Jan 18 2014
Recommended: Benjamin Koppel – “The Adventures of a Polar Expedition”
An album that I’ve been absolutely taken with since it was first released is The Adventures of a Polar Expedition, a sprawling epic by a quintet led by Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel that puts sounds to the pictures and subject of arctic explorers.
Separated into four suites (“Time & Ice Suite,” “The Rise and Fall of the Andree Balloon Expedition 1897,” “The Magnificent Journeys of Nansen and Amundsen,” and “Friendship Suite: The Disappearance of Mylius-Erichsen and Jørgen Brønland”), Koppel’s ensemble captures the majestic visions of unexplored nature, as well as the peculiar oppressiveness inspired by a vast boundless landscape of endless icy whiteness and freezing temperatures.
The musicians also capture the emotions of exploration. Opening track “Nothing But Ice” has the sunny disposition of optimism and hope. Koppel and Ulrik send out warm tendrils, each on soprano sax, while Riel’s cymbals are an excited chatter. And the speedy “Time Piece” skitters right along, with saxophones calling out with increasing frequency and intensity.
On the sublime “Quietness Before Departure,” bassist Danielsson and pianist Balke construct a framework of elegant lyricism for saxophones to lay down one melancholy line after the other. It captures both the stoicism of facing a difficult odyssey and the contemplative moments that precede it. Danielsson also contributes an essential part to the moody “Floundering On Ice,” a song that has baritone saxes murmuring bits of melody while Palle’s bass gurgles excitedly in the foreground, actually serving to enhance the song’s preeminent moodiness rather than detract from it.
Saxophonists Koppel and Ulrik often work in tandem, but with staggered start and finish times. Their is a cohesion to their motion and sound, even as they remain separated by the slightest of spaces at all times. “Struggling Homewards, In Good Spirits” has the duo fluttering about, sometimes mirroring Balke’s own fluttering piano lines, sometimes attaining an elevation high above it.
“Hallucinating Optimism, Yet Realizing the End” features Riel’s rare moment to raise his voice on drums, crashing down notes in a dance with the saxophonists’ equally excitable display of exuberance. “The Balloon Launch” is another instance, in which Riel’s agitated drumming ties up the twisting saxophone parts into a neat little bow. However, Riel makes his greatest contributions to this recording with gentle rustles of cymbals and brushwork. On the “The Great Sled Journey,” Riel is the reason for the tune’s chipper demeanor, even though his restrained drumming keeps to the background of saxophone harmonies and Balke’s piano, which glitters like stars.
“The Legend of Fram” has baritone taking the low road, piano the higher, and what begins as a brooding tune suddenly takes to flight. Balke instigates many such moments throughout the album, often the foil to whatever emotional stance the composition seems intended to adopt. In this, providing just the right amount of contrast, Balke accentuates that to which he runs opposite. In addition to “The Legend of Fram,” there is the ballad “Farewell My Heart, My House,” in which Balke’s piano warmth and joyful tone strengthens the song’s overriding melancholy personality.
Just a gorgeous, enchanting album. Had this site been up and running a few years earlier, I am almost certain that The Adventures of a Polar Expedition would have been the Bird is the Worm 2010 Album of the Year.
Your album personnel: Benjamin Koppel (soprano & baritone saxes), Hans Ulrik (soprano & baritone saxes), Jon Balke (piano), Palle Danielsson (bass) and Alex Riel (drums).
Released in 2010 on Cowbell Music.
You can stream much of the album on the Cowbell site, and it’s accompanied by a photos from the actual expeditions. It’s just about the coolest album stream presentation I’ve ever seen on an internet site. To see it, follow this LINK.
Or purchase directly from Cowbell Music’s webshop, which, since it’s owned by Koppel himself, it’s the same as buying direct from the artist, which is always a good thing to do.
