Recommended: Rafael Karlen – “The Sweetness of Things Half-Remembered”


Easily the best part of this gorgeous chamber jazz recording is the way in which compositions sculpt a supreme elegance while allowing improvisors the freedom to do their own thing.  It blurs the lines between planned arrangement and spur-of-the-moment inspiration, and it’s why The Sweetness of Things Half-Remembered can spark with lively engagement while simultaneously crafting a structural beauty that results in one jaw-dropping moment after the next.

The musician who sets all this in motion is saxophonist and composer Rafael Karlen.  And though his instrument is most often at the center of things, the roles played by pianist Steve Newcomb and the Rosenberg String Quartet are as essential to the foundation of this recording as is Karlen’s own contributions.  It is where the subtraction or weakening of any ensemble member would cause the entire ball of loveliness to come unraveled into insubstantiality and mess.

Some tracks go with an impressionist’s touch.  “Stark Colours” has strings painting with broad strokes and sax shading the edges with bold, thick lines.  “Fade Slowly” are wind-blown ripples on the surface of a pond, forever spreading outward from the center.  On “Outlines,” violins and piano travel disconnected but similar paths, providing both a sense of cohesion and detachment, as well as an essential contrast with those compositions that offer up clockwork-precise harmonies.

One such composition is “Clutch,” in which saxophone and strings take turns dancing in place as the other circles gracefully about, with the brightest moments coming when they fall into synch and reveal the heavenly melodicism hidden within their intoxicating motion.  “Bounces Nicely” instigates an urgent tempo to which Karlen skips sunny phrases across.  Opening track “If Not Now, When?” is a series of sweeping dance motions, with sax, piano and strings acting in unison.

And then there are those few tracks that incorporate both approaches.  The two-part title-track does exactly this, opening with vague allusions to a cohesive harmonic structure, interspersed with brief asides to a possible melody.  When the song transitions to Part 2, that melodic fragment takes bloom and expands into the basis for what is, arguably, the prettiest tune on the album.  Melancholy and wistful, yet revealing a diverse array of glittering emotional hints that run deeper than mere sadness and longing.  Karlen’s long saxophone sighs match those of strings, while Newcomb touches upon brighter tones and resurgent rhythmic patterns that imply that there’s plenty of life under the somber exterior.  Strings and sax both modulate from long, slow expressions to ones with a furtive activity level… and then glide back into languorous motions that capture the essence of pure serenity.

This is a perfect album.

Your album personnel:  Rafael Karlen (tenor sax), Steve Newcomb (piano), Rebecca Karlen (violin), Eugenie Costello-Shaw (violin), Alice Buckingham (viola), and Danielle Bentley (cello).

This Self-Produced album was released on Pinnacles Music.

Listen to more of the album on the artist’s Bandcamp page.

Jazz from the Brisbane, Australia scene.

Available at:  Bandcamp | Amazon