Music for Contemplative Moods

Music is a mood thing, always has been and always will be. There’s the loud stuff for the beginning weekend (at the moment I’m enjoying the hell out of Jeff Beck’s – for that time – extremely noisy but also fun-driven albums “Truth” and “Beck-Ola” from 1968 and 1969 respectively), there’s music to celebrate the good things in life with which for me is always jazz from the 30s to the 60s, there’s music to get penned-up aggression out of the system with (Judas Priest always gets that job done for me), there’s music to work to (I’ve written about that extensively on this site), and there’s music to simply listen to attentively.

Lately I have noticed that very often I end up in contemplative moods in which just about anything that is too noisy gets on my nerves. As my life is going through some major changes, I spend quite a bit of time sitting and thinking and it is really not all that easy to find music that can further that process without interfering too much.

So, I’ve decided to get with the program.

But, as is customary here, let’s take a step back before we get to the matter at hand. Because I have so much music, it is never that difficult to find something to go with a certain mood. If you have thousands of CDs, it shouldn’t be a problem finding at least one or two CDs that are just right for whatever situation you need music for or for which the appropriate accompanying music would be nice.

My problem is that some of the CDs I have for the more contemplative times in my life, I’ve heard far too many times. Of course, I still love them and I think I’ll probably drop dead before I stop listening to them, but to continuously listen to Bugge Wesseltoft’s Christmas CD, the wonderful Tord Gustavsen releases, Barenboim’s recent Bach recordings or many of the other CDs I always pull out when needed, can become somewhat repetitive.

So, the other day I did what I always do in these cases, and I thought I’ll let you participate in the twisted thought processes and the resulting convoluted searches I submit myself and my PC to when change is needed. In a way, I’m trying to outline how things become part of my collection, much in the vein of that old nursery rhyme,

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

Let’s hope that the recordings I selected turn out to be akin to the “pretty maids”.

Starting point: Whenever I’m in contemplative or otherwise “quiet” moods, I enjoy listening to the aforementioned Wesseltoft, Gustavsen, Barenboim and some others. So, if more in that vein is needed, where does one start?

I usually sit down and contemplate for a while what it is I like about the music that I put on in those phases and, especially, which instruments are at the center of that music. So, besides the musicians or bands I listed above, my list could easily be narrowed down to the classic trio of piano, bass and drums plus cello and a mellow trumpet or saxophone thrown in for good measure.

Once the list has been focused, I start hunting.

Firstly, I usually do what most people do. I hit any of the global Amazon sites and select any of the CDs I already have to see what Amazon suggests as further listening, meaning what people that also liked the CD bought for themselves. That is usually already a way of finding a path to pursue and I’m always amazed about how good the suggestions are, especially because I’ve bought a ton of CDs from those Amazon sites and saved suggestions whenever I completed a purchase.

Secondly, I hit the archives of my favorite German review site, a site that collects all the past classical and jazz reviews of a magazine which is distributed for free by just about every CD store in the country. In my experience, their reviews are accurate, sometimes downright nasty in an intellectual sense, and often spot-on when evaluating the musical value of a CD.

Thirdly, I cross-reference any CD I’ve taken into consideration by checking the All Music Guide, a site that has been severely criticized at times but which can be very valuable once you figured out who wrote the review and how reliably that author judges a release. I have my reviewers there which I usually always trust.

Fourthly, I consult the many, many web pages I archived with a stupendously good programme called “Web Research” that I use on a daily basis to save complete Internet pages and archive them.

Then, and only then, do I take my financial situation into consideration and separate top-spot CDs from “must have at some point” Cds, splitting my various shopping baskets into “buy now” and “save for later” sections.

At the end, I spent an entire evening researching new music, hunting for the best offers and ordering from sources around the entire globe.

I found some leftover cash the other day, so I went on a shopping binge yesterday, inbetween getting this place ship-shape, going from hoovering the living room back to the PC and doing more research, from wiping the kitchen floor to fine-tuning my shopping basket(s). Here’s the result:

Tomasz Stanko

01. Tomasz Stanko Quartett, “Lontano”, 2005.

I’ve heard so much about this CD, released by one of my favorite labels, ECM, that it was a natural pick for the top spot. The reviews have been universally stunning, to say the least, and this recording did not only make the top spots in many audiophile magazines around the globe for the sheer sound quality, but was also recommended by the sternest critics. Recorded in 2005 in the south of France, Pernes les Fontaines, it is supposed to be one of the very best CDs of 2005, showcasing a quartet that plays so seamlessly that most reviewers attested it an almost super-human interplay and a balladesque subtlety on most tunes to make this the numero uno recording for a quiet and very emotional listening experience. Two reviews which give you an idea of what this recording is like:

