On the surface saxophone and accordion together might seem unusual, but it's really a perfect combination. Both are reed instruments driven by airone blowing, the other compressing or expanding a bellows. Saxophonist Trygve Seim and accordionist Frode Haltli have been collaborating for some time, notably in the saxophonist's ensemble responsible for Sangam (ECM, 2004). Despite no shortage of acumen, Seim's a self-avowed improvisational ascetic whose primary focus has been detailed composition and the integration of controlled improvisation within more formal structure. Haltli's Looking on Darkness (ECM, 2002) fearlessly positioned his instrument in the classical sphere, while Passing Images (ECM, 2007) introduced a stronger extemporaneous element in a program of original music inspired by traditional Norwegian music.
Yeraz, their first recording in a duet setting, still focuses largely on composition. Still, despite Seim composing the lion's share of the materialwith the exception of two pieces by maverick composer G.I. Gurdjieff, one by drummer and The Source band mate Per Oddvar Johansen and an unexpected Bob Marley tunethe album opens and closes with two free improvisations, "Praeludum" and "Postludum," which recall Jan Garbarek's classic Dis (ECM, 1977) in spirit if not in execution. Seim's tone is warmer, however, reflecting recent Middle Eastern studies and a stylistic approach that fits perfectly as the dark and spare spontaneity of "Praeludum" segues into the two Gurdjieff pieces, including the aptly titled, drone-based "Duduki."
Pensive though much of Yeraz is, the duo extracts profound beauty out of odd dissonance and unexpected expansions of the two instruments' capabilities. Like saxophonist Hakon Kornstad, Seim explores new sonorities, but unlike his Norwegian contemporary, Seim remains entirely acoustic, with nary an electronic effect or loop to be found. On a remake of an early Seim composition, the title track to Airamero (ODIN, 1994)an early group featuring another emergent ECM artist, pianist Christian WallumrodHaltli bends notes, creates lush, swelling chords and high-pitched harmonics that, in their close harmonic density, imply a seemingly impossible microtonality.
The disc has an overriding arc, gradually moving from brooding introspection to quietly joyous optimism. Revisiting Johansen's painfully beautiful "MmBall"a Seim favorite heard on both The Source and Different Cikadas (ECM, 2002) and The Source (ECM, 2006)the greater freedom afforded by this most intimate of conversational settings allows Haltli and Seim to more fully explore its melancholy with fewer constraining parameters. Seim's "Fast Jazz" may possess structure, but it's still his freest sounding writing to date, while Marley's "Redemption Song" is positively uplifting, but in a gentle way that usesas much of Yeraz doesthe persistent power of space and nuance.
Despite an unmistakable command of their instruments, it's not what Yerazor Seim and Haltliis about; instead, it's about abstract and concrete texture, rarified and clearly defined melody and divergent mood. What extremes exist, such as Seim's soaring solo on "Waits for Waltz," are so rare as to stand out even more on a masterful album of moving interplay that positions Seim and Haltli as innovative and empathic players who continue to break down artificial dictates of where their instruments and music can go.
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Personnel: Trygve Seim: tenor and soprano saxophones; Frode Haltli: accordion.