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Posts tagged ‘Julia Hülsmann’

Berlin in London

Lucia Cadotsch Purcell 2

One of the dividends from three years of going back and forth between London and Berlin was an insight into the phenomenal amount of interesting music being made in the German capital by young musicians of many nationalities. In my first year I went to the Jazz Kollektiv festival in a Turkish theatre in Kreuzberg and heard a trio called Speak Low, led by the Swiss singer Lucia Cadotsch and completed by two Swedes, the bassist Petter Eldh and the tenorist Otis Sandsjö. While Cadotsch delivered standards — “Don’t Explain”, “Willow Weep For Me”, “Strange Fruit” — in a clear, steady voice somewhere between jazz and cabaret and all the more powerful for a sense of understatement, Eldh and Sandsjö used the extended instrumental vocabularies of free jazz to provide a dynamic underpinning. It felt fresh and creative.

Last night they played in London for the first time in three years, mixing material from their first album, released by Yellowbird/ENJA in 2016, with songs from their forthcoming release, due next year. What they demonstrated was how the strength of the original concept is providing a platform for further explorations. They chose to perform the songs grouped together mostly in twos and threes, so that Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” bled into Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” and Brian Eno’s “By this River” prefaced “Wild Is the Wind”. The most ambitious of these sequences linked Henry Mancini and Norman Gimbel’s “Slow Hot Wind” with Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke’s “What’s New” and a real surprise, Tony Williams’ “There Comes a Time” (which provided the title track for an unjustly neglected Gil Evans album of the mid-’70s). Other songs heard during the course of the 70-minute set included Duke Ellington’s “Azure”, “Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair”, Rickie Lee Jones’s “So Long” and, as a delicious encore, Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River”.

Every time I’ve seen them, I’ve been struck by the way they gradually draw an audience into the spell of their music. Sandsjö uses circular breathing and false fingerings to create skeins of feathery-toned notes that can function either as an obligato or a countervoice, while Eldh deploys the combination of strength and mobility that make him one of the most compelling of all current bassists, with the kind of emotional generosity that once belonged to Charlie Haden. Both were given the opportunity to create lengthy unaccompanied passages of startling inventiveness. As for Cadotsch, she deploys none of the usual tricks and only the barest minimum of gestures but relies on the quiet confidence of her delivery to create the tension between her poised, free-floating phrasing and the often roiling contributions of the others. It’s a brave project, but I’ve yet to see it fail to work its magic, and last night at the Purcell Room was no exception.

Julia Hulsmann Purcell

On Sunday afternoon, in the same intimate South Bank recital hall and also as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, another Berlin-based band, the all-German quartet led by the pianist Julia Hülsmann, played a set that came very close to perfection in its balance of thoughtful writing and expressive improvising. Based on the contents of their new ECM album, Not Far From Here, the material included compositions by Hülsmann, the tenorist Uli Kempendorff, the bassist Marc Muellbauer and the drummer Heinrich Köbberling, all of them outstanding. They played two covers: Leslie Feist’s lovely waltz “The Water” (familiar from an earlier album, In Full View) and David Bowie and Pat Metheny’s “This Is Not America” — which, as Hülsmann gently pointed out, is a song that carries greater resonance today than its composers could have foreseen when they wrote it in 1985 for the spy film The Falcon and the Snowman.

So many trios, so little time

Trio Elf 2A few years ago, in response to a realisation that a phenomenon was under way, I reorganised my jazz CDs to provide a special alphabeticised section for piano trios. There were a lot of them, going back to Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and incorporating Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, René Urtreger, Mike Taylor, Martial Solal, Howard Riley, Bobo Stenson and many others, and the number grew fast as the influence of Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, the Necks, EST and the Bad Plus took hold on the younger musicians who formed trios such as Phronesis and GoGo Penguin. Like the string quartet in classical music and the two-guitars–bass-and-drums group in rock and roll, its components are held together in perfect structural tension and offer limitless flexibility.

But I’ve just spent two and a half days at the Jazzahead festival in Bremen, a sort of trade fair for musicians, managers, agents, labels and promoters at which the public can buy tickets for a series of showcase gigs, with each band strictly limited to a set of 30 minutes. Of the 17 bands I caught during those two and a half days, no fewer than eight were piano trios. It’s a format I love, obviously, but during that time my enthusiasm for the genre began to undergo a degree of modification.

I wouldn’t say this was necessarily the result of bad programming on Jazzahead’s part. A plausible case could be made that it simply reflects the response of young musicians to the demands of the market. But such exaggerated exposure to a single format did provoke the thought that many of today’s trios feel not just inspired but obliged to offer a different slant on a familiar set of tools.

In Bremen, the extremes of this approach were probably represented by Britain’s Elliot Galvin Trio and Germany’s Trio Elf. The brilliant Galvin, with Tom McCredie on bass and Corrie Dick on drums, opened and closed one of his sparky tunes with a doctored recording of a Punch and Judy show (as featured on his recent album, Punch). Trio Elf  –pictured above, with drummer Gerwin Eisenhower, bassist Peter Cudek and pianist Walter Lang — closed a set displaying an interest in hip-hop beats by inviting the audience to choose between covers of songs by Blink-182 and Kraftwerk for their last number (unsurprisingly, given the location and the median age of the audience, Kraftwerk won — the song turned out to be “Showroom Dummies”).

In between, stylistically speaking, came Finland’s highly creative Aki Rissanen Trio (with Antti Lötjönen on bass and Teppo Mäkynen on drums), the comparatively gentle modalities of the trio led by the Swedish drummer Emil Brandqvist (with Tuomas Turunen on piano and Max Thornberg on bass), and a set from Germany’s Lorenz Kellhuber (with Arne Huber on bass and Gabriel Hahn on drums) that seemed uneventful and subdued on the surface but slowly blended its undertows into a compelling mood.

The best of those I heard, however, was the most familiar: the trio of the German pianist Julia Hülsmann, with Marc Muellbauer on bass and Heinrich Köbberling on drums. Together for almost two decades, they treated us to material from their new ECM album, Sooner and Later, written and run during a recent world tour that included a visit to Kyrgyzstan, where a traditional song sung by a 12-year-old girl provided the melody for one composition. The mature, thoughtful music of Hülsmann’s trio is about substance rather than effect — which is not necessarily intended as a criticism of those who, in the fight to establish themselves in a competitive world, look to distinguish themselves through gesture.

I was momentarily disappointed when Hülsmann announced that she and her colleagues were going to finish the set with a tune by Radiohead, who are to today’s jazz musicians (and piano trios in particular) what Lennon and McCartney were to an earlier generation — a sub-phenomenon that was probably kicked off by Mehldau’s trio version of “Exit Music (For a Film)” almost 20 years ago. The decision seemed a little predictable. But then they turned “All I Need” (from In Rainbows) into something of such quiet poise, purity and radiance that any uncharitable thoughts I was beginning to entertain about the entire genre were instantly vaporised.