A cross-cultural collaboration between Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, guitarist Eivind Aarset, sound manipulator Jan Bang, and Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan, Atmosphères seems to be a quintessential ECM release in certain ways. It exhibits qualities that come readily to mind when imagining the ECM aesthetic: sonic minimalism, musical gestures with exquisite subtleness and thrilling, sometimes discordant, experimentation.
Henriksen, Aarset and Bang have joined in various configurations on previous releases, such as Henriksen's Cartography (ECM, 2008) and Places of Worship (Rune Grammofon, 2013), while Bang was also a defining presence on Aarset's Dream Logic (ECM, 2012). It was a live performance at Norway's Punkt Festival, however, that brought together Bang and Hamasyan and seeded the idea for a full release with Henriksen and Aarset.
With no stated leader of the quartet, one gets the impression that creativity was encouraged to flow freely during the recording of Atmosphères. The double album begins unassertively, with nebulous swaths of Aarset's ambient guitar punctuated by fragments of folk melodies from Hamasyan's keys. Henriksen's shakuhachi-like trumpet does not enter until the second track, "Tsirani Tsar," and with the introduction of his plaintive notes, one begins the grasp the group's full potential to plumb emotional depths. Bang remains an understated but persistent presence, absorbing and reconfiguring the melodic concepts breathed into the shared space, even as his input is more clearly evident in tracks with looping samples of piano, guitar and trumpet ("Traces VII").
The momentum of the quartet ebbs and flows, alternating between themes inspired by Armenian composer Komitas (18691935), compelling improvisations, and combinations of the two. On "Traces II," the experimental inclination of the group comes into sharper focus as Hamasyan's playing, frantic and pointillist, melds with Henriksen's, distorted to sound surprisingly like a swarm of bees. Themes from Armenian folk songs are introduced and later revisited, contributing to an amazingly coherent experience across both albums despite sojourns into dissonance or airy chamber music.
Atmosphères fits perfectly into an established ECM tradition: an improvised session where the boundaries of jazz are explored and performers react almost telepathically to one another.