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Aurora Trio at Dachau Kultur-Schranne, Germany

John Sharpe By

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Aurora Trio: Agusti Fernandez, Barry Guy and Ramon Lopez
Dachau Kultur-Schranne
Germany
October 26, 2013

In an artform as mutable as jazz, nothing is ever finished. So it was that even in the soundcheck, Catalan pianist Agusti Fernandez and virtuoso English bassist Barry Guy were still tweaking some of their arrangements. Not that you would have known once the Aurora Trio got underway, such was the obvious pleasure taken in the spontaneous interaction between the threesome. This evening's concert in the upstairs room of Dachau's elegant Kultur-Schranne—housed in the old school, nestling next to venerable church of St. Jakob in the heart of the picturesque Altstadt—formed the penultimate leg of a short European tour promoting the band's third outing: A Moments Liberty (Maya, 2013).

While all three participants may be most strongly associated with unfettered creation, and are talented purveyors of that style, it comes nowhere near summing up their range. Guy has not only helmed both the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and his own New Orchestra, but also followed a parallel career in baroque music and contemporary classical composition. Fernandez too has lately plumbed his lyrical side, notably in his solo El laberint de la memoria (Mbari, 2011). But it is in the Aurora Trio, exploring the Spaniard's soulful charts, that they have found their most simpatico outlet, as evidenced by the group's first two releases, the eponymous Aurora (Maya, 2006) and Morning Glory (Maya, 2010). In terms of antecedents, two very different piano trios spring to mind—Bill Evans seminal outfit with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian and Howard Riley's early 1970s unit, which also featured Guy, along with Tony Oxley on traps—united by a common interest in egalitarian endeavor.

Where previously the band's melodic sensibilities have been most prominent, in performance and on the new album, the limpid beauty was leavened by cathartic passages of atonal improv, often even within a single piece. Guy's "Annalisa" offered a prime instance. The dedicatee must have a turbulent personality judging by the Jekyll and Hyde swings from diaphanous tone poem to frenetic collective outburst. Clearly a favorite of both pianist and bassist—it appears as a duet on both Some Other Place (Maya, 2009) and Mad Dogs (Not Two, 2013)—Guy cued the thunderous unisons and sudden halts with enormous gusto, as Fernandez fingers flew to the opposite extremes of the keyboard.

Each set revisited several pieces from the current disc. Opening with the title track, Fernandez alternated somber chords imbued with deep nuanced melancholy against reverberant textures generated by rubbing woodblocks across the piano wires. Such stark contrasts were a cornerstone of his work, as rippling droplets morphed into hammered arpeggios, ratcheting up the tension until he returned to another of his haunting burnished themes. One highlight among many came after the interval when, unaccompanied, the pianist hummed along as he picked out an impassioned but mournful folky introduction before settling on a yet another ravishing line, with the trio in full ballad mode.

Drummer Ramon Lopez, a long time collaborator of the pianist, showed himself integral to the group sound. A sensitive accompanist moved to occasional shouts and sighs, he was not averse to shaking things up via explosive interjections. In some ways he recalled American drummer Whit Dickey in his unobtrusive yet vibrant contributions and compact rhythmic patterns, at times contorting his whole body to deploy just the required touch of brushes or cymbals. On Guy's "The Ancients" he played tabla with one hand, interpolating the distinctive, almost vocalized, attack, into his ongoing tattoo, which blended well with the bassist's top end commentary, to engender a suitably timeless and airy feel.

Guy himself was enthralling to behold. Even on the slower numbers he unleashed a staggering range of extended techniques involving a variety of bows, sticks and metal rods. This last, threaded between the strings, he tapped to produce a rattling oscillation, as just one example of the novel timbres created. He was also able to enlist some of the most delicate ringing harmonics and delicious slurs by amplifying them with a volume pedal adding an emotionally charge to proceedings. His quicksilver reactions, switching between plucking and sawing in an instant, and predilection for the higher tonalities meant that he proposed a constant counterpoint to Fernandez, with the rhythm duties left primarily in Lopez' capable care.

The enthusiastic audience demanded an encore. At first Fernandez scraped and manipulated the guts of his instrument to conjure resonant thrums and ghostly overtones. Though he kept looking to signal Guy to join, the bassist was lost in a reverie of concentration with eyes tight shut. Eventually they connected and Guy built on the mood with a finely honed tonal chiaroscuro, interspersed with flurries of abrasive arco work, until imperceptibly they metamorphosed into the Catalan's tender "Joan i Joanna" to bring a wonderful night to a perfect close.

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