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Wednesday, December 21, 2022

When ancient art inspires modern sounds

 By Stef Gijssels

Without wanting to write a musicological essay on "third stream" or "cross-over" - the regions where classical music and jazz merge into something new, there are some interesting new albums out that are inspired by history, including the sounds of music or art from centuries ago. They are worth highlighting because it shows the breadth of scope modern jazz and even free improvisation can have today. To know and understand musical heritage can lead to fascinating new works of art and interesting new perspectives on music. I am not talking about classical music being performed with a jazz form, there are zillions of technically brilliant musicians who have done that (see Uri Caine as a good example), but music that qualifies as free music or avant-garde jazz inspired by classical sounds. 

So here is a weird amalgam of ancient inspiration in avant-garde music. 

Didier Lasserre - Silence Was Pleased (Ayler, 2022)

17th Century

Possibly the most stunning and unusal album in this list is French drummer Didier Lasserre's "Silence Was Pleased", inspired by the John Milton's (1608–1674) "Paradise Lost", and then especially the following few lines of this lengthy poem. 

"Now came still Evening on, and
Twilight gray Had in her sober livery all things clad;
Silence accompanied; for beast and bird,
They to their grassy couch, these to their nests
Were slunk, all but the wakeful nightingale.
She all night longer her amorous descant sung:
Silence was pleased". Now glowed the firmament
With living Saphirs; Hesperus, that led
The starry host, rode brightest, till the Moon,
Rising in clouded majesty, at length
Apparent queen, unveiled her peerless light,
And o’er the dark her silver mantle threw;

... Silence ... (added)

The album's track titles are all taken from this poem in the right sequence. The text is sung by Laurent Cerciat, whose baroque alto falsetto is uncanny in this environment of forward-thinking musicians who weave a texture of sonic lace based on Lasserre's compositional instructions. They are among the crème-de-la-crème of French musicians, with - next to Cerciat on voice and Lasserre on percussion - Benjamin Bondonneau on clarinet, Christine Wodrascka on piano, Jean-Luc Cappozzo on trumpet and flugelhorn, Gaël Mevel on cello, with Denis Cointe creating live ‘tinnitus’ sounds, and Loïc Lachaize offering sound machinery conception & recording. 

Needless to say that the music evolves around silence, its presence the essence around which Lasserre's composition is built with clear anchor points to which the musicians have to work their way, slowly and gradually. On most tracks, the number of musicians is limited to just a few playing at the same time. 

Even if silence and quiet interaction are predominant, this does not mean that outbursts of high volume intensity are avoided (the clarinet, piano and drums at times have their moments of power), resulting in an experience of stark contrasts and maintained tension. 

Even if it is Lasserre's first ambitious compositional work, it is a winner from the start. It may take some time to accept the baroque voice in the context of avant-garde music, but it works. Lasserre demonstrates the quality of music without historical boundaries. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Dave Douglas - Secular Psalms (Greenleaf, 2022)

15th Century

American trumpeter Dave Douglas also created this ambitious work, "Secular Psalms", inspired by the "Ghent Altarpiece", work of the brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, painted in the mid-1420s and finished in 1432. It shows the "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb of God". The masterpiece just underwent a massive restoration, and I can recommend anyone who visits Belgium to go and visit it at the Sint-Baafs cathedral. 

Dave Douglas comments on the triptych: "... it is a very difficult piece! So much of life and philosophy are in there, but told in such naked and plain way. The strangeness and mystery of this period in art has always touched me. This was made not long after the plague which decimated Europe in the late 14th century. Not too long before Martin Luther changed many people’s views of this religion. But, at the root of it, the humanity. These are real figures, even the painted stone sculptures he has included. Even the donors! It is often remarked about Van Eyck that he was a master, and possibly one of the first masters, of portraiture. But in The Altarpiece they also have space to create a real story, one representing all walks of life. I hear music when I see art like this". 

