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Sunday, July 10, 2022

Curt Sydnor - Heaven Is Begun (Passerine Records, 2022)

By Lee Rice Epstein

There are very few artists making records like Virginian keyboardist Curt Sydnor. In fact, the only one who really comes close is Laura Cole—although their music doesn’t necessarily sound alike, on the surface, there’s a similar omnivorous approach to their songwriting, where jazz, hymnals, and folk songs rub up against each other, sparking bright and frictive sounds.

On Sydnor’s fifth album, Heaven Is Begun, psalms and folk forms move to the fore. It’s a direction that was hinted at on the 2021 EP The Consort. Album opener “Battle Hymn of the Republic” sets the tone, with Sydnor and vocalist Laura Ann Singh’s beautiful duet is countered by bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Scott Clark improvising in a free context. What would normally be a high-wire act serves as a throat-clearing, a warm-up for the transcendence that follows.

“Who here will raise a drink to death?” Singh rings out at the start of “Heavenwards,” which adds Alan Good Parker on lap steel. The Sydnor original recalls Dave Douglas’s quintet album with Aoife O'Donovan, especially as his piano shines with a restrained, elegiac solo that recalls Douglas’s approach. Following, the band shifts into the second of three covers, “Beyond the Sunset,” probably best known for Hank Williams’s cover under his Luke the Drifter moniker. Rather than lean into its country pedigree, however, the group presents a stark ballad setting. The approach is emblematic of Heaven Is Begun as a whole, with knotty grooves played against gorgeously floating vocal lines.Much like his other albums, Heaven Is Begun is playfully serious, a first-rate songbook for a phenomenal band. There are dozens of surprising, delightful moments to be found on every track. When everyone pulls back as Sydnor sings, “Draw your banners down/let the ruin abound/wound [as in, a cut or scrape] become unwound,” on “Nature Strives for Beauty,” his reading comes across as both a command and plea, a prayer and a directive. Clark plays a loose swing rhythm and jolts the song into action, while Singh joins Sydnor on another vocal duet. Moments like these are hard to come by, and harder still to plan for, but they show why Sydnor is one of the few who can so successfully pull it off.

Available here in digital, vinyl, CD, and zine formats