Carole Nelson Trio: Arboreal

Ian Patterson By

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Carole Nelson Trio: Arboreal
Nature has perhaps inspired more art than anything else, including love. For London-born, Ireland-based pianist, singer and composer Carole Nelson, the countryside of her adopted County Carlow has proven to be a musically fertile stomping ground. The introspective One Day in Winter (Black Stairs Records, 2017), which featured top Irish musicians Cormac O'Brien and Dominic Mullan, took as its inspiration the landscape and shifting light between the River Barrow and the Blackstairs Mountains. The trio's second album is similarly introspective, though this time it's the threat to the environment that has spurred this fine creative response from Nelson.

Where One Day in Winter was colored by spoken-word poetry and soprano saxophone—Nelson's second instrument—Arboreal is a more stripped back tale of three instruments. The musicians adopt a less-is-more approach, resulting in sensitive dialogues that champion emotion over muscle flexing. This is music that breathes, and it's a refreshing change from the virtuosity-driven piano trios that abound. The opener, "Hope in the Dark," sets the mould; the delicacy in Nelson's melodic, single note lines, the earthy rumble and gentle thrum in O'Brien's strings, the quiet rattle and patter of Mullan's drums—theirs is a beautiful economy of understatement.

At times, there's a suggestion of Bill Evans' romanticism in Nelson's balladry, particularly on the gently hypnotic "Requiem"—book-ended by the leader's wordless song—or in the beguiling, waltz-like "Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Medicine)." The funkier groove that flits in and out of the otherwise contemplative title track recalls early Ahmad Jamal, but such notions of borrowings are fleeting at best. Another pair of ears could as easily imagine the hand of Debussy, Satie or Michael Nyman in the pianist's approach. Nelson is, without question, and as the refined language of her writing and playing constantly reiterates, a singular voice, unencumbered by tradition, style or fads.

The universe of the forest floor is evoked in myriad ways—in the interlocking rhythmic cycles and percussive accents—on "Beneath the Surface." Here, Nelson's circling piano motif seems to represent the endless cycles of nature, while Mullan's delicate brushwork conjures a breeze rippling through leaves. There's great elegance in the melodic contours of tunes such as "In the Days of Growing Darkness" and the gently swinging "Resurgence." The trio's sparest conversation comes on the feathery ballad "Canopy," which closes the set on the tenderest of notes.

The title of the second tune on the album, the warming "Ar Scáth a Chéile," is from an Irish saying that translates as "we live in each other's shadows." It's a reminder of how closely interconnected we all are, of how interdependent everyone and everything is. There's beauty in recognizing and responding to this notion of interdependency, as Nelson, O'Brien and Mullan clearly appreciate, judging by these heartfelt musical conversations. The world may seem, at times, as though it's falling apart at the seams, but conceptual music this beautiful is a reminder of the wonders around us, and of brighter days ahead.

Track Listing

Hope in the Dark; Ar Scáth a Chéile; Beneath the Surface; Requiem for Lost Species; No Mud No Lotus; In the Days of Growing Darkness; Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Medicine); Arboreal; Resurgence; Canopy.


Carole Nelson: piano; Cormac O'Brien: bass, acoustic; Dominic Mullan: drums.

Carole Nelson: voice.

Album information

Title: Arboreal | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Black Stairs Records

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