It’s a curious thing, but just as I was entering the time of sleep lost after the arrival of the new pup, I began listening to the new release on the ECM label from the Tarkovsky Quartet. Not only was the album entitled Nuit blanche (‘sleepless night’ this side of the Channel), it also featured a dog on the cover. Not only that, the quartet, founded some years ago by the French pianist François Couturier and consisting of cellist Anja Lechner, soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier takes its name from the Russian film director whose greatest works include Stalker – which was itself the subject of Zona, a brilliant meandering, meditative book by Geoff Dyer, a bunch of whose books were all that I could focus on in the indolent, zoned-out state in which I found myself. In situations like this you can’t help asking, ‘What’s going on?’

According to the sleeve notes for Nuit blanche, a recurrent image pervades the recording: the dream. ‘Not the dream that exists as an allegedly self-contained realm beyond the waking state, but the dream that extends from day into night and back again.’ I’ll come back to the album shortly, but first I’d like to record impressions of concerts by two jazz greats that I attended during this blog’s intermission, concerts of a thrilling character far removed from the dreamlike state induced by listening to Nuit blanche.

Brad Mehldau Trio
The Brad Mehldau Trio: Larry Grenadier, Brad Mehldau and Jeff Ballard

On 17 May we were in at the RNCM in Manchester for a concert by the Brad Mehldau Trio. We had seen Brad perform a series of quite outstanding improvisations with saxophonist Joshua Redman at the London Jazz Festival in November, so booked early for the chance to hear his trio which has been together in its current form since 2005, though the first of the thirteen trio albums he has released appeared as long ago as 1994. In his trio recordings and live appearances, Mehldau switches between genres, drawing on themes from jazz, pop, rock and more in dazzling and individual improvisations.

The Manchester show didn’t get off to the best of starts, with the piano low in the sound mix during the first couple of numbers. But the sound balance was sorted when, after the second piece, there were shouts from members of the audience hat they couldn’t hear the piano. Brad had picked up the microphone to speak about the opening numbers – as yet untitled pieces, one ‘a blues of sorts’ and one that Jeff Ballard on drums ‘initially brought the rhythm for.’ The next number was also new, introduced simply as a ‘waltz.’

This proved to be a great concert, a satisfying blend of new numbers and old favourites from the Mehldau songbook. He is an extraordinarily creative pianist, but the other members of the trio are also excellent musicians. Bassist Larry Grenadier keeps the music grounded, while Jeff Ballard is a fine drummer whose artistry combines imaginative rhythm and passages of delicate and sympathetic decoration. We were treated to a show as dazzling as any of the trio’s superb live recordings.

And I Love Her, Buenos Aires, 2013

Highlights included Mehldau’s lyrical and moving arrangement of McCartney’s ‘And I Love You’ (an interpretation that exists in several recordings, so clearly a trio favourite as it is for me). The same goes for the Nick Drake tune ‘River Man’ – another personal favourite to which we were treated as an encore. Another new original, ‘Green Deva’, sounded intricate and interesting, and I look forward to hearing it again his next record. ‘Si tu vois ma mère’, a Sidney Bechet song composed during his Paris years that the trio has been playing live for several years, was slow and mellow. The two encores were perfect – ‘River Man’ being one of my favourites of his arrangements, and Cole Porter’s ‘It’s All Right with Me’ bringing the show to a happy and quirky close.

River Man, San Francisco, 2008 (incomplete)

Set list

Untitled original (‘blues’)
Untitled original
Untitled original (‘waltz’)
And I Love You
The Green Deva
Si tu vois ma mère

Encores:
River Man
It’s All Right with Me

A month earlier, at Warrington’s Parr Hall, among a lamentably small but appreciative audience, I experienced a truly astonishing evening of jazz composition and improvisation. In the second edition of the Jazz Directors Series, acclaimed saxophonist Chris Potter performed with the Inner City Ensemble, a ten-piece group of promising young musicians, selected through an open call application process.

Last September I had the great privilege of seeing the first of these events in which a leading jazz musician acts as mentor to a bunch of aspiring musicians, their apprenticeship culminating in live performances around the northwest. Then it had been American trumpeter Terence Blanchard; this time it was saxophonist Chris Potter, world-class soloist, composer and bandleader from South Carolina, who has emerged as a leading light of his generation. He has performed or recorded with many of the leading names in jazz, including Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, John Scofield, the Mingus Big Band, Jim Hall, and Paul Motian and many others. In recent years he has recorded three highly original albums of his own compositions on the ECM label, the first of which – The Sirens – appeared in 2013 and featured Larry Grenadier of the Brad Mehldau Trio on bass. His latest album, The Dreamer is the Dream, had only been released a few weeks earlier, so for him to turn up in Warrington was a great event.

Chris Potter: ‘Yasodhara’ (from The Dreamer Is The Dream) (ECM promo)

For this second in the Jazz Directors Series, Potter had worked with a group of the country’s most promising musicians, drawn from some of the UK’s finest music conservatoires including the Royal Academy of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Royal Northern College of Music amongst others. The resulting instrumentation was unorthodox, featuring two bass players, a string quartet, vibraphone and marimba:

Piano: Will Barry
Double bass: Will Harris
Bass guitar: Joshua Cavanagh-Brierly
Guitar: Jamie Leeming
Drums: Simon Roth
Vibes & Marimba: Jonny Mansfield
Violin: John Garner
Violin: Simmy Singh
Viola: Lucy Nolan
Cello: Cecilia Bignall

Gallery: Chris Potter and Inner City Ensemble at Band on the Wall

(photos by Band on the Wall)

The evening’s music, reminiscent of Potter’s 2015 orchestrated album Imaginary Cities, consisted almost entirely of new compositions. Speaking beforehand, Potter had said:

I’m very much looking forward to this project, both for the chance of working with a group of exceptional young English musicians and also as an opportunity to try out a batch of new music for my Underground Orchestra ensemble. Since completing my Imaginary Cities album a couple of years ago, I’ve been looking for a reason to write some more material for this group, which has a fairly unusual instrumentation. This situation gives me the opportunity to do just that, and I hope the musicians I work with will enjoy the process as much as I have conceiving and writing it.

