Travel broadens the mind. But travel has been restricted for two years. To fill the void, pianist and composer Volker Jaekel has combined memories and emotions from past journeys to create the solo album Short Stories. Recorded live, it carries the listener across countries and continents to stimulate the mind – and the spirit and soul too.
Tours, concerts and festivals around the globe have always been part of Volker Jaekel’s work. The pianist, organist, choir leader and composer from Berlin is also used to crossing borders of genre and style, from religious music and Baroque forms through to pop ballads, jazz and contemporary improvised music. Short Stories is clearly marked by that free-roaming attitude. It was recorded live at the Nikodemus Church in Berlin in March 2020. “What I didn’t know at the time,” Jaekel says, “is that it would be my last solo concert before lockdown.”
Too raw, too real
Road to Asyut is the first song on the album. Heavy left-hand rumbling meets feathery right-hand rippling. Here is sadness. Reflection. Truth. The mood and energy climb slightly in the middle of the piece, but it somehow fails to stick. The feelings are simply too difficult, the emotions too raw and real. It feels less like a performance, more like a heart-to-heart. “This track was 100 percent improvised,” Jaekel says. “I had an image of the Egyptian desert in mind. Nothing else. I just played.”
The next two songs make a handsome couple. The Morning After is cheerful and show-tuney, rousing the listener with a strong coffee and flinging them into the morning’s Zoom meetings with zip and zest. Tell Me Everything unfolds beneath the listener’s feet. Jaekel uses classical elements to explore mysteries, always straining to express something unspoken, to show something hidden.
Racing fingers cause racing pulses in Fuge 2020, a piece packed with pep and punch, modes and messages mingling, dense flurries building pressure. Then comes a song that encapsulates the album. Avenida Paulista is a short track with a call-and-response feeling, light and darkness, beauty and chaos, crowded passages and empty space. The last minute opens out into a tumbling pattern that showcases Jaekel’s command of the keys – and his depth of emotional expression.
Another highlight follows. Waiting for an Answer begins with spiralling restatements, reimaginings and reinterpretations of a heart-shattering melodic shape. The heat goes out. Passions deepen. A harsh chill descends. Things start to fragment, fumble and fluctuate. Senses swim together, alarms ring. Then rhythms return, the refrain rises. There is peace. There is precision. The song is an immersive experience, a bit like the ongoing pandemic. But it’s an experience the listener wishes would never end.
Falling in love, taking the train
Close to You tells the head-over-heels story of love in its freshest phase, with all the soft-sighing sweetness of a perfumed letter stored in a shoe box under the bed. The final song is Transsiberian, featuring a marching melodic pulse that is ready to rise and ready to rumble from the first bar. “I toured Russia and Siberia a few years ago, and took the train very often,” Jaekel says. “The trains were old, I could hear and feel every movement – for me, it was music in the ears. I tried to capture that feeling of constantly moving forward in this song. A sense of endless momentum.”
Focused on feelings
Short Stories takes listeners across landscapes and cultures, and provides a portal to the before-times, when the world felt more open. By sharing this loose collection of memories, Jaekel invites his audience to reflect on their own past journeys. He also reminds them of what they’ve missed about in-person performances. “I prefer recording live because it’s always spontaneous and feels more natural than a studio,” Jaekel says. “I have a melody and some chords, but about 70 percent of the album is improvised. I think, constantly, about the overall sound. Then I focus on a specific feeling. And make music.”
The album is available on CD and as a digital download. Find more information here.
Check out this video of Volker Jaekel performing Avenida Paulista:
Strange how Jaekel describes his inspiration for "Transsiberian" having been the sounds from aged Russian trains. It sounds to me like the insistently repeated propulsive rhythms of Irene Schweitzer's solo work. Both statements are surely true in this delightful release.
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