Douglas assembled a Belgian-international ensemble of young musicians, with Berlinde Deman on serpent, tuba and voice, Marta Warelis on piano, prepared piano and pump organ, Frederik Leroux on guitars, lute and electronics, Tomeka Reid on cello, and Lander Gyselinck on drums and electronics. 

The music oscillates between modern jazz and old religious sounds, or it mixes both, but it is an album of story-telling, with narratives for each piece, dramatic changes in the composition, moments of quiet contemplation mixed with unexpected intensity, avant-garde moments of noise or jubilant exaltation, and sometimes even all in one composition. The older forms used in the music are inspired by 15th-Century Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay, one of the first to employ the more mellifluous harmonies, phrasing and melodies characteristic of the early Renaissance. 

Yet is is overall still a Dave Douglas album, more rooted in modern jazz, and needless to say with exceptional musicianship. Even if ancient instruments like pump organ, lute and serpent are used, this does not give the music a real ancient feel. 

The album was commissioned by Handelsbeurs Theater, Ghent to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the painting, and the theater's artistic director, Wim Wabbes, has been instrumental in making the initiative work. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Tony Buck & Gianni Gebbia - The Fruitful Darkness (Objet-A, 2022)

16th Century

The album's cover art depicts a detail from Caravaggio's "Marta e Maria Maddalena" (approx. 1598). The musicians are Gianni Gebbia on Bb soprano, Eb baritone saxophone, cornettophone and electronics, with Tony Buck on drums and percussion. 

We mentioned earlier and here that Gebbia's music is inspired by old medieval and renaissance music. 

Even if the title - The Fruitful Darkness - refers to a book on zen buddhism by Joan Halifax, the musical environment is much influenced by religious music of the 16th Century. The first track, "Lament", does what it says: a slow and repeated theme expresses deep sorrow and sadness. Gebbia's sax explores the same theme with timbral variations, while Buck's percussive intensity creates a wonderful support and contrast to the sax, possibly showing the inner conflict and the outer form. It's a wonderful introduction to the lengthy "The Lorraine's Mirror Suite", a multilayered polyphonic composition based on a core theme that slowly expands and develops. Some parts escape from the early harmonies to become real fierce dialogues in modern fashion between horn and percussion, even if Gebbia's lyricism keeps referring to non-jazz sonic scales. Buck is exceptionally good, playing up a storm, and using his percussion more as a harmonic instrument than as a rhythmic one. The music is built on the concept of a Lorraine Mirror - or a black mirror as some call it - a tool used by painters because it reflected a landscape in saturated colours, and here used as an idea to intensify the music's sonic possibilities, including the strong juxtaposition between the real free jazz outbursts and the ancient harmonies. 

The album ends with "Ophikleide", a quieter piece performed on a soprano saxophone with no mouthpiece, with the same technique or embouchure of a cornetto. The warm sound is somewhat more wavering and hesitant, again contrasting with Buck's incessant power on his kit. 

Like on Gebbia's previous albums, the quality is high, including in the merging of old and new, the innovative use of old instruments and musical compositional methods, and here becoming even more powerful in the wonderful dialogue with the magnificent percussionist that Tony Buck is. 

Easy to recommend!

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Bastarda & Holland Baroque - Minne (Pentatone, 2022)

11th Century -17th Century

Three years ago, we reviewed "Ars Moriendi", by the Polish trio Bastarda, with Paweł Szamburski on clarinet, Michał Górczyński on contrabass clarinet, and Tomasz Pokrzywiński on cello. On this album they are accompanied by "Holland Baroque", an ensemble consisting of Judith Steenbrink, Katarina Aleksić, Giorgos Samoillis, Chloe Prendergast, Andrej Kapor, Emma Williams, Anna Jane Lester, Joseph Tan and Kirsti Apajalahti on violin, with Tineke Steenbrink on organ, accordeon, harp and harmonium, and Marie van Luijk on vocals. 

The common member of both ensembles is cellist Tomasz Pokrzywiński. The collaboration with the larger string ensemble gives Bastarda's music a more classical feel and more depth, but it also allows for stronger dramatic effects in the compositions. 

"Minne" in medieval Dutch means "love", and here in the context of the love poems by the 13th Century Brabant (now both in Belgium and the Netherlands) mystic Hadewych, whose love for Christ almost receives a respectful physical quality in all its spiritual yearning for unification, that is impossible to happen. 

The collaboration of both ensembles for this project is relatively unique, and the music's genre is boundary-breaking. It is not jazz, not folk and not classical music either, but a modern fusion of these styles into a meaningful and coherent new sound. The combination allows for easy melodies, orchestral arrangements, unexpected sonic explorations and theatrical moments that could be the soundtrack for a movie. Several of the pieces use material by medieval and baroque composers, such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Heinrich Isaac (ca. 1450-1517) and Melchior Franck (ca. 1579-1639).

For avant-garde and free jazz fans this album may be a touch too welcoming, a little bit on the safe side, and insufficiently adventurous, yet the quality of the playing, including the improvisations, and the music will please most music lovers. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Battle Trance - Green of Winter (New Amsterdam, 2022) 

13th to 16th Century

Battle Trance is still something else. The band consists of four tenor saxophonists: Travis Laplante, Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson and Jeremy Viner. Even if they do not directly refer to medieval inspiration for their music, it comes as close to Flemish polyphony as free jazz can get (or vice versa). With impressive circular breathing techniques, the quartet weaves a tapestry of different voices that move in the same direction but at different layers and at a different pitch, creating an unusual mesmerising sound that is both iconoclast and reverend. 

The medieval polyphony was originaly based on four male voices, called a "motet", derived from the Latin word "movere" or "moving", although other explanations exist, that it comes from the French "mot" or 'word', and was characterised by a lead voice - the cantus firmus - around which simultaneous contrapuntal melodies  were created and by the use of repetitive patterns or modes.

Willingly or not, Battle Trance's music fits perfectly in that tradition. The music is searching for an aesthetic that is lyrical, spiritual and moving, brought by complex compositional structures, including rhythm changes, with four voices that as easily develop into dissonance as into unexpected unison themes. 

The project is the result of a 20-day retreat when performances were stopped because of the pandemic. "Battle Trance found the perfect sound in the Big Barn, a warm and resonant structure, where the quartet spent hours experimenting with the old post-and-beam building’s tones before uncovering the best possible acoustical responsiveness for "Green of Winter"".

The result is music that defies categories but that possibly requires modern jazz and free improv fans to fully appreciate the quality of the music. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Micah Frank & Chet Doxas - The Music of Hildegard von Bingen Part One (Puremagnetik, 2022)

12th Century

Hildegard von Bingen (c. 1098 – 17 September 1179) "also known as Saint Hildegard and the Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German Benedictine abbess and polymath active as a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, and as a medical writer and practitioner during the High Middle Ages" (Wikipedia). 

It wouldn't be the first time that Hildegard von Bingen inspires jazz musicians. John Zorn's "Femina" (2009) is an example, as is Jan Garbarek's work with the Hilliard Ensemble on ECM: "Mnemosyne" (1999) and "Remember Me, My Dear" (2019), but also and lesser known on Noël Akchoté's "Loving Highsmith" (2020) and possibly a few more. 

This album is not really jazz, more ambient rather, even if musicians like David Torn (guitar), Jason Nazary (drums) and Michael Formanek (bass) participate on it. The music's true sound is created by the synthesizer of Micah Frank and the woodwinds of Chet Doxas, with programming by Kodomo on one track. 

Chet Doxas explains the nature of the music: “My counterpoint teacher spoke about her holistic approach to writing music. The natural world played a big part in her compositional voice. I’ve gleaned inspiration from her, allowing outside influences in my life to blend with my musical ideas. When I improvise with Micah, he often includes drones in his sound, while I play single note melodies or improvisations. This pairing is similar to early music, with a melody over the cantus firmus.”

The album presents a quiet soundscape in five parts, with different approaches to composing, improvising and working with the sound itself, as can be read in the liner notes. 

It is a pleasant album, not really groundbreaking or radical in its delivery, but worth checking out.

Listen and download from Bandcamp