A violin and cello duo might spark thoughts of chamber music, but Polish violinist Mateusz Smoczynski
and German cellist Stefan Braun
, classically trained though they are, are improvising musicians at heart; with Keep on Turnin'
they revisit the jazz, fusion and funk songs that provided the soundtrack in their formative years. Though this is Smoczynski and Braun's debut, the mutual understanding nurtured over a decade of playing together is evident in both the intricate interplay and the ease with which they toggle between lead and rhythmic roles. Nine covers and an original apiece provide a broad palette for these two virtuosos to strut their stuff.
With former group the Turtle Island Quartet
, and with current adventurers the Atom String Quartet
, Smocynski is an old hand at playing jazz in a strings-only setting, but the arrangementsarresting rather than radicalare mostly by Braun, in fact. The duo revel in the funk grooves of Stevie Wonder
's "Higher Ground," with riffing cello a constant as first Smoczynski and then Braun stretch out. With an impressive command of their respective instruments, violinist and cellist serve up a feast of outstanding solos across the eleven tracks, though much of the music's appeal lies in the subtleties within their dialogs.
Carrying the lion's share of rhythmic duties, Braun downs bow to conjure fast-walking bass lines as Smoczynski lets fly on Don Grolnick
's boppish "Nothing Personal," and uses the cello's body to percussive effect on a charged version of the Randy Brecker
's jazz-funk classic "Some Skunk Funk." Smoczynski's riffing, strumming and fine pizzicato take over when Braun solos, while loops furnish additional rhythmic layers. The standout track, at least where groove is concerned, is Billy Cobham
's "Stratus," where Braun's churning, bowed riff lays the foundation for a thrilling Smoczynski solo, pedal effects dressing his pyrotechnics with psychedelic reverb.
Braun is equally fleet of finger on the self-penned "Black Ice in Rio," swapping between plucked ostinato, bowed riffing and electrifying improvisation. Smoczynski replies with a delightful solo of folksy bent. The violinist's "Trane's Mood" pays linguistic homage to John Coltrane
, his single greatest influence. A fellow Pole also hugely influenced by Coltrane was Zbigniew Seifert
, and his "Turbulent Plover" comes in for a striking overhaul at a fraction of the original's helter-skelter speed. Braun's plucked solo and Smoczynski's echo-tinged response convey a haunting lyricism fresh to the tune.
Braun switches between acoustic and electric cello comping on John Scofield
's "Fat Lip," a terrifically funky vehicle for some of Smoczynski's most dazzling play. Braun's ostinato variations provide the springboard for Smoczynski on Dave Holland
's "Pass It On" before the roles reverse, the cellist briefly quoting Cobham's "Stratus" in a lyrical improvisation. A compelling album closes on a thrilling note as both musicians cut loose in tandem on Bronisław Kaper's atmospheric "Invitation."
With this highly satisfying debut Smoczynski and Braun leave their very personal, unifying stamp on music that stretches from the '70s to the new millennium. The obvious reverence they feel for their musical heroes in no way restricts their sense of adventure, resulting in a fresh, visceral take on familiar fare. Hopefully, this is just the first step on a long journey.
Higher Ground; Some Skunk Funk; Stratus: Black Ice In Rio; Fat Lip; Pools; Trane’s Mode; Turbulent Plover; Pass It On;
Nothing Personal; Invitation.
Mateusz Smoczynski: baritone violin, kick drum; Stephan Braun: 5-string cello, percussion.