[…] While the band does push Stanko, who sounds great on this recording, they clearly take inspiration from his as well. His Miles Davis-inspired tone, his use of space, and his ability to play lyrically without smoothing out all the rough edges keep things moving forward. Pianist Wasilewski is brilliant, the perfect counterpoint to Stanko’s voice, with his spare, Bill Evans-meets-Keith Jarrett meditations and his warm chord voicings that, when paired with Stanko, often creates music of absolutely heartbreaking beauty.[…] (Jazzitude)

If that wasn’t enough, have a look at this one:

[…] Wasilewski’s piano proves to be the perfect foil to Stanko’s trumpet, sensitively probing and pushing the music without ever disturbing the milieu that Stanko has created. Miskiewicz and Kurkiewicz provide the anchor which allows the band to explore further and in a more harmonic way than they did on previous releases. Lontano brings new rewards with each listening as Stanko and the band continue on their recent upward trajectory. This music is at once reflective, melodic, mysterious and expressive. You will not hear a standard or a snatch of the Great American Songbook on this disc, but you will hear one of the most hauntingly original voices in jazz today.[…] (All About Jazz)

02. Tomasz Stanko Quartett, “Suspended Night”, 2003.

Naturally, Tomasz Stanko’s previous release, “Suspended Night” came in a close second. Most reviewers of the recording discussed above compared it to this release, which was recorded in July of 2003. Again, we have the Miles Davis comparison, a less adventurous Miles Davis, and the description of the recording as astonishingly lyrical. Apparently, Stanko himself plays little, providing more of a sound canvas on which “leaving out” seems to be of much more importance than “filling up”, something I have come to appreciate more and more as my musical taste has become more refined these past decades.

It is only the second international offering from this group, but the flowering and maturation of this creative relationship are nothing if not utterly stunning. This ensemble has developed its own bravely compelling yet tonally accessible voice in articulating Stanko’s unique compositional language; it is one that opens up the jazz tradition from the inside in startling and wonderful new directions. […] Wasilewski’s intensely lyrical, Bill Evans-influenced style is the perfect complement to the languid tempo and moving melody of Stanko’s balladic utterance. Stanko’s playing of the melody moves directly in concert with his pianist’s chromatic subtleties, with unhurried, emotional nuance as the rhythm section punctuates his lines with shimmering, dancing colorations and whispers. [..] (All Music Guide)

The BBC, not prone to hyperbole, added this:

[…] It is perhaps Stanko’s greatest achievement that (again, like Miles) he has the ability to push his much younger protégées to achieve their maximum potential. Wasilewski’s piano, Slawamir Kurkiewicz on double-bass and Michal Miskeiwicz on drums combine to provide a creative yet rock solid palette upon which all the members can feel free to express themselves without fear of falling off. They even have confidence enough to take on the sound of the classic Miles’ quintet of Hancock, Shorter, Williams and Carter on “Suspended Variation Five”. No easy task, and though not quite reaching the impossible intensity of that band, they still achieve great imitation; which is surely a perfection of sorts. […] (BBC Online)

Ketil Björnstad

I was really surprised this Christmas when my dad gave my mom a present that immediately rang a bell with me and surprised me: It was a book by Ketil Björnstad. It is embarrassing to admit, but when I saw the book I was surprised because I had no idea. Although I had come across the author’s name in a ton of music reviews and in a lot of praise singing whenever the conversation turned to superb recordings, many of which took place in Oslo’s Rainbow Studios, I simply did not know that he was also a writer. Apparently, we have a truly creative personality here.

Of course, many classically-trained musicians might criticize Björnstad’s playing as “tinkering”, but what I have heard of his oeuvre, to me he seems to be heavily influenced by both lyrical jazz and compositions for piano in the vein of Edvard Grieg (old) and Bugge Wesseltoft (new).

He had been on my radar for quite a while, especially with his most recent outing, “The Rainbow Sessions” which led to much confusion around the Net when the triple-CD was released in December (supposedly) and sold out in January (supposedly). I hope that the source I found in Switzerland can actually supply the CD. No matter what, I ended up ordering three CDs:

01. Ketil Björnstad, “The River”, 1997

I love the cello. Whenever played right, it has the most rounded tone and an astonishing presence on a good stereo. Despite its size, it is has immense sensuality and, dare I say it, to me it has always had a somewhat erotic quality, being perhaps one of the most difficult instruments to play right (in my eyes).

