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Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Georg Demel Quartett – Pale Blue Dot (Unit Records, 2021) *****

By Matty Bannond

23 billion kilometres away from Earth, something is communicating with humankind. It sends photos of our watery planet. It transmits data about the space beyond the Sun's heliosphere. And it has inspired four young musicians in Leipzig to create an album of startling emotional depth that, like the Voyager 1 space probe, is endlessly moving.

The Georg Demel Quartett features its 25-year-old band leader on trombone, as well as Christopher Kunz on tenor sax, Stephan Deller on bass and Tom Friedrich on drums. The four instrumentalists share a gift for evocative, imaginative and expressive playing. Together, they have recorded an album that explores complex emotions through sparse, delicate compositions. “If we humanise the space probe…” Demel says. “How would it feel to travel for so long? Would it wish to arrive? Feel lonely? Or feel free?

Cool engines, warm milk

Dream Mythology provides the album’s launch pad, buzzy tones grinding against each other until the friction sparks a fanfare-ish riff. The tempo rises. Cymbals begin to fizzle. The melody climbs an octave. Kunz’s saxophone explodes into the altissimo range, carefully repeating shapes and phrases to keep his listeners onboard. Then the engines cool and the group makes a cushioned landing.

The landing spot is Stückchen Drei, where the terrain is bumpy, a bassline with Latin undulations. The trombone spreads across this barren landscape, fading and falling, dynamic and lyrical. Heavy footsteps then announce the third track, More Sleep. The horns are full and creamy, warm milk to send heads nodding. The sax pillow-talks a solo, drums ticking, bass tocking. “I took the bassline from a music box I had as a child,” Demel says. “The endless-loop melody felt just right.

Something precious, lost

Selimaj is a stand-out track, encompassing all of the facets that make the album so special. The saxophone welcomes us, singing circular and shape-shifting arpeggios. The trombone joins in for a bebopy lick. Deller’s bass lets a playful vibrato wag like a dog’s tail. Demel then stretches out for a solo of sweet nothings and spicy somethings. The volume rises. Kunz takes a solo, frantic this time, agonised and antagonised.

With fists flying and teeth bared, the sound falters. The arpeggio riff returns, rich in aloe vera and chamomile. All is forgiven. Or perhaps a deeper truth is remembered. “The song revisits a memory of travelling in Albania,” Demel says. “It was so unspoiled and the way of life was connected to the land. But when I returned a few years later, it was all tourist hotels and holiday apartments. That connection had been broken. And I felt like… something precious had been lost.

Crash-landing cats

Gray is more like a poem than a song. From a tentative start, light hits a prism and unleashes a rainbow of overlapping sonorities and sentiments. For Blues in C-Moll, the four astronauts have crash-landed on 52nd Street in the age of hip cats and porkpie hats. Friedrich plays a hooping, scooping solo full of fire and fresh ideas. “Many of the compositions are influenced by Albert Mangelsdorff,” Demel says. “The use of quarter-tone chord shifts in this piece opened up a massive universe of possibilities.

Intimacy and intent

Track 7 is a shapely reimagining of the Ellington ballad, The Star-Crossed Lovers, where the musicians interconnect to generate effortless effervescence. Stück Eins is cliff-edged and clamorous, trapped under a weight of worry and straining its melodic muscles to escape. The final track, Voyager, rounds things off by restating the album’s concept. The bass plinks and plunks. Percussion pitters and patters. Four clear voices rise, each speaking with intimacy and intent. We are part of you. We are apart from you. We are flying through the cosmos and will never arrive anywhere. Good luck on your planet. You might need it.

Communicating across spaces

The album takes its name from a photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 in 1990, from about 6 billion kilometres away. Vast empty spaces shape all nine tracks. But the communication across those spaces is the defining characteristic of Pale Blue Dot. There is constant contact between modern and traditional jazz ideas. The musicians listen to each other intently, always with a laser-sharp focus on their collective sound. And this spirit of active dialogue delivers a recording that feels free-ranging and alive.

A lot of the album is improvised,” Demel says. “And the compositions are still changing now, every time we play them. When things fit perfectly, we keep them. But we’re always searching and trying things out. Endlessly.”

The album is available on CD and as a digital download. Find more information here .

Check out this video to hear the album’s final track, Voyager


Twitter: @MattyBannond


Alexander said...

I got this album through my local library after reading this review, and I've been coming back to it a lot in the last month. Thanks!