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Rife with memorable melodies, Apfelschaun documents various live performances by Boston-based pianist Ben Schwendener and German-born saxophonist Uwe Steinmetz from '01 and '02 in a variety of contexts, from solo to duet to quartet to quintet. In context of Schwendener's other recordings, most notably the fusion-inflected Road Trips and the freely improvised Living Geometry II , Apfelschaun demonstrates his breadth of scope, this time on an album that is heavily informed by ethnic folk music, albeit in the context of jazz exploration. In fact, if the aesthetic of the recording itself were different, it would easily fit within the ECM universebut the less-than-crystalline quality of the sound, with a greater emphasis on room ambience, gives Apfelschaun a sonic characteristic all its own.
And while the emphasis is definitely on a more European approach and more elastic time sense, Schwendener and Steinmetz do occasionally manage to imbue a certain kind of swing, in particular on the ambling "June 13th," which also features trumpeter Sven Klammer, reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler but without the odd intervallic leaps that characterize Wheeler at his most extroverted. Elsewhere the mood is more introspective, as on "Freunde, dass der Mandelzweig," which features a gorgeous fretless bass theme by Bill Urmson, before it is handed off to Steinmetz, moving into a fluid middle section where Schwendener is at his most impressionistic. "On a Theme by George Cumming" features a light tango rhythm, with Klammer and Steinmetz intertwining on the theme before giving Steinmetz and double-bassist Oliver Potratz the opportunity to expound on the simple, almost naïve changes.
It is, in fact, this very simplicity that makes Apfelschaun so appealing. The themes are simple and unforgettable; the song forms almost elemental, many of them based on ideas developed for Schwendener's younger students. "Noddy likes to watch the Noddy Show with Tessie Bear, sometimes" is a short duet between Schwendener and Steinmetz that is almost Satie-like in its combination of gentle innocence and a slightly wry touch. Elsewhere, "Southern Scale" demonstrates the kind of delicate lyricism that Oregon woodwind multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless is so capable of, although Steinmetz is clearly less of a virtuoso. Still, Steinmetz has an uncanny ability to latch onto Schwendener's accompaniment and dynamically work in perfect synch.
At the core of the performance is Schwendener, who combines an abstruse sense of the abstract with a more perspicuous approach, especially on the traditional tune "Dona Dona," one of the more outgoing tracks on the disc. "Two Walls of a Circle," a duet between Schwendener and Steinmetz, is a freely improvised piece that has a certain ambience reminiscent of Harold Budd's work with Marion Brown. And there is a certain simmering passion that gives tunes like the closing "Desert Games" an understated intensity that doesn't lose sight of its inherent clarity.
Apfelschaun would be a success by any measure; but when placed beside Schwendener's other endeavours, it paints a portrait of an artist who sees music as a form without boundaries, a medium of boundless possibilities and infinite potential.
Track Listing: Eternal Harvest; June 13th; Folk Dance; Freunde, dass der Mandelzweig; On a Theme by George Cumming; Noddy likes to watch the Noddy Show with Tessie Bear, sometimes; Southern Scale; Underwater; Mood Swings; Two Walls of a Circle; Dona Dona; Desert Games
Personnel: Ben Schwendener (piano on all except "Folk Dance"), Uwe Steinmetz (saxophone), Bill Urmson (bass on "Eternal Harvest," "Freunde., dass der Manderlzweig, "Dona, Dona"), Oliver Potratz (double-bass on "June 13th," "On a Theme by George Cumming," "Southern Scale," "Underwater," "Mood Swings," "Desert Games"), Eric Schaefer (drums on "Eternal Harvest," "June 13th," "Freunde, dass der Mandelzweig," "On a Theme by George Cumming," "Southern Scale," "Underwater," "Mood Swings," "Desert Games"), Miki Matsuki (drums on "Dona Dona"), Prasanna (guitar on "Dona Dona"), Sven Klammer (trumpet on "June 13th," "On a Theme by George Cumming," "Desert Games")