of this Copenhagen–based group, which will perform on 30 January in the Project Arts Theatre, Dublin. Collins has a distinctive but familiar tone that sparkles in higher registers, but sounds equally comfortable and rich around the low end. She has a history of collaborating with accomplished jazz musicians on previous releases, and Part One continues this trend. The result is an amiable blend that presents sounds from previous eras in a modern minimalistic vehicle, with some stylish production thrown in for good measure.

Ploug, also a member of Seán Carpio’s group the WoWos, offers a rich harmonic sense that sits neatly beside synth hooks. ‘The Wrong Side’ is a good example of this liberal juxtaposing, opening with a dark melody and acoustic guitar duo that gives way to a present-day indie anthemic chorus, before settling on some sort of mid-point. It will be interesting to see how the band translates these curiously attractive songs to a live setting and to what extent the band might ‘open up’ the music, if at all. But most of all, it will be a treat to see what happens in part two.


Sinikka Langeland — The Land That Is Not (ECM, Germany)

Four years after her gorgeous ECM debut, Starflowers, Sinikka Langeland offers the equally slick The Land That Is Not. The Norwegian folk singer and kantele (a Finnish zither with a bell–like tone) player has collaborated with ECM favourites trumpeter Arve Henriksen and bassist Anders Jormin for up to fifteen years now, while saxophonist Trygve Seim and percussionist Markku Ounaskari are more recent additions to her group. Using the Norwegian-translated poetry of Swedes Edith Södergran and Olav Håkonson Hauge as a starting–off point, the two distinctive horns of Henriksen and Seim build around this sung text and are so closely aligned in timbre (almost an ECM cliché at this point) that it’s often hard to tell them apart.

Needless to say the production is immaculate, however the gritty ‘folkyness’ of Langeland and her band can sometimes feel smoothed–over. The album is not the greatest listen in one single go either, but these criticisms aside, this is the kind of album that you would want to test a new stereo to. There are a number of surprises also; ‘Lucky Cat’ turns into a thrilling conversational climax between drums and horns, ‘Triumph of Being’ recalls Alice Coltrane and in general, the tone of the group is more jazzy and the writing more dissonant compared to Langeland’s debut ECM album. Her own voice is majestic, both fragile and powerful and entrances alongside her command of the kantele, which Langeland strums, plucks and even bows.


Keith Jarrett — Rio (ECM, Germany)

Seemingly Jarrett got in touch with ECM head Manfred Eicher immediately after this solo performance in Brazil last year to convince the producer that this was his best performance in years. Luckily Eicher made little protest (Jarrett is one of the privileged few artists on the label that can make these demands), because after previous solo releases (Radiance, 2005) that were quite abstract and challenging to the point of perversion, Rio is worth it, both for the student and casual listener.

Harking back to earlier solo concerts (this is the thirteenth ECM solo release and marks the fortieth year of Facing You, the pianist’s debut solo album on the label), Jarrett seems to have come full circle, in that pieces genuinely sound like they want to have been composed. Some are particularly stylistic also; Part IV could be a standard ballad, Part IX (all of the pieces are named like this) could pass as a Debussy étude, Part XI is a brief romping blues. Throughout, there is a refreshing rawness present and an astoundingly deft speed of thought in the compositional approach — although these pieces are completely improvised on the spot, Jarrett is clearly way ahead of what the audience is hearing. This is his discipline, making something out of nothing (the trait that got him hired to Miles Davis’ band in the sixties) and crucially this time, sticking to it.


Graham Reynolds — The Difference Engine (Innova, USA

Perhaps best recognised for his score to the 2006 feature A Scanner Darkly, Texas–based Graham Reynolds comes across as a jack and master of various trades. Between writing for dance, theatre and film, performances in concert halls and rock clubs and this year’s simultaneous release of Duke Ellington inspired works, he’s clearly very busy, but imaginative. This project, a ‘loose’ concerto based on the story of nineteenth–century inventor Charles Babbage’s attempts to create the world’s first computer, has apparently taken Reynolds several years to come to fruition.

It is an epic work that briefly references impressionistic music of the time (as in Movement II ‘Ada’), consonant American minimalism also, rarely falling too deep into either camp. The CD includes remixes of each of the five live string ensemble tracks — one remix is even by Reynolds himself. The narrative of the movements is so strong and even demanding that it’s almost a relief when the remixes kick in; the phasing string patterns of odd–number note groupings are suited to electronic treatment, as are the chamber grooves. Reynolds is a formidable pianist and occasionally lets rip from the score, his remix of ‘Cam Stack and Crank Handle’ is genuinely deserving of the ‘cinematic’ tag, albeit for a slightly dated movie.


Published on 16 January 2012

Patrick Groenland is an Irish guitarist and composer. Having studied at the Berklee College of Music, Boston, he is now based in Dublin. www.patrickgroenland.com

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