Jan 23 2014
Australian pianist Andrea Keller presented an exquisite touch and evocative sound on previous albums, but on her newest, Wave Rider, she adds a string section to her working quartet, and the result is an absolutely gorgeous and thrilling album.
The album was released near the tail end of 2013, and it was an outstanding way for a jazz fan to wrap that year up.
The album opens as if setting a scene, with the burgeoning intensity of “From Nature’s Fabric” showcasing the piano quartet’s ability to gain a huge emotional impact out of a display of tension and restraint, further evidencing it by following with “Ingress,” which seamlessly incorporates the string quartet’s various rhythmic and melodic facets within trumpet’s harmonic presence. “Queen for Tea I” is a continuation of this interaction, but trumpet begins to assert itself here, switching places with strings, which shift more to an accompaniment role.
And it’s on the fourth track, “Waves I,” where this album has left the exposition stage and now gets right to the conflict of the story. Keller murmurs on piano, responding to the whispers of strings. It’s a brooding tune with an ominous tone, and even when there’s a spike of intensity, it still behaves as a precursor to something more.
Something more is “Illumination,” the first moment when the entire ensemble coalesces into an expression of song form and motion. Clarion calls by Ball and Whitehurst on trumpet and sax soar above Keller and Talia setting a rhythmic landscape on piano and drums. Strings work the territory in between the two, adding a rhythmic component while also enhancing the surging motion of trumpet and sax. And, delightfully, a song that speeds right along has a wind-down that floats gently, lovingly back to earth.
And that marked the spot where the album’s songs had a more definitive structure… a quality with a heightened gratification due to the opening stanzas’ predisposition to an ethereal formlessness. For instance, a track like “Mister Music,” which accentuates the octet’s ability to glide through tempo changes on the wings of harmonic bridges, has that much more presence due to the tone of the album’s opening tracks.
A pattern begins to develop with “Reflection,” as the album moves back to a state of sonic musing, letting sounds disperse with a freedom that is positively arresting. “Reflection” pairs quavering strings with probing trumpet notes, and piano glittering like a galaxy of stars. “Patience” has Keller standing alone in the spotlight voicing quiet thoughts on piano, later joined by sax and trumpet offering up their own expressions, delivered patiently and with the deliberation of moonlight slowly covering the earth.
The interlude “Queen for Tea II” features saxophonist Whitehurst in a melodic display that meshes attractively with the string quartet’s frenetic accompaniment. This leads to another short piece, “Waves II,” which gets strings back out front of the stage, providing the direction and the acceleration.
The album begins the homestretch with “Breathing In,” an extended piece that develops an infectious cadence that provides a welcoming environment for musicians to solo over. Strings, again, display their invaluable contribution of thick harmonic waves that benefit both the melodic development and the tempo. As session leader, Keller is unselfish with sharing time in the spotlight, and this is one of the rare times that she allows herself to really stretch out and raise up above the ensemble.
The lovely strings-sax duo of “Wave Rider” is followed up by the engrossing strings-piano conversation of “Queen for Tea III,” and then the thrilling dissonant cacophony of “Queen for Tea IV,” which provides some satisfying contrast to the previous tracks.
The album ends with “Egress,” a return to form of the album’s opening track, but with a stronger presence and point of view. The ensemble finishes things out in unison, providing a nifty sense of finality.
As I said in the opening, this album came out late in 2013… after I’d already constructed my Best of 2013 list. Had I heard this earlier, it absolutely would have rated highly. As it is, my Best Of lists tend to run November to November, so expect Wave Rider to receive strong consideration on my Best of 2014 list.
Your album personnel: Andrea Keller (piano), Eugene Ball (trumpet), Ian Whitehurst (tenor saxophone), Joe Talia (drums), Erkki Veltheim (violin), Helen Ayers (violin), Matt Laing (viola), and Zoe Knighton (cello).
Released on the Jazzhead label.
Listen to more of the album on the artist’s Bandcamp page.
Jazz from the Melbourne, Australia scene.