Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Gabriela Friedli Trio – Areas (Leo Records, 2018) ****½

By Nick Ostrum

Areas is the Gabriela Friedli Trio’s second album. And, what a powerful album it is.

For those of us out of the Swiss loop, this trio consists of Daniel Studer on bass, Dieter Ulrich on drums, and, of course, Gabriela Friedli on piano. Composition credits split almost evenly between Friedli and Ulrich, but these seem to vary between loose graphic scores and more traditionally composed structures.

I originally had trouble describing the music on this disc. It is at once abstract and straightforward, thoroughly contemporary but rooted in earlier traditions. One hears echoes of ECM-styled jazz, deconstructed blues, and contemporary classical spaciousness. The first track begins with a slow plodding that gives way to scraped strings and ominous piano lines based around short, meticulous clusters of notes. Studer is quiet, but energetic. Ulrich, meanwhile, plays with a measured freneticism that adds depth to the billowing tension of the piece. As with most of the album, this piece is structured around arrhythmic variation rather than melodic or chordal shifts. The second track, “Fil da Ramosa,” is one of few exceptions. Friedli and Studer recite a repeated angular phrase in unison, while Ulrich plays around the theme. The track dips into quiet, then improvisation after the first minute and is eventually brought to its conclusion in a final return to the theme.

The rest of recording fluctuates in a similar fashion between energy and restraint, composition and free playing. To address a few standouts: “Mildew Lisa” opens with string of staggered heavy bass thumps that is soon joined by Ulrich’s inquisitive drum explorations and the alternatively playful and nervous keys of Friedli, again more frequently opting for clusters rather than chords. In contradistinction to the wooly bass and Ulrich’s feints at laying a discernible groove, the piano is particularly crisp. The groove-laden “Miedra” begins with a jagged walking bass and maintains the most consistent jazz structure of any piece on the album. Clearly this trio has the chops to play in a more conventional vernacular while retaining its more meandering tendencies. The seventh track, “Um Su” (an alternate take of which graces the end of the album), is curious in its inclusion of Ulrich on a bugle. The horn sounds wounded, but tender. This mood is reflected in Studer’s bass explorations in friction and juxtaposed against Friedli’s concerted clarity and economy of notes. The effect is a disorienting but rewarding.

According to the liner notes, the album originated in a sojourn Friedli took in the mountainous region of Graubünden. Rather than composing as she had planned, she began to hike, converse with neighbors, and, apparently, internalize her temporary surroundings. A vast and jagged mountainscape makes perfect sense for this recording. Or, rather, it helps me better understand the album’s contours. The music rarely repeats or flows in a single direction, but instead rebounds and refracts. Stilted and augmented echoes outshine the few lengthier melodies. The sounds are spacious, but, as in the penultimate track “Masse,” can well and collide into claustrophobic outbursts that inevitably collapse back into their discrete elements. Absolutely recommended.

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