From my point of view I get the opportunity to write some more music for a group I call the Underground Orchestra. I’m able to use this situation to see how the music works and workshop it with them which will benefit everybody. Apart from one song from the last record everything else is new so we’re all a bit in the same boat.

That song, ‘Sky’ proved to be the last number on the album, Imaginary Cities. I caught the titles of only a couple of the new compositions – ‘Sing For You’ and ‘Quetzalcoatl’ – most of which shared the same character as those on the Imaginary Cities album. The ECM video below, in which Potter talks about the composition of that album, gives a feel of the atmosphere of the concert at Parr Hall.

As with the Inner City Ensemble, Imaginary Cities featured an expanded ensemble that introduced Potter’s Underground Orchestra which includes both electric and acoustic bass players, a string quartet and vibraphonist/marimba player (as at Warrington). Several numbers performed at Warrington shared the atmosphere  created in the suite at the heart of Imaginary Cities which All About Jazz praised  for the ‘harmonious integration of instruments and the fluid dynamics of Potter’s imaginative arrangements. The finely layered strands and subtleties of the music reveal themselves more and more upon repeated listening.’ That could be the verdict, too, on the concert at Parr Hall.

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra – Imaginary Cities (ECM promotional video)

When film is not a document, it is a dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams.

The room of dreams – as Ingmar Bergman put it in an epigraph quoted by the author of the sleeve notes to the new Tarkovsky Quartet album – seems to be exactly the location explored in the tracks on Nuit blanche. Just as ‘to watch a Tarkovsky masterpiece is to fall into a celluloid dream,’ so it is with these compositions, all of them by pianist Francois Couturier who brought the quartet into being in 2005 with the CD Nostalghia – Song For Tarkovsky. ‘What touches me most in Tarkovsky’s films,’ Couturier said at the time, ‘is their silence and slowness.’ And that is precisely the mood summoned in this music – in which Couturier’s piano is accompanied by Anja Lechner’s yearning cello, saxophone played by Jean-Marc Larche, and Jean-Louis Matinier’s accordion.

Many listeners might refute the idea that this music is jazz, but seven of the 17  pieces played by this unusual ensemble are totally improvised, while the rest comprise freely conceived passages that emerge from a core composed by Couturier.

In the liner notes, renowned journalist Carolin Emcke writes that:

A recurrent image pervades this recording: the dream. Not the dream that exists as an allegedly self-contained realm beyond the waking state, but the dream that extends from day into night and back again.That transforms and mysteriously unites scraps of experiences and desires, details and motifs. The music retraces these states of mind, which are familiar to each and every one of us: these hours or days when the contours between day and night remain blurred, these moments of confusion and unrest when the images of night hold us captive and we cannot find our way out. Or moments of happiness when we acquire unsuspected powers or make wondrous encounters that leave us amazed throughout the day. Dreams can focus or distort experiences; they can move forward or backward; they can carry us away by day or by night. Time and again they draw us under their spell – like music.

The Tarkovsky Quartet: Jean-Louis Matinier, François Couturier, Anja Lechner, and Jean-Marc Larché
The Tarkovsky Quartet: Jean-Louis Matinier, François Couturier, Anja Lechner, and Jean-Marc Larché

Individually and in different groupings, these musicians have had long associations with ECM. François Couturier and saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché first recorded for the label in 1994 as members of Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem’s group on Khomsa, while later the trio of Couturier, Brahem and Matinier played on one of my absolute favourite ECM albums, the hypnotic, exquisite Le pas du chat noir in 2002. As for Anja Lechner: the German classically-trained cellist whose musical interests span the globe and embrace a wide range of improvisational traditions. Few days go by without albums such as Ojos Negros (with Argentine bandoneonist-composer Dino Saluzzi), Moderato Cantabile (with Couturier), and Chants, Hymns and Dances and the superb Melos (with Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos) being heard in our house.

The work of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovksy first inspired Francois Couturier to bring together the quartet in 2005 for the recording Nostalghia – Song For Tarkovsky. Subsequently, a 2008 solo piano album, Un jour si blanc, and another quartet recording in 2011 (titled simply Tarkovsky Quartet) continued to be inspired by or allude to Tarkovsy’s life and art. Couturier once explained that Tarkovsky is his favourite director, but that the music on these recordings should not be construed as soundtrack music:

Andrei Rublev was a revelation for me. Since then I have seen all his films over and over again… They are long poems, hypnotic in their slowness, and pervaded with spirituality… I did not seek to make ‘scenic’ music of any kind. I have tried, instead, to represent in each piece a specific emotion linked to the universe of this director – to his films, of course, but also to some of his favourite actors – or composers. Or even to the very original way he plays with shades of colour. This recording is our way of paying tribute to this great artist.

The music on Nuit blanche is as subtly strange and dream-like as Tarkovsky’s films (that strangeness captured brilliantly in Zona, Geoff Dyer’s book about Tarkovsky’s film Stalker).

Still from Andrei Tarkovsky's 1975 film Mirror
Still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror

Nuit blanche: not only the surreal night that never turns dark, not only the wakeful, tormenting hours of sleeplessness. Nuit blanche is also the special alertness that comes from listening to each other, the uncanny assurance of playing music with one another, into the open-endedness.

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