Aug 9 2014
Brad Mehldau – “Highway Rider”
Highway Rider isn’t my favorite Brad Mehldau album, but it is the one I keep coming back to most frequently. It is sonic comfort food for my ears. At the end of a long exhaustive week, it is the first thing I put on after closing the door behind me and attempt to transition from weekday to weekend. The way the album opens with the pretty melody and sussurant rhythmic chatter of “John Boy” is an invitation to decompress. And then the orchestra enters with some deeply resonant textures to which Joshua Redman joins with on soprano sax. There is a tranquility and a redolence to this song, and, really, to the entire album.
The addition of the orchestra, especially of the string section, I find particularly appealing. While my favorite Mehldau recordings are typically his trio sessions, it was Largo that first got me hooked on his creative vision. Largo is a bit of an oddball recording in the Mehldau discography. The songs have a presence not unlike other favorites such as Day is Done, Where Do You Start? and Anything Goes, which have a cerebral bent and a heart that beats quietly but carries far and strong. But the instrumentation on Largo and its eccentric expressions got me good, and it wasn’t long after that I dove into Mehldau’s other recordings.
Highway Rider, like Largo, has more depth in the instrumentation pool, and it expresses itself differently than other recordings. The melodies are what bind the album together into a cohesive whole. From a melodic standpoint, Highway Rider is a room of mirrors, where each reflective surface has its own shape and surface and presents a similar melody with just enough differentiation to allow the qualities of complexity to emerge, but with enough similarities to present the recording in a nice tiny bundle.
It was an early Sunday morning and I was heading out of Louisville, headed back home. The sun was lighting up a countryside of slight, rolling hills and green green fields. The horizon was a mix of yellows and blues and large billowy clouds. I turned on the radio and the local station greeted me with Mehldau’s “The Falcon Will Fly Again.” Mehldau’s ensemble finds the sweet spot between mid-tempo activity and languorous sighs of melody. Redman’s soprano sax dances spryly atop a tableau of dynamic rhythms. It presents a sing-song disposition while allowing for some wonderful development of the opening statements. It’s a beautiful song that went so well with driving through bluegrass country, early on a Sunday morning when the world seemed at peace. That I came upon it by chance on the radio was one of those happy surprises that makes a person feel in synch with the movement of life about them.
The quiet piano interlude of “At the Tollbooth,” the way in which “Don’t Be Sad” builds up to a roar and gets carried along on the waves of strings, and the way those strings are thick as storm clouds and just as beautifully fearsome on “Now You Must Climb Alone” and “Walking the Peak” construct environments in which Mehldau and crew provide rhythmic phrases and permutations of melody that provide some necessary, wonderful contrast from the thick, lovely harmonies from the orchestra.
The masterful way in which Mehldau employs melodies on Highway Rider is most evidenced in how the jaunty tune “Sky Turning Grey [For Elliott Smith]” is the closest thing to a pop song on this album, which is signified by many many songs that are catchy in their own right and which I find myself singing under my breath with some regularity. This, on an album that doesn’t shortchange on edgy solos.
It’s a rainy Saturday morning. Thick with grey clouds, the gloomy skies have captured just enough sunlight to counteract the oppression of the thick mist and lighten up the trees and grass and plants to a bright, fairytale shade of green. There was a sense of peaceful quiet in the air, as if this tiny town had come to a consensual agreement that no one would break the stillness of the morning. It was the perfect moment for Highway Rider.
I just wanted to share that.
Your album personnel: Brad Mehldau (piano, pump organ, Yamaha CS-80, orchestral bells), Jeff Ballard (percussion, drums, snare brush), Joshua Redman (soprano & tenor saxes), Larry Grenadier (bass), Matt Chamberlain (drums) and the Orchestra with Dan Coleman (conductor) and special guests The Fleurettes (vocals). Handclaps attributable to band members.
Released in 2010 on Nonesuch Records.
Album cover by Richard Misrach, “Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas, 1987.”
Available at: eMusic | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3
By davesumner • Essays & Columns & Lists, Other Writing • 0 • Tags: Jazz - Best of 2010