Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Agustí Fernández - Celebration Ensemble (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2017) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Following 2015’s River, Tiger, Fire set, which featured pianist Agustí Fernández in four different formats—solo, two trios, and orchestra—he returns to the large group setting with Celebration Ensemble. An octet, accompanied on stage by dancer Sònia Sánchez, Celebration Ensemble debuted onstage in Barcelona in 2015. The group features Fernández on piano, Frances-Marie Uitti on cello, Mats Gustafsson and Pablo Ledesma on saxophones, Nate Wooley on trumpet, Joe Morris on guitar, and Ingar Zach and Núria Andorrà on percussion, performing an extended improvisation that moves effortlessly and beautifully.

Opening with Fernández on piano, Wooley and Morris quickly join with something of a duet, set against Fernández’s slow and patient rhythmic explorations. In fact, much of the album exists in this acoustic liminal space, where shades, textures, and tension intersect, occasionally clashing, occasionally harmonizing. Uitti’s cello and Morris’s guitar are particularly instructive, as both players bend and stretch, creating some of the dynamic underpinning that drives the octet’s collective improvisation. There’s a really excellent, atom-smashing push by all eight performers in the middle of “Part 2” (the improvisation is divided into 10 parts “to facilitate the navigation through the CD” as Fernández notes). This is followed by Fernández and Morris in a thrilling, almost balletic, duet. Later, in “Part 4,” Gustafsson, Ledesma, and Wooley come together for a rich, symphonic fugue that foregrounds the lushness of their playing. Leading into the sparse opening of “Part 5,” with its blocky, minimalist winds, which are followed by another dramatic Fernández run, augmented by drums and winds and reminiscent of his other notable trios. Deep into “Part 8,” Gustafsson trades breathy tones, pops, and crackling high-pitched runs with Fernández’s bright, tumbling piano. The two have developed a long, fruitful relationship, and, bookended by the octet’s rich collaboration, the depth of their collaboration is nicely highlighted in this duet. After the piece ends with Fernández in a lengthy decrescendo, the audience applauds for two whole minutes. By this point—after an hour of such dense, high-wire performance—I had nearly forgotten the piece was recorded live, but it was also refreshing to hear the audience’s appreciation for this excellent album.

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