Feb 2 2014
An album I find myself frequently returning to is When She Smiles, the 2009 release by the Dutch quartet Azure. This music has an evocative quality that sounds meticulously constructed, yet delivered with such a casual grace as to suggest that it was created on the spot, courtesy of a mainline straight from the heart… a nonchalant attitude to conversing in deep substantive emotional tones.
And those tones mostly resemble a moody rainy-day jazz-rock blend not that far removed from the seminal 2008 recording Seasons of Change by the Brian Blade Fellowship, a band that really set the scene for expressions of that ilk. It’s a contemplative ambiance that remains unbroken even when the quartet turns up the heat or advances with a determined cadence, and it’s music that anchors itself to a strong melody right from the start, returning to it willfully before the conclusion of each song.
It’s just a mesmerizing, vibrant recording, and when I realized how I’d been listening to this album for years, returning to it often, I decided that today I’d write something up for the Sunday post.
Your album personnel: Pierre-Francois Blanchard (piano), Rogier Schneemann (guitar), Eric Heijnsdijk (bass), and Antonio Pisano (drums).
The quartet leads right out with the first melody on the album opener (and title-track) “When She Smiles.” Typically, it’s either pianist Blanchard of guitarist Schneemann that fills this role. And whoever it is that’s not voicing that initial melody, that person is right there comping some additional form to an already well-crafted melody. Pisano keeps a pretty decent chatter going on drums throughout both the album’s opening song and the entirety of the recording, but does so in a way that adds shading between the lines rather than stamping the boundaries of who can go where. Bassist Heijnsdijk tends to stick to the background, casting out shadows of the melody to provide some contrast to guitar’s and piano’s brighter notes. However, on the opening track, Heijnsdijk has a nifty solo, showing that when he steps up to speak on bass, he has something valuable to add to the conversation. The opening track exemplifies that evocative, yet casual demeanor.
“Rnp” is emblematic of the other qualities of this recording. The quartet jumps right out of the gate at full speed, but deftly modulates the tempo to where the gradual slow-down is almost unnoticeable until piano settles into a leisurely gait. When guitar takes over the reins, however, the intensity rises up, and the quartet follows right along. And, again, the shift is a seamless transition. The song goes out with a final statement of melody, coming full circle on this driving tune.
Several tracks have Blanchard setting a moody tone on piano, and not releasing his hold until the final note. “B-y-you” has the dark tones of piano contrasted against the bright notes of guitar, piano sounding structured and guitar picking its spots with a freer abandon. “A Mon Amour” behaves likewise, but bass and drums develop huge swells of intensity to rise up and crest, before crashing back down to a state of serenity. “Ballade Pour Une Pâquerette” is a whisper of a song, ballasted by the gentle hush of cymbals and the wavering twang of guitar.
There are a couple tracks that behave more as the strikes of lightning and thunder that occasionally pierce the ambiance of rainy day music. “By Heart” digs deep into a groove. Guitar, drums, and bass carve it out while piano skitters along its surface. However, even when Schneemann turns up the heat on guitar and burns its mark into the melody, the quartet still maintains a light and easy bounce.
“Azur” sets out with a choppy tempo, and by the end of the song, it’s entrenched even deeper, whereas “Inmost” settles right into a gentle ballad and doesn’t let go. And despite their differences, the well-crafted melody is the commonality that ties it all into a neat little package.
The album ends with the lovely “Berceuse Pour Maëlise,” a solo piano piece. And while it does seem a bit illogical to conclude with a solo piece on an album built on strong interplay and balanced contributions by the quartet members, its melancholy tone and lively disposition serve to accentuate the best qualities of this album in a most graceful way.
A sublime finale for an engaging, mesmerizing album.
This Self-Produced album was released in 2009.
Jazz from the Netherlands.
The Safety Net, a Bird is the Worm series that highlights outstanding older albums that may have flown under the radar when first released.