Well, Ketil Björnstad teamed up with David Darling here, a cellist, and the result – if the reviews are to be believed – is stunning. Yes, it has elements of what many people would call “new age” and it continues Björnstad’s infatuation with aquatic themes, but from the samples I heard, it is just up my alley. I’ve heard people saying that the piano is evocative of Eric Satie (maybe somewhat exaggerated) and that the pairing of piano and cello on this recording is nothing short of organic:

[..] ‘The River’ (ECM), the 1996 recording by Ketil Björnstad and American cellist David Darling received positive press notices around the world for its thoughtful and unostentatious approach to transidiomatic music-making. ‘An unforgettable listening experience’, the Sydney Morning Herald insisted: ‘The boundaries between composition and improvisation are blurred beyond recognition. What emerges has an organic quality devoid of contrivances to provide ‘blowing vehicles’ or display ‘clever writing’. Similarly, ‘great playing’ has been entirely subordinated to the cause of the most profoundly direct emotional communication with the listener. Much of what happens is quite simple: sublime melody from one instrument, delicately shaded by the other. […] n.n.

02. Ketil Björnstad, “Floating”, 2005

It only took a second for this 2005 recording to pop up on the radar once I had selected “The River”. Once I dived into the reviews, this was a no-brainer. Mojo called it “a beauty”. Jazzwise said it is one of Björnstad’s best albums ever and in Scandinavia, many respected magazines made it CD of the year.

I did listen to a few samples and I thought that George Mckissock of Scotland, who wrote a review on Amazon.co.uk, described what I heard perfectly, albeit with a bit too much imagery:

If you already enjoy Björnstad’s work, simply go ahead and buy this. It has Palle Danielsson generating his usual warm,earthy bass, and Marilyn Mazur on some varied and sympathetic percussion. If all this is new to you, ask yourself what you’re looking for. Is it a piano trio where nothing is rushed or frantic, where the notes are used sparingly, even lovingly, to enhance beguilingly simple melodies, which appear to float gently past you; where bass and percussion provide a burnished golden shimmer, like sunlight on a lazy river, while the piano provides sleepy drifts of melody, mixed with some icily crystal notes. This is not music to dance to, and preferably not to use as wallpaper, but as your own special personal treat, to sink into it alone and undisturbed, and feel it massage away your tensions and anxiety. Go on: spoil yourself.

03. Ketil Björnstad, “Rainbow Sessions”, 2004/2006

The last Björnstad recording, a triple-CD, has been on my wishlist ever since I heard about it towards the end of last year. As it turns out, Björnstad was inspired by a move of the by now famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo from one house to another to record sessions in both the old and the new residence. His recording sessions can also be seen as a tribute to perhaps one of Europe’s best sound engineers, Jan Erik Kongshaug, who always guarantees superb sound on any recording that he presides over. These three solo piano sessions have garnered rave reviews by the few people who have heard them – few, as the collection was announced, apparently published and then disappeared from the various shopping sites around the globe. I’m still not sure if the release of these sessions was delayed or if they were sold out that quickly, but I’ve ordered them from a Swiss retailer who claims (as if that was worth anything today in our digital shopping universe) that it has a copy. Let’s see.

No matter if this triple-CD arrives here or needs to be ordered again at a later date, this first solo piano outing by Björnstad since “The Rosenborg Tapes” from 1998 promises to be right up my alley. The first session was recorded in the old Rainbow Studios, the second one in the new studio and the third one was recorded utilizing the brand-new Steinway grand that Björnstad and Kongshaug selected together for the new studio.

From what I’ve heard, it comes close to one of my favorite CDs – perhaps my all-time favorite CD, Bugge Wesseltoft’s “It’s Snowing on My Piano”, and I found this elaborate discussion on ijazz.org which in turn convinced me, aside from the sound samples I heard, to try to get hold of this recording:

A grand piano has a remarkable life and is full of surprises. I have been playing on a Steinway A-model since the 1960s at home. Even today, it is still surprisingly brilliant and dynamic. The old D-model in the Rainbow Studio was not at all outdated, but it could sometimes be difficult to differentiate between pianissimo and forte, even if it had fantastic qualities both in the upper and the lower registers. To choose between eight remarkable D-models at the Steinway Factory in Hamburg is very difficult because every pianist has his or her own personal touch and taste for sound quality. The one that was eventually chosen has a wonderful brilliance and is more open and dynamic than some of the older Steinways. It is possible to communicate in the most transparent pianissimos, and also possible to play a full scale Brahms on it.

