Azul, comprising Portuguese bassist Carlos Bica
, guitarist Frank Möbus
from Germany and drummer Jim Black
from New York, is one of those trios around with a highly notable profile and characteristic signature. No doubt many dedicated music lovers will have their own history with this group that has been active now for more than 20 years. Azul's self-titled debut album dates from 1996 (EmarCy), featuring eminent Portuguese vocalist Maria Joao
, and trombonist Ray Anderson
. It was followed by Twist
(1999, Enja), Look What They've Done To my Song
(2003, Enja), Believer
(2006, Enja) and Things About
(2011, Enja). Like other US-American musicians of his generation, Jim Black frequently worked in Europe in the beginning of his career (like Mark Turner
or Bill Frisell
). Both he and Frank Möbus are founding members of the influential group Der Rote Bereich. Carlos Bica worked in groups of Maria João before he founded Azul together with Black and Möbus. Besides in Der Rote Bereich Möbus is involved in a quartet with Daniel Erdmann, Samuel Rohrer
and Vincent Courtois
and in the group KUU! with singer extraordinaire Jelena Kuljic
Bica, Black and Möbus are thus long-standing musical accomplices who have absorbed a broad range of musical influences. The trio unfolds and develops melodic baselines in appealing and dramatic ways. One of the trio's key pieces is "Believer," now a classic, from the eponymous fourth album released in 2006. The atmospheric ten minute- piece gradually unfolds Bolero-esquely, with great suspense, into its climax, terminating in energizing catharsis. It is a great example of the art of ostinato slowly speeding up, charging with manifold colors and exploding. The three musicians are maîtres de métier of sustain and lightning-quick twists and turns. Their music shifts in genius ways between flaming passion, romancing surrender, hammering rock and zigzagging ska.
Most striking is the trio's unity out of individuality, the way these three voices intersect and set in motion something that is 'more than this.' At moments Möbus' guitar and Bica's bass become indiscernible, sounding like one instrument. In other moments the guitar takes beautiful strange excursions into melodic space. Jim Black is a jolty, not strictly metrical drummer, razor-sharp, moving on the edge in intense phases of tension and release and squirrel-quick dynamic changes. As the bass easily moves into higher parts of the melody it often sounds like two guitars at work. The drumming changes smoothly between mysterious rustling, accelerating forward drive, and playfully 'mirroring' melody and harmony. It is an adequately weighted counterpart to Bica's dark wooden bass. The trio's melodic music, full of nested contrasts, rhythmical changes and dynamic firework, takes its time to unfold, emerge, hoover and detonate.
The album starts with the blue green soughing of "Mafalda" that is strongly reminiscent of the rustling of the wind in Lisbon's Botanical Garden where apparently the cover photo was taken by Vera Marmelo. Slowly the melody unfolds, but the piece, composed by Bica and Portuguese pianist João Paulo Esteves da Silva, keeps its vegetal nature. The subsequent "A lã e a neve" (Wool and Snow) also departs slowly with a simple guitar riff from which a drum pattern emerges that happens to burst into drum-and guitar violence. "I wonder, wonder I do" is a dreamy entr'acte leading into the pinball percussion of the curious "Whale Rider" with its roaring bass and violent guitar eruptions. North-American folk song "Silver Dagger" is an integrand song with some hawaii-ing tendencies, followed by the rocking "Skeleton Dance," the lyrical "Na rama do Alecrim" (In the rosemary foliage), a folk song from the Alentejo region in Portugal, the driving "Patchwork" and the pointillist "Jolly Jumper" with its lively rhythm changes. "Wattenmeer" (Wadden Sea) is a longer, brooding centerpiece named after the intertidal zone in the South Eastern part of the North Sea. The ska-like "XY Ungelöst," named after a popular German television program, is a feast of Jim Black's drumming and the concluding "Sam" is an equally festive and visceral piece with a soft melody circulating in a hard rocking embedding.
Azul is one of the most significant and fertile trios of this moment next to other guitar-bass-drums trios like that of Bill Frisell, bassist Tony Scherr
and drummer Kenny Wollesen
, of Julian Lage
, bassist Scott Colley
and Kenny Wollesen or of Jakob Bro
, bassist Thomas Morgan
and drummer Joey Baron
respectively Jon Christensen
. More Than This is what it says. It is ultimate emergent melodic music on an unusual high level of variation that makes the song sing in captivating ways.