Feb 4 2013
Philipp Harnisch‘s quartet likes to formulate beautiful constructs, like sheets of stained glass, then methodically scar and shatter them. It is a process he repeats throughout the lovely Songs About Birds and Horses. Erecting soundscapes shot through with Nordic Jazz serenity, the quartet comes crashing down with a delicate avant-garde ferocity. Of significant importance is the music’s quality of not turning its back on itself when it presents one of the two facets of tranquility and clamor… both are present at all times, and it is only a matter of which of the two is in the ascendent.
Your album personnel: Philipp Harnisch (alto sax), Elias Stemeseder (piano, melodica), Paul Santner (double bass), and Maximilian Santner (drums, percussion)
Songs made for the quiet hours of the morning, like “Still In Motian,” capture the shifting stillness of Paul Motian’s music and its sparks of life. Whereas “Backyard Birds” enhances the album’s gentle presence with quavering piano notes rustle in cymbal washes and chiming percussion. And “Purple Days” sighs contentedly with a languorous tone, just floats in place.
“Pulsate” is the first true sign of the quartet’s intentions to tear it all down. Harnisch’s wailing saxophone and Santner’s toolbox percussion are the sound of things falling apart… loudly. Conversely, “Poem February” uses its inside voice, which proves no obstacle to rending the fabric of silence just before taking off at a gallop. And following the short, brooding introduction, “Steel Horses” raises up slowly with layers of comforting repetition, just easing into everything. But at the half-way mark begins to offer warning signs of potential flammability before returning to a state of peace and trust…. really, a microcosm of this album from the very start.
The album ends with “Coda (Birdsong)” and brings things back to the serenity from which the album began. I’m a sucker for that kind of circular conclusion.
Harnisch has a solid handle with a light touch, which is called for often on this recording. He ably brings the heat when required, but it’s his evocative tone when easing back that bears the greatest rewards. Stemeseder’s piano often emits loose fluttering lines, which gives them both an electrical charge and a bluesy ease. He’s also a primary catalyst for the breakdowns from serenity to chaos, when the quartet decides it’s time to deconstruct. Bassist Santner doesn’t get in the spotlight much, but is most effective when providing the shadow for piano’s sunlight. And it’s a toss-up between the shimmering cymbal work and the earthy percussion of Maximilian Santner which qualifies as his most gratifying contribution to the effort.
Just a lovely album, and one that proves that beauty can be illustrated by contrasting it with that which is not, just as effectively as raising it up on a pedestal.
Released on the Listen Closely label.
Jazz from the Vienna, Austria scene.