There are so many theories about piano sound, and the most surprising for me is how many classical pianists and producers prefer a rather dull and distant sound for their recordings. Even more tragic in my point of view is that some star pianists have to take their own instrument on tour all over the world.

No instrument on earth suffers from changing places and climate more than a distinguished grand piano. Listening to exhausted instruments suffering from jet-lag is never very pleasant, even when masters are playing on them.

The instruments in the Rainbow Studio don’t suffer from any jet-lag. They reside stress-free in a wonderful studio, and both are taken very good care of by Thron Irby the tuner, who is also the Steinway-agent in Norway. It may be possible, in these recordings, to hear the difference between the recordings from the old and the new studios, and the old and the new instruments, without necessarily preferring one over another. Music and sound should be enjoyed and removed from comparative thoughts. Every musical moment and every sound has its own value. As a piano player, one must remember that the grand-piano is both a string and a percussion-instrument. Much of the romantic grandeur associated with the instrument during its peak, such as from Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata through to the two heavy Brahms piano-concertos, to the incredible Busoni-transcriptions of Bach-organ-works, describes a certain historic period that belongs to the past, even if the music speaks to us today owing to the genius of the composers. Many contemporary pianists approach the instrument with much more awareness of the string-sound the grand piano is able to give. This also creates new possibilities to work inside a much more intimate aesthetic. I have not yet discovered if this development is because many modern jazz-pianists play with a technique lacking the power of classical technique. But since the overtones in this musical setting are much easier to hear, it is also easy to understand that a grand piano is unique and impossible to copy digitally.

When I chose the repertoire for these three sessions, I was thinking of the instrument, the studio-acoustics and my mood on each respective day. The first recording was in June and became the final session in the old studio, when Norway is overwhelmed by light. The second one became the first session in the new studio. It took place in August when one can sense autumn is approaching. The final one happened in December when Oslo is dark and cold, and the snow is falling. But I didn’t want to be too sentimental about the seasons. The Christmas-carol, “In the bleak midwinter”, was recorded in the first session, when it was mid-summer. I wanted to play compositions I felt close to on the day of the recording. Both very old and also quite new material was chosen

04. Ketil Björnstad, “Epigraphs”, 2000

To complete my Björnstad binge, I selected “Epigraphs”, again with the core of piano and cello. Mark Mauer of popmatters.com intrigued me with his review establishing some connections with some ambient music I myself like very much:

Much of Epigraphs sounds as if it could be part of a European film score, and in fact Darling’s deep cello has been used in recent films of Jean-Luc Godard. But the music never has to jump through the hoops of action and conflict that film scores must, and that is one of the great strengths of the record. The shifts in mood are obvious, but they’re nearly microtonal in nature, so that you’re never stuck in one place for too long, but you’re never jostled about too far from where you want to be. This is one of the best mood-setting -and mood-settling — albums I’ve heard since Aphex Twins’ Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, and that’s high praise indeed.

I thought it might be a fitting supplement to get a good overview of Björnstad’s work.

Enrico Pieranunzi

Last, but not least, I stumbled over an Italian musician months ago when I was researching the music of Ennio Morricone. Ever since that time, Enrico Pieranunzi’s recordings have been sitting on various wishlists, and two of those recordings made it into the shopping basket this time around. It did help that not only the reviews of many of his recordings were unanimously excellent, but also that he regularly cites two of my favorite pianists, Bill Evans and Bud Powell as major influences.

01. Enrico Pieranunzi, “Play Morricone”, 2000

Pieranunzi, who himself played the various Morricone soundtrack sessions thin as the resident pianist before he became a jazz artist of repute, stepped out in 2001 and presented his own take on Morricone’s wonderful music. The resulting album was a tremendous success in Italy and later garnered equally favorable reviews around the globe when it was released by CamJazz. On my search around the Net, trying to unearth more information on this wonderful pianist, I came across this brief fragment on jazztimes.com:

Enrico Pieranunzi is the oldest of the group at 57. Like all of these players, he was schooled in classical piano from early childhood. Also like the others, his discovery of jazz as a teenager led to a piano style in which jazz and classical languages are unconsciously and organically interwoven. ‘I love Bach like I love Bill Evans. I love Mozart like I love Paul Bley. For me, piano music is piano music,’ says Pieranunzi. He is largely self-taught in improvisation, and speaks of learning to ‘decode’ jazz by studying Erroll Garner records. His single most important influence was Chet Baker, with whom he played frequently in the ’80s.

