There are those who dream of the perfect group, but it's rare for an artist to get it so right the first time. A Long Story isn't exactly Anat Fort's first record (which was her self-released 1999 album Peel), but it's the Israeli expat's first to reach an international audience. Most people will find it their first exposure to this talented pianist, and it's notable for a number of reasons.
It marks the return to ECM of two intrepid players who have, in their absence, intersected on many occasions. Clarinettist Perry Robinson was part of Carla Bley's ambitious Escalator Over the Hill (WATT/ECM, 1971). Since then he's remained generally left-of-center on his own recordings and those of Gunter Hampel, Anthony Braxton and Dom Minasi, amongst others.
Bassist Ed Schuller made his only previous ECM appearance on drummer Paul Motian's Psalm (1982). His recorded work has been more diverse than Robinson's, ranging from collaborations with mainstreamer Joe Lovano to avant microtonalist Joe Maneri, but he continues to work periodically with Motian, who has resumed regular activity with ECM in recent years.
Fort has collaborated with Schuller and Robinson since coming to New York in 1996, but A Long Story represents her first encounter with Motian, and the first time all four have come together at the same time. The resulting album ranges from lyrical to oblique, from structural definition to untethered free play. Fort's gentle touch and spare approach provide the glue that binds any apparent stylistic dissimilarity.
Three variations on Fort's haunting "Just Now one a conventional piano trio, another for piano alone, and the last featuring the entire quartetdivide the album in two. The first half leans towards an economical melodism; "Morning: Good provides an optimistic contrast to the more melancholic "Just Now, Var. 1. "Lullaby, prominently featuring Schuller, is the disc's most mainstream track, as well as Robinson's entry point. Only "Chapter Two, a free duet between Fort and Robinson that evolves from spacious melody to greater abstraction, suggests the more outré music to come.
That's not to say the second half of the disc is less inherently beautiful. But "Not a Dream possesses a more ambiguous hue, while "Rehaired, another piano trio piece, is more complex, presenting Fort at her most assertive, Schuller his busiest, and Motian skirting a fine line between texture and pulse. Like Motian, Fort more seamlessly integrates her cultural roots, but "As Two/Something 'bout Camels comes the closest to giving them away in the second half, where Robinson's ocarina flitters above Fort's minor-key folkloric melody.
A Long Story is a multifaceted record that both promises and delivers on first listen, but continues to reveal more with each successive spin. Fort's ability to distil so much history into less than an hour of music is a portent of even better things to come.
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Personnel: Anat Fort: piano; Perry Robinson: clarinet, ocarina; Ed Schuller: bass; Paul Motian: drums.