Susana Santos Silva Impermanence - The Ocean Inside a Stone (Carimbo Porta-Jazz , 2020) *****
Susana Santos Silva - The Same Is Always Different (Self, 2020) *****
Of the many releases either teased or promised for 2020, very high on my list was Susana Santos Silva’s second album with her quintet Impermanence, featuring saxophonist João Pedro Brandão, pianist Hugo Raro, bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg, and drummer Marcos Cavaleiro. A glance at the lineup in the credits gives you a sense of some of the changes contained herein. The first album included trumpet, flugelhorn, alto sax, flute, piano double bass, and drums. On the new album, Santos Silva has added tin whistle and voice, Brandão adds piccolo and choir, Raro synthesizer and choir, and Zetterberg switches to electric bass and adds Moroccon qraqebs. In a manner of speaking, Impermanence has evolved its sound both vertically and horizontally. In a more straightforward reference to itself, the quintet has embraced its name and moved on. Where they’ve gone to, however, is quite a bit trickier to put into words. Santos Silva’s syntax is as varied and robust as any trumpeter on the scene.
The Ocean Inside a Stone wastes no time in going out there. “Expanded Life” opens the album with a dense Tortoise-y, post-rock feel, as Santos Silva and Brandão play the song’s angular melody, with octave-spiking long notes blown in precision parallel. On the follow-up, “Wanderhopes,” Santos Silva inverts this somewhat, with an echoing melody in the horns offset by a freely improvised rhythm section. Zetterberg’s electric bass may be most noticeable here, as its the likeliest song to have featured some of his fine arco. And yet, that’s barely missed, as he brings, I believe, qraqeb to the middle section, engaging in a dynamic conversation with Cavaleiro. The combined interlude “The Past Is Yet To Come” and Art Ensemble-like “The Drums Are Chanting, Or Is It the Trees? “ turn the album on its head, like Henry Threadgill sometimes does; it’s not too far off the last-minute left turn of “A Man Called Trinity Deliverance” from Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket. Although, there’s still one more track left on the album, “The Healer,” which strikes an appropriate hopeful chord in its voicing.Meanwhile, just as the album was gaining traction, countries entered quarantine in response to the novel coronavirus. Santos Silva seemed to be quietly taking it in stride for a while, before a dramatic appearance online, as part of Experimental Sound Studio’s quarantine concerts.
Shortly after, she posted hints on Instagram that something new was coming soon, and The Same Is Always Different arrived on her Bandcamp account just a couple weeks later. (Interestingly, just like when I purchased The Ocean Inside a Stone, the full album arrived by email, and the Bandcamp download was only a partial album. I have some thoughts about why this might be, although I have not yet connected with her to follow up, so I’ll restrain from getting into them further. Suffice to say, I’ve had several conversations with musicians about some of the inherent structural weaknesses in Bandcamp.) And what, exactly, had arrived at that point? A radical alter-ego of her solo debut, All the Rivers, The Same Is Always Different reflects that first album from the vantage point of two very long years, and a global pandemic that’s barely let up. Where “All the Rivers” opened with majestic, echoy long tones, “The” is 20 minutes of extended brass drone, minutely shifting in subtle gradations, but meeting the listener with an almost confrontational tone, not unlike Roscoe Mitchell’s first solo version of “Nonaah,” from Willisau. But separating “The” from “Nonaah” is what feels like the intense strain of being alone. On the remaining tracks, “Same,” “Is,” “Always,” and “Different,” Santos Silva navigates pain, confusion, the infinite regression of isolation. What she produces, however, is an album full of wit and sustained reflection. Each track begins with an idea, which could easily fade or blossom into something new. But Santos Silva travels the path less taken, diving deeper into the explored sound, prodding it, manipulating it, like challenging herself with the question of, “What if this is all that remains?” The titles, derived of course from the album title, hint at a hopefulness that threads itself so delicately through the whole, it’s really only grasped with repeated listening, with the kind of immersive submission one rarely grants oneself. As the minutes stretch and bend, and time distorts with astonishing fluidity, she stitches together a narrative that reconstructs this moment for future audiences. It’s less of a snapshot, more of a wish. For, while I am merely a listener, used to hearing an album on my own terms, fairly commonly by myself, there is a lack in the life of a performing artist, a yawning gap where fellow musicians and audience members typically reside. What her isolation has loosed is a funneling of emotion into some of her most experimental, electro-acoustic work. I’m already jealous of anyone who gets to see her perform again, when the rest of the world figures out how to right itself and re-emerge properly.