When I then came across another allaboutjazz review with the following, I was sold:

‘Addio Fratello Crudele’ opens the album with the sort of hushed, quasi-religious vibe that EST has adopted and given a chillier Scandinavian spin. After a simple statement of the theme on piano, Marc Johnson delivers a brief variation on the bass, before Pieranunzi returns with a longer exposition of the melody. Here, as throughout the album, Pieranunzi doesn’t so much improvise as embellish, confident enough of his raw material’s intrinsic value to know when to leave it be and let it speak, more or less, for itself. On the more sprightly, high-stepping ‘I Malamondo’ which follows, Pieranunzi embellishes the changes instead of the top line, as do Johnson and – in an exciting exchange of fours with the piano – drummer Joey Baron.

And so Play Morricone continues, delightfully, for just over an hour. The only break from Morricone compositions comes with Pieranunzi’s ‘Just Beyond The Horizon,’ a slow, wistful ballad not dissimilar in atmosphere to ‘Addio Fratello Crudele.’

Along with Bill Laswell’s Material treatment of Morricone’s spaghetti western oeuvre in the mid-’80s, Pieranunzi’s celebration is amongst the most attractive yet to come out of jazz land – for the simple reason that both men have had the sense to leave things pretty much, and gloriously, alone.

All that was needed was to check some samples on one of my regular German shopping sites and the album went into the shopping basket.

02. Enrico Pieranunzi, “Ballads”, 2000

The last one which made it on the “buy now” list was perhaps the one with the most glowing reviews across the globe. I have yet to read a negative review and the following is, again, excerpted from a review by John Kelman on allaboutjazz, that wonderful site that regularly caters to our review needs:

The simplest stories often reveal the greatest depth. So, too, can the simplest songs yield richer meaning. Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi makes that abundantly clear with Ballads, an album so gentle it can almost pass by unnoticed. But pay attention and what may appear to be a collection of easy-on-the-ears songs prove to be much more. […] Pieranunzi avoids the radical reharmonizations that have become so commonplace these days; his deep reverence for the song makes it all the more significant when, during his solo, he subtly builds the intensity with a series of syncopated chords. Johnson and Baron remain in perfect synchronicity, responding to Pieranunzi while retaining the understated elegance that defines the tune. […] Ballads may not appeal to listeners who are looking for edginess or complexity in their music, but its unassuming stance and sheer honesty make it a meaningful listen for those who are prepared to look beyond its soft veneer.

So, will these be good? They better be. I spent hours researching these albums and I have high hopes that they will deliver. Should they not – and I will write about it here – they can easily be sold off or traded for something else as I also made sure to order them at a fraction of their list price from shops around the globe, often saving more than half of what was being asked for them here in Germany.

And that, in a nutshell, is how my collection grows. Yes, it is insane to keep on adding stuff the way I do and yes, it is a risk to buy things virtually blind, but once you have your list of reviewers to trust, the risks become minimal.

Carpe diem, and all of that.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. Check out Anti Atlas: http://www.myspace.com/antiatlas .

    Very relaxing music indeed…

    Reply

  2. Very nice selection. It’s worth mentioning that if you like the two Pieranunzi albums referred to above, check out the same artist’s Special Encounter and the brand-new (in the US, anyway) As Never Before, with Kenny Wheeler’s melancholy, introspective trumpet playing.

    And if you like Stanko, check out the ECM records of the Italian trumpet player Enrico Rava, especially Easy Living and The Words and the Days.

    Reply

  3. SteelyTom,
    thanks for the recommendations. I’ll check them out as soon as … I have some cash to go around again. I just bought too much stuff recently and need to a) save some cash for the summer and b) spend some time on actually listening to the stuff I bought. 🙂

    BTW: Now that I’ve had the above albums for quite some time I can also say that all of them have gotten regular air time around here.

    One of my favorites that I discovered a bit later is Anouar Brahem’s “Le pas du chat noir” (ECM 2002). Wonderful CD and highly recommended.

    Reply

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