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Markus Stockhausen / Florian Weber: Alba

John Kelman By

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Sixteen years have passed since Markus Stockhausen was last heard on an ECM recording, but the German trumpeter (and son of renowned composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen) has continued to lead a busy life. The core trio behind 2000's exceptional Karta—notable, in addition to guitarist Terje Rypdal's participation as invited guest, for being largely based on one 90-minute collective improvisation, from which seven of its eleven tracks were excised into fully-formed pieces (despite being pulled from the ether)—continued to work together. Joyosa (Enja, 2004) found Stockhausen, Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen and French percussionist Patrice Héral collaborating with Hungarian guitarist Ferenc Snetberger—who debuted this year on ECM with a wonderful solo recital, In Concert, and with whom Stockhausen also released 2008's engaging Enja duet follow-up to Joyosa, Streams ) in a set of largely formally composed music, while the trio also came together with Polish keyboardist Vladyslav Sendecki on Electric Treasures (Aktivraum, 2008), an electrified live album of spontaneously created music bearing greater affinity with Karta.

Still, Stockhausen has always kept one foot in the electric camp, the other in more purely acoustic concerns, with Fugara—a chamber jazz quartet also featuring Dutch pianist Stevko Busch and saxophonist Paul Van Kemenade, along with Finish drummer Markku Ounaskari—delivering a strong set of music from its 2012 debut record, Fugara (DNL), at the 2012 Dutch Jazz & World Meeting in Amsterdam. Stockhausen's preference not to make choices when it comes to the sometimes contentious "electric vs. acoustic" debate reflects a similar philosophy amongst many musicians today, but the trumpeter is amongst a relatively rarified few who can comfortably live in either worlds....or both, simultaneously. Alba, the debut recording of Stockhausen's six year-old duo with German pianist Florian Weber, is a vivid contrast to Karta in its entirely acoustic setting. And while it's not a live album per se, the structure of this fifteen-track, sixty- minute collection of original compositions by either the trumpeter or pianist (with one collaboration, the spontaneously composed "Ishta") possesses the feeling of what a concert performance might be like as the duo covers considerable ground, ranging from fugue-driven energy and polyrhythmic propulsions to sparer, prepared piano-based musings.

Not uncommon for ECM recordings, Alba opens in abstract fashion with "What can I do for you?." A rubato tribute to John Taylor (the first thing the late British pianist would say at the start of a music lesson), Weber commences alone, strumming and drumming on the strings inside his piano, with sparse lines emerging in support of Stockhausen's muted trumpet. It's a dark, introspective piece that might set the stage for what's to come...except that the next track, Stockhausen's wonderfully lyrical, gently propulsive "Mondtraum," makes clear that this will be something far more than Weber's opening composition would suggest.

Alba's scope broadens further still on Weber's brief "Surfboard," an idiosyncratic piece where Weber's seemingly irrepressible left hand creates a busy underpinning for his right, which layers and alternates between a relatively spare melody (ultimately divvied up with Stockhausen) and more freewheeling improvisation. It's a rare example, on Alba, of the Berklee-schooled pianist's virtuosic capabilities; any who've followed his career already know his potential, but those new to him will find his range, touch and ears well-realized here with this empathic duo. Making his ECM debut with Alba, Weber has already built a strong reputation for his own work and other collaborations, including his impressive live duo date with another trumpeter, the Netherlands' Eric Vloeimans, on Live at The Concertgebouw (Challenge, 2012)—similarly recital-like, but also a clear example of just how differently Weber works, even with another trumpeter. Vloeimans is a similarly talented player with an equivalently broad reach but he couldn't be more different than Stockhausen, whose experience in more avant circles makes his participation on a project like this an entirely different experience.

"Ishta" is a particularly strong indicator of the language Stockhausen and Weber have built over the past six years, as the two build a five-minute piece of in-the-moment spontaneity that does, indeed—as is true of the entire album—blur the line between form and freedom. Stockhausen begins alone, but it's not long before Weber is also engaged, creating delicate responses to Stockhausen's burnished lines before the two ultimately come together, demonstrating how even the simplest motif can signal a gentle change in direction, as the piece gradually becomes more dramatic, with Stockhausen and Weber responding to the other as they push and pull each other, with remarkable chemistry, into unexpected terrain.

Weber's "Emergenzen" is initially driven by piano arpeggios recalling both Beethoven ("Moonlight Sonata") and Satie ("Gymnopedies") while sounding like neither; but, before long, the minor-keyed melodicism gradually unfolds into something more open, more complexly polyrhythmic and, ultimately, more angular, before a lengthy piano solo gradually brings things back to more lyrical turf for a Stockhausen feature that is somehow reminiscent (perhaps in his occasional unexpected leaps into the stratosphere) of another great trumpeter, the late Kenny Wheeler, and particularly his work on guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner's seminal 1979 ECM release, Old Friends, New Friends.

There's another ten tracks to Alba, ranging from Weber's fugue-driven, minute-long solo piece "Barycenter" (one of three spontaneously composed solo miniatures by Weber) to Stockhausen's "Zephir"—at nearly six-and-a-half minutes, Alba's longest track and the one that perhaps most clearly conjoins intrinsic structure with open-ended extemporization. There may be gaps between tracks, but Alba ultimately feels like a continuous song-cycle.

In many ways, every track on Alba explores something different and yet, through the singular voice built together by Stockhausen and Weber, these fifteen compositions—liberally filled, as they are, with plenty of the unexpected—come together to create a cogent, unified statement. A welcome return to ECM for Stockhausen and an impressive label debut for Weber, Alba represents two musicians distanced by nearly twenty years but brought together through a common sense of purpose, rare intuitive abilities, and exceptional instrumental acumen and improvisational élan. A long overdue debut, and one for which a follow-up will be most anticipated.

Track Listing: What can I do for you?; Mondtraum; Surfboard; Ishta; Emergenzen; Barycenter; Emilio; Possibility I; Befreiung; Resonances; Die weise Zauberin; Synergy Melody; Better World; Zephir; Today .

Personnel: Markus Stockhausen: flugelhorn, trumpet; Florian Weber: piano.

Title: Alba | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: